Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada

This month Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life are hosting their annual German Literature Month. I thought this would be a good opportunity to read a German novel which has been on my TBR for years: Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. So far my experiences with Fallada’s work have been mixed: I was disappointed with A Small Circus, but loved Little Man, What Now? and Alone in Berlin. I had been putting off reading this book because of the length (800 pages), but now that I’ve finally read it, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it much more than A Small Circus, although not as much as the other two.

Wolf Among Wolves is set in Germany in 1923. With the country’s economy still suffering in the aftermath of the recent world war, hyperinflation means that prices are spiralling out of control and the currency is rapidly becoming worthless. As the novel opens we are told that there are currently 414,000 German marks to the dollar; within months this figure has increased into the billions, causing misery and desperation for the German people.

“So many people are running away from their jobs,” went on Studmann. “To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason. But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask. Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.”

Wolfgang Pagel, our hero (if you can call him that), has never been good at managing money. He is a gambler and at the beginning of the novel we see him lose at roulette, meaning he has to postpone his wedding to his girlfriend, Petra Ledig. When Petra finds herself in trouble with the police after he takes her clothes to be pawned, leaving her on the streets with only an old coat to wear, she decides that this time she’s had enough. Wolf needs to change, and until he does she will refuse to see him or speak to him. And so they separate, Petra remaining in Berlin while Wolf heads out into the countryside to work on a friend’s farm.

I have only mentioned two of the novel’s characters so far, but there are many, many more and they all have fully developed storylines of their own. There’s Joachim von Prackwitz, still referred to by his military title of Rittmeister, who is leasing the country estate of Neulohe from his father-in-law and struggling to cope with his return to civilian life. There’s the Rittmeister’s teenage daughter Violet, whose lover is planning a putsch – a coup – against the Weimar government. There’s the estate bailiff, known as Black Meier, who loses his job and spends the rest of the novel thinking of ways to cause trouble for everyone at Neulohe. And there’s Etzel von Studmann, a hotel reception manager, who agrees to come and work for the Rittmeister following an embarrassing incident with a guest. These, and others, become Wolfgang Pagel’s new companions as he tries to build a new life for himself away from the temptations of the city, only to find that even the idyllic countryside is not free from corruption.

Fallada moves from character to character as he paints a portrait of life in the Weimar Republic and explores the impact of the First World War and the struggling economy on the fortunes of ordinary people. Over the course of the 800 pages we get to know them all very well; however, some are more interesting and more appealing than others, which makes this quite an uneven read. I was sorry that, after the opening chapters, we see very little of Petra – her relationship with Wolf and the question of whether they will be reunited was my favourite of the novel’s many storylines. Of the characters living at Neulohe, von Studmann was the only one I had any sympathy for; I found the others a selfish and unpleasant bunch. To be fair, though, I should have been prepared for that: Fallada warns us at the beginning of the book that his story “deals with sinful, weak, sensual, erring unstable men, the children of an age disjointed, mad and sick. All in all, it is a book for those who are, in every sense, adult.”

Wolf Among Wolves was first published in German in 1937 under the title Wolf unter Wölfen. I read an English translation from 1938 by Philip Owens, ‘with additional translations by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs’. I found both the translation and the novel itself very readable. It’s probably not the best place to start with Fallada – Alone in Berlin (also published as Every Man Dies Alone) and Little Man, What Now? are my recommendations – but it’s definitely worth reading for the insights into 1920s Germany.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

Little Man What Now I know it’s only the middle of January and it’s ridiculously early to start talking about books of the year but I’ll be very surprised if this one is not on my list in December! I loved every minute of this funny and charming yet dark and poignant German novel from 1932.

Johannes Pinneberg (Sonny) and Emma Morschel (Lammchen) are a young German couple in their early twenties. After discovering that Lammchen is pregnant they get married and move into their first rented home together in the town of Ducherow. As they await the birth of their child (who they think of as The Shrimp), Sonny and Lammchen struggle to get by in the harsh economic conditions of 1930s Germany.

When Sonny loses his job (because his employer has discovered that he is married and no longer free to marry his daughter), he and Lammchen are forced to move to Berlin in search of work and cheaper accommodation. The trouble is, in times of high unemployment and widespread poverty, jobs are not easy to find and rents are high (and the situation isn’t helped by Sonny’s impulsive decision to surprise Lammchen with the expensive dressing-table she’d set her heart on, or Lammchen, suffering from cravings, eating all the salmon on her way home with the shopping). But while others around them lie, cheat and think only of themselves, the honest, hard-working Pinnebergs are determined to survive and to create a happy, safe environment for their new baby.

It was such a relief to find that I loved this book, as I’ve had mixed experiences with Hans Fallada’s novels in the past. Alone in Berlin, which I read in 2011, remains one of my favourite books that I’ve read since I started blogging, but the next one I picked up, A Small Circus, was a huge disappointment and put me off wanting to try any more of his books. I was hesitant to start reading Little Man, What Now? but I’m so glad I did because the problems I had with A Small Circus – the translation, the unlikeable characters, the unfamiliar politics and the fact that most of the novel was written in the form of dialogue – were not problems at all with this book. I was happy with the translation (though I wish I was able to read it in its original German), the Pinnebergs were both lovely, the politics stayed in the background and there was a good mixture of dialogue, action and description.

The book was originally published in 1932 in German as Kleiner Mann, was nun? and a successful film version followed. It’s easy to see why it was so popular, as according to the Afterword, 42% of German workers were unemployed in 1932 (compared with 22% in Britain) and many people would have been able to identify with Lammchen and Sonny. The book still feels relevant today, with many countries around the world suffering high unemployment in recent years. In 1930s Germany, the resulting poverty opened the way for the National Socialist and Communist parties. Yet the novel is far less political and far more domestic than I thought it would be at first.

As Sonny moves from job to job he meets people from a range of different backgrounds and religious or political beliefs, but he doesn’t side with or against any of them; his biggest concerns are for his wife and unborn child. This is not a story that deals with the bigger issues of the time, but about the immediate day to day struggles that ordinary people faced. Sonny is the ‘little man’ of the title, aware that he is only one of millions in the same position, but what sustains him throughout his ordeals is his love for Lammchen and his knowledge that however hard things may be he is still lucky in so many ways.

I liked both of the Pinnebergs from the beginning. I couldn’t help thinking how rare it is that we actually get to read a book about the daily lives of a couple who are happily married, rather than a book that deals with the breakdown of a marriage or one that ends with the wedding rather than beginning with it, as this one does. Sonny and Lammchen are a husband and wife who really love each other, who discuss things together and make decisions as equals. Their story feels completely realistic and the problems they face are the same problems that many young married couples will face: managing their money, finding somewhere to live, worrying about their jobs and preparing for the arrival of their first child. There’s an innocence about Lammchen and Sonny that makes them completely endearing and I think it would be almost impossible to read this book and not fall in love with them both!

While this book is available for Kindle, it seems that paperback and hardback copies of this particular Fallada title are harder to find. If you do have the opportunity to read it I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse of 1930s German life as much as I did.

A Small Circus by Hans Fallada

Of all the books I read last year, my favourite was Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (US title Every Man Dies Alone), the story of a German couple who decide to resist the Nazi regime after their son is killed fighting in the war. It was such an exciting, moving and powerful book, and when I saw that Penguin Classics were publishing a new translation of another of Fallada’s novels, A Small Circus, I couldn’t wait to read it.

A Small Circus is set in and around Altholm, a fictional German town, in 1929. Within the town there are lots of different groups and factions who are all in conflict with each other, including the mayor, various political parties, farmers, journalists and the police. None of these opposing groups are able to cooperate and work together. The novel describes the events leading up to and following a demonstration by the protesting farmers which ends in violence, causing things to quickly spiral out of control.

I have to admit, based on the synopsis alone this was not the kind of book I would normally have chosen to read but I decided to give it a chance anyway, remembering how much I had loved Alone in Berlin. And I really wanted to love A Small Circus too, but I have to be honest and say that, for me, this book was a big disappointment. I found the plot confusing and difficult to follow, partly because of my lack of knowledge of early 20th century Germany and the politics involved, but also because so much of the story was told through dialogue. Almost two thirds of the novel is written in the form of dialogue (according to the Foreword) and it was just too much for me.

I also disliked the translation style. Obviously I haven’t read the original German edition of this book from 1931 so I don’t know what Fallada’s actual writing was like, but this translation feels too modern and full of words and phrases that I wouldn’t have thought would have been used at the time. I’m sure there will be a lot of other readers who will love this lively, slang-filled style, but it didn’t have any appeal for me personally. Alone in Berlin was translated by the same person, Michael Hofmann, but for some reason the language in that book didn’t bother me at all, maybe because I was so gripped by the story.

A bigger problem for me was that there wasn’t a single character in the book that I liked. I can see that I probably wasn’t intended to like them, and this was maybe the whole point of the story (to show the effects of hatred, violence and corruption on a small town and how this was being replicated across Germany, opening the way for the Nazis), but it didn’t make it much fun to read. It’s really important for me to have at least one or two characters that I can enjoy reading about or connect with in some way, but without exception I found everyone in A Small Circus greedy and selfish, with few or no redeeming qualities. And not only were there no heroes to side with, there were no great villains that I could love to hate either – just a lot of very unpleasant people.

I want to finish this very negative post by pointing out that although I didn’t enjoy it very much I didn’t actually think this was a bad book. For the right type of reader, A Small Circus would probably be a fascinating read and the other reviews I’ve seen have been mostly very positive. Unfortunately I was obviously not the right type of reader for this book, though I think I would still be prepared to try more of Fallada’s novels in the future.

From one to six…

Before I started blogging I only ever used to read one book at a time. Now I’ve somehow found myself in the middle of six!

Here are the books I’m currently reading:

A Small Circus by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin was one of the best books I read last year, so I was excited about reading another of Hans Fallada’s novels. So far though, this one is not as good and I’m finding the plot quite confusing. I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to continue with it but will give it at least a few more chapters.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

This is the first of the Lymond Chronicles and the first Dorothy Dunnett book I’ve read. Dunnett fans will be pleased to know that I’m absolutely loving this book and have already ordered the next one in the series!

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

After reading The Rose Garden a few months ago I wanted to read another Susanna Kearsley book and was delighted to receive this one through Netgalley. I’m still near the beginning but I can already tell it’s going to be as good, or maybe even better, than The Rose Garden.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

With February marking the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, I wanted to read one of his novels this month. I’m enjoying Great Expectations so far and finding it surprisingly easy to read compared to some of the other Dickens novels I’ve read. I’m reading a few chapters a day on my Kindle which I’ve found is a good way to get through some of these long classics.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

I started this Dickens biography in January. Not being a big non fiction fan, it’s taking me a long time to read this one as I’m only picking it up when I’m in the right mood for it.

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

As I mentioned in a previous post I’m reading Clarissa as part of a year-long group read so I’m not expecting to finish it before December. This is another one I decided to read as an ebook as the paperback is just too big!

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The six books that I’m reading at the moment are all different enough that I’m not having any trouble keeping them separate in my mind, but I do feel as if it’s been a long time since I actually finished a book!

How many books do you usually have on the go at the same time? Do you always finish one book before you start another or do you like to have a variety to choose from?

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

“Mother! The Führer has murdered our son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too. He will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”

Otto Quangel writes these words on a postcard one Sunday afternoon in 1940, drops it in a crowded building the next day and waits for someone to find it. And in this way, a quiet married couple from Berlin begin their campaign of resistance to World War II.

I’ve been very lucky so far with my reading choices in 2011. Alone in Berlin (published in the US as Every Man Dies Alone) is yet another one that I thoroughly enjoyed. This book has been on my wish list since I noticed it had been translated for the first time and published as a Penguin Classic, and I’m so glad it lived up to my expectations. Not only is it a wonderful story but it’s also important historically as an anti-Nazi novel written by a German and published in 1947, just after the end of World War II.

The book is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, whom Hans Fallada renamed Otto and Anna Quangel. Fallada was given the Gestapo’s files on the Hampels and was able to draw on this information as part of his research for Alone in Berlin. Before I read this book I knew nothing about the Hampels and their postcard campaign, so I found the plot completely suspenseful, exciting and full of surprises – it was truly unputdownable, the kind of book where I knew as soon as I started reading that I was going to love it.

From the first page we are drawn straight into the action with postwoman Eva Kluge delivering a telegram to Otto and Anna Quangel, informing them that their son has been killed. Meanwhile in the apartment below, the Nazi Persicke family are celebrating the news of the capitulation of France, whilst Frau Rosenthal, the elderly Jewish woman who lives on the fourth floor, is forced to go into hiding after her husband is taken away by the Gestapo.

Devastated by his son’s death and appalled by the Nazi regime, Otto buys some blank postcards and devises a simple scheme which he hopes will raise awareness of Hitler’s atrocities and encourage other German citizens to join the resistance. On the surface, Otto is our hero, the man with the courage to stand up to Hitler, the man who refuses to join the Party although doing so is ruling him out of promotion at work. And yet Otto is not a conventional fictional hero. He comes across as cold and distant and not particularly likeable – but I could understand the reasons for him distancing himself. He was not frightened for himself, but afraid that his actions would endanger anyone associated with him, particularly his beloved Anna who insists on helping him with the postcards despite the risks involved.

The middle section of this book becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo attempting to catch the mystery postcard writer. Escherich is a very shrewd and intelligent detective who is able to make clever deductions based on the tiniest clues – almost a brutal, sinister version of Sherlock Holmes – and I was kept in suspense wondering if Otto would give himself away.

But there are so many other things going on in this book. We also meet Enno Kluge, Eva’s husband, whose main ambition is to stay out of the army on health grounds and fill his days with gambling and drinking. Then there’s Trudel Baumann, who was once engaged to the Quangels’ son, and is opposing the war in her own way; Baldur Persicke the Hitler Youth Leader who puts Hitler and the Party before even his own father; and Kuno-Dieter, a teenage boy who flees Berlin for the countryside.

I wasn’t expecting this book to be so easy to read. The writing is clear and direct, getting straight to the point and allowing us to concentrate on the rapidly moving plot. I was concerned that my unfamiliarity with German war-time politics might be a problem, but I needn’t have worried. I had no problem understanding any part of the book. The focus is not on the politics but on the people and their lives. I went through a whole range of emotions while reading this book: fear (for Otto and Anna, for Trudel, for Frau Rosenthal, even at times for Enno); anger (at the Gestapo and the whole system of ‘justice’); and sadness, of course.

Alone in Berlin is a moving and inspirational story about two people standing up for what they know is right. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy reading World War II fiction and would like to view things from a different perspective and also if you enjoy novels that are both gripping and heartbreaking. Don’t let the 600+ pages put you off – I became so absorbed in the story I didn’t even notice the length!