The proposer of the book described how he had come across it randomly in a bookshop, and had liked the quality of the paper and the font size (qualities to which those of us who had read the book on a Kindle were oblivious). He had a long-standing interest in the history of the Third Reich, and so possessed a solid intellectual pretext for purchasing this desirable physical object.
A biographical run-through of Hans Fallada’s life (real name: Rudolf Ditzen) revealed a tormented tale of traumas, including a childhood accident, a self-inflicted gunshot wound, alcoholism, morphine addiction, an unhappy marriage, trouble with the Nazi authorities, and spells in prison and mental hospitals. In spite of this, he was quite a prolific writer, and no fewer than eleven of his works have been translated into English. “Alone in Berlin” became a best-seller in English only in 2009. A new film version is in pre-production at the time of writing, featuring Emma Thompson.
Hans Fallada reportedly wrote the first draft of the novel in twenty-four days in late 1946, and died shortly before its publication. It was based on the true story of a couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards in wartime Berlin. We commented upon the similarities with our previous month’s book, George Orwell’s “1984”, written just over a year later, which also portrayed the relationship of a rebellious couple living under a repressive regime. Although both books were enjoyed and highly praised by the group, the view was expressed that “1984” was the book with the more interesting ideas, and “Alone in Berlin” was the book with the most convincing characterisation.
The proposer admired the quality of the translation, although a few oddities were noted (such as the use of the Scottish ‘youse’ to indicate a less educated manner of speech) and there was speculation on the reasons for frequent shifts between past tense and historic present tense, which may have originated with Fallada.
We returned to characterisation, and commented on the large number of brutal and unpleasant individuals to be found in the book. One reader was reminded of the paintings of George Grosz, and commented on the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ vision of life that predominated in the book. Others drew attention to redemptive characters whose role grew stronger in the latter part of the story – the retired judge from downstairs in the Quangels’ building; the conductor with whom Quangel shares a cell; the prison pastor; the previous postmistress and partner of Enno Kluge, who re-educates the delinquent son of Borkhausen. These characters provided some counterbalance to the sadism and criminality that was otherwise pervasive.
There was agreement in our group that the book provided a strong sense of ‘living through’ the circumstances of wartime Berlin, and confronted us with the uncomfortable question of ‘what would you do?’ The dilemma of individuals whose innate decency and morality is compromised by fear and suspicion probably reflects Fallada’s own difficulties as an artist who chose to remain in Germany throughout the Nazi hegemony – a choice castigated by Thomas Mann. In this respect the Gestapo inspector Escherich was found particularly interesting. Initially he is brutal and unscrupulous, but Quangel’s defiance, combined with his own sufferings at the hands of his vicious superior Prall, brings him face to face with his own failings and leaves him no option but to kill himself.
Although one reader found that parts of the novel – notably parts dealing with Enno Kluge and his parasitic attempts to live off the prosperous owner of a pet shop – were rather over-extended, there was general agreement that the story moved at a good pace. The dual narrative of the Quangels’ postcard dropping and the Gestapo’s attempts to track them down created suspense and tension, and the later parts of the book, in which action was replaced by the static claustrophobia and despair of imprisonment, were also thoroughly engrossing.
Our discussion ranged briefly over many other topics – Biblical echoes in Quangel’s suffering, medical doubts about the description of his execution, and the relationship of the story to the true events on which it was based. The proposer recommended another book, Roger Moorhouse’s “Berlin at War” as reading for those who wanted to know more of the general context of the novel. He commented that only a minority of the population of Berlin ever voted for the Nazi party, and that they were particularly subject therefore to suspicion and surveillance.
This brought us – as with our discussion of “1984” – to consideration of contemporary examples of growing surveillance by the state, such as face recognition technology at airports and the issue of chip-bearing identity tags for this year’s Ryder Cup sporting event. The proposer modestly informed the group that he had made his first hole in one at golf recently, and we then drifted to golfing anecdotes and even a brief flirtation with the subject of football, so it was clearly time to clear away the glasses and issue forth beside the Forth, into the salty night air of Portobello.