Monday, March 25, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?” (“KLEINER MANN, WAS NUN?”) by Hans Fallada (first published 1932; first English translation by Eric Sutton published 1933; new English translation by Susan Bennett published 1996)

It was just before Christmas, 2012, that the television news showed me a fearful sight. The Auckland City Mission was giving out food parcels to the destitute and to hard-up families. The missioners said that they had far more people applying for help than they usually do. The camera showed a line extending out the doors of the mission, round the corner and down the road for hundreds of yards. Vox pop inteviews revealed that some people had been waiting for seven or eight hours. Others explained how they could barely meet rent and power bills, let alone feed their families.

I’m a New Zealander. That means that I always have a hard time accepting that real poverty exists in this country. A part of me always goes into denial, saying, “Surely these people can find jobs. Don’t they know about budgeting? It must be their own fault.” There are plenty of smug editorials and talkback hosts to feed such delusions, and pundits from Remuera, Epsom and Devonport to say the trouble is that South Auckland (i.e. Polynesian) parents have far too many kids. On Christmas Day, the TV news showed that at least some people turned up to the mission’s free Christmas dinner as a sort of tourist attraction – which would have given a neat opportunity for more sneers from the talkback hosts and pundits.

But the sight of the pre-Christmas line outside the mission defeated me. These people can’t all be fakers and bludgers. There really is poverty in this country, and it seems to be getting worse.

So what do my thoughts turn to, but one of the great novels about people enduring economic hell in time of depression?

Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? was first published in Germany in 1932, in what we now know were the dying days of the Weimar Republic. Hitler was manoeuvred into power in February of the following year. At that time, Germany had proportionately more unemployed and desperate people than most other European countries. The book was an immediate success, rapidly became a bestseller in Germany and was translated promptly into English (by Eric Sutton) as Little Man, What Now? [See note on translations at the end of this review]. It was an international bestseller in English too. Hollywood made a film version in 1934 [see second note below].

I have at best a smattering of German, so I know this novel only in English.

A few words about the author. “Hans Fallada” was the pseudonym of Rudolf Ditzen (1893-1947). He came from a solid middle-class family but had an unhappy and disorderly life, including long periods of sickness, drug-addiction and incarceration in mental institutions. [Not that you would know this from the sanity and workmanlike clarity of his prose]. He was not particularly liked by the Nazi regime, which withdrew some of his books from libraries once they came to power. He was investigated by the Gestapo a couple of times. But he did not get the really heavy treatment other dissident writers were given by the Nazis. Though instinctively on the Left, his novels are oddly apolitical in some key ways, apart from the overtly anti-Nazi Every Man Dies Alone (also known as Alone in Berlin), which was published only after the Second World War was over. To the horror of admirers like Thomas Mann, Fallada chose to remain in Germany throughout the Nazi period. Goebbels hoped to persuade him to write novels praising the regime. Fallada (who was again in mental hospitals for some of the late 1930s) managed to avoid doing this and survived the war.

Little Man, What Now? is an intensely humanistic protest novel, but it is not party-political. Its sympathy is with a young lower-middle-class couple driven further and further into poverty as the depression worsens.

The novel opens with the clerk Hans [Johannes] Pinneberg discovering that his girlfriend the shop-girl “Bunny” [Emma] Morschel is two months pregnant. In different English translations her nickname – “Lammchen” in the German original - is rendered as either “Bunny” or “Lambkin”. I will stick with “Bunny” here.

Pinneberg and Bunny, both in their early twenties, hastily marry and set up house together. But at once we know that these are economic hard times as their first long anxious thoughts are about money and how they will possibly manage, especially with a baby coming. Hans is lowly paid. Bunny will lose her position once she has the child.

            All this leads into the rest of the novel, which is the story of their young marriage being battered by the economic crisis, and yet enduring. At first working in a seed store in a small town, Hans has to hide the fact that he is married, as his boss hopes Hans will marry his ageing and unattractive daughter. Hans loses his job as the boss cuts back on staff. Fortunately Hans’ widowed mother, through her dodgy de facto husband Jachmann, gets him a job as a salesman in a Berlin clothing store. But Hans soon discovers that his paypacket is much smaller than he expected.

In a depression, employers know staff won’t complain as there’s always somebody else to take a lowly-paid job. The employers really put the pressure on as they insist salesmen will get the sack if they don’t meet certain quotas each month. The workplace becomes bitter with competition. Then even that isn’t enough. The employers begin to find excuses to lay off staff, reasoning that necessary work can be done as extra duties (at no greater pay) by remaining staff. I am interested that the word “rationalisation” appears in the 1933 translation I read, and I kept having comparative images of a New Zealand government that argues (to employers’ applause) that we don’t really need a minimum wage for youth workers.

Little Man, What Now? is filled with images of the degradation of unemployment – or the fear of unemployment. The manager who brow-beats and sacks a shop-girl for her ‘immoral’ relationship with another employee. The domineering and patronising way bureaucrats treat Hans when he goes to claim a state insurance pay-out. Hans is overwhelmed by the economic tide. By the end of the novel he is unemployed. His once respectable salesman’s clothes are threadbare and grubby as he tramps the streets of Berlin looking for work. He knows he has hit rock-bottom when police start to hustle him away from department store windows, simply because he looks so shabby that he frightens the affluent customers.

The economic decline of Hans and Bunny is charted in the places they live. Before the baby is born, they have tight, but respectable, accommodation with a widow who was wiped out in the “great inflation” of the early 1920s (although, mildly unhinged, the old woman keeps saying she is sure somebody has robbed her). Next, with baby, they board with old Frau Pinneberg in Berlin. When this becomes unbearable, their tiny income reduces them to a garret rat-hole, built over a cinema and accessible by ladder, in a really seedy part of the city. By novel’s end, with Hans unemployed, they are in a shack, lit by kerosene lamp and with tar-paper roof, on an illegal allotment outside the city. They can at least grow their own vegetables there and they sometimes witness brawls between unemployed Nazis and Communists who are also squatting illegally.

Yet this is as much Bunny’s story as it is Hans’; and Fallada is as much concerned with how the depression affects the emotional life of husband and wife as he is with the economic situation itself. Little Man, What Now? nowhere says anything as trite as “love conquers all”, but it does present Hans’ and Bunny’s loyalty to each other as a positive value in a decaying world.

The nickname Lammchen/Lambkin/Bunny is meant to be a piece of uxorious affection, like Sweetie, Honey, Darling etc. This could put some modern readers off. Is Bunny the inane, helpless child-wife of romantic fictions written by males? (Think Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield). On some of the earlier pages it would appear so, when sitcom-like comedy is made of her inability to make a decent pea soup. But this, it transpires, is simply a realistic depiction of the incompetence of a young wife and mother who has yet to grow into the role. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Bunny is the stabilising component in the marriage, hauling Hans back from silly expenditures when he tries to impress friends on an inadequate income; and making an heroic effort to put their accounts in order as she draws up a monthly budget. By novel’s end it is she who provides their tiny income by taking in mending and washing. Fallada is sensitive to the realities of domestic life with a baby. Quite properly, the novel presents buying a perambulator and avoiding nappy rash and dealing with a crying baby at night as matters of equal importance with Hans’ search for work, and equally heroic.

For something written in 1932, much of the novel is remarkably frank about sexual matters. The opening chapter has Hans and Bunny going to a gyneaocologist and seeking reliable contraception. When Bunny is examined and found to be pregnant, the doctor tells them not to ask him a question because “he heard it thirty times a day”. In other words, he knows that people on tight incomes will be tempted to ask about an abortion. When Bunny first takes Hans home to meet her folks, we at once see the antagonism her parents feel for him, not because he got their daughter pregnant, but because he is lower-middle-class and they are proudly working class. Extra-marital pregnancy is just a fact of life.

Hans and Bunny move out of Frau Pinneberg’s apartment in Berlin because the widow, who has clearly worked as a prostitute, is also clearly running a brothel in the guise of providing “parties” for “gentlemen”. One of Hans’ colleagues is a nudist (part of what was a big movement in late Weimar Germany). At one point he takes Hans to a swimming bath where nudists meet, and it is very clear to Hans that it is basically a place for amateur whores to find customers. Later, the same minor character earns a living by selling pornography. The dodgy Jachmann, who is in and out of jail, gives a lip-licking account of the nude cabarets they can visit if they spend some money in Berlin. There’s also a very touching scene where Hans and Bunny discuss how far into her pregnancy they can continue having sexual intercourse; and how soon after the birth they can resume it. I doubt if any of these things – none of which is dwelt upon – would have made it into the 1934 Hollywod movie.

I have said this novel is oddly apolitical. I mean this only in the sense that it is not clearly party-political and presents no programme for cleaning up the economic mess. Party politics are mentioned, but they are very much background noise to the young couple’s fervent attempts to survive. Again, when Hans first meets Bunny’s family, there are dinner-table differences in politics. Bunny’s brother Karl calls her father a “Social-Fascist” and her father calls Karl “a little Soviet toady”. Father and son are therefore respectively Socialist and Communist. Once or twice Bunny suggests that she might vote Communist if she bothered voting at all. At his first job, one of Hans’ colleagues is an oafish Nazi stormtrooper – a teenager who has taken up street-fighting because he thinks it’s fun and who “enlivened [the workplace] now and then by bursts of boisterous laughter when he described his dealings with his Soviet brethren.” 1932’s equivalent of a skinhead. In the novel there is the odd anti-Jewish comment in the dialogue, especially when Hans’ Jewish employers in Berlin are mentioned, and a couple of minor characters (a nurse; an amateur prostitute at the swimming baths) are pointedly noted to be Jewish. Hans tells Bunny that some of his colleagues at the clothing store are Nazis. He himself doesn’t know which way to jump, apparently weighing up Nazis and Communists as equal options, but never deciding which is preferable.

It is important that Hans is lower middle-class. Once or twice working-class characters in the novel suggest he would know more clearly where his interests lay if he didn’t have such pretensions. Perhaps this was Fallada’s own view. The trade union that is supposed to protect Hans and other shop-workers proves to be a “bourgeois” one that buckles at the first threat from the employers. The very title Little Man, What Now? suggests that a little man without any political fight in him will have to make a choice sometime.

In his desperation, did Hans become part of the Red Front or did he vote for Hitler? How could Fallada know? The novel was written in 1932. Reading it eighty years later, I find that the very indecision of Hans is part of the novel’s power and poignancy.

First footnote – about translations. In the English language, Little Man What Now? was a big bestseller in the 1930s in Eric Sutton’s 1933 translation, a copy of which I bought from a second-hand bookshop years ago. When Susan Bennett produced her new translation in 1996, the preface said that the Sutton version was slightly abridged. Checking the two, I find few significant differences. The Sutton version calls Lammchen “Bunny” and occasionally refers to Hans as “the lad”. The Bennett version calls Lammchen “Lambkin” and occasionally calls Hans “Sonny”. I decided to go with the Sutton translation, which was, after all, the one that English-speakers actually read when the novel made its greatest impact.

Second footnote – about movies. Little Man, What Now? has been filmed twice. The better-known version was made in Hollywood in 1934, and has a certain added poignancy in that, by that time, Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany and the world of Hans and Lammchen was being overtaken by a different sort of horror. Interestingly, in the film, the young wife has her original German name, Lammchen, even though the only English-language translation then available called her “Bunny”. This film was directed by the master of romantic melodrama, Frank Borzage and starred the lean, smiling Douglass Montgomery as Hans, and Margaret Sullavan as Lammchen – perfect casting, as Sullavan was able to be both winsome-fey and steely-determined as required. I have not been able to see the whole film, but easily found two longish representative clips on Youtube. Both reproduced quite accurately dialogue from the novel, but also showed Borzage’s tendency to romanticize the novel’s matter-of-factness. One is the sad-comic scene where Lammchen tells Hans that she accidentally ate all the salmon she bought for their dinner because she was so hungry. So far, so Fallada. But Borzage stages it on a merry-go-round, with Lammchen piece by piece making her confession as she is carried around. It’s funny and it’s beautifully played, but it is Hollywood romance, not Fallada’s realism. A little Googling informs me that there was also a 1967 German-language version of Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? made in the DEFA studios of old East Germany. I have not been able to find out anything about this version, but I would be surprised if the official studio of the defunct Communist statelet didn’t turn it into a Marxist tract. They would have had ample material from the novel to work on, even if Fallada himself scrupulously avoids a specifically party-political perspective.


  1. The novel was filmed in Germany in the early 1930s. Fallada dissociated himself from the finished product, and (as far as is known) no copy of the film survives.
    The East German film is available from amazon.de.
    I haven't compared the two English translations in detail, but if I remember correctly the Sutton one omits the scene in the grain business where the labourers refuse to work during a meal-break because this would breach their industrial award. Pinneberg is impressed, but can't do likewise.

    Geoff Wilkes, Brisbane

    1. Thank you for this. In fact a little further research tells me that there have been FOUR filmed versions of the novel. The (lost) German film of 1933, the Hollywood film of !934, the East German TV adaptation of the late 1960s and a West German TV adaptation of 1973. To add a bizarre note, the German harmony group the Comedian Harmonists recorded a cheerful ditty in 1933 called "Kleiner Mann, Was Nun?" (I've heard part of it on an Amazon website), which was obviously tied in with the film. By the way, with a little searching you can find on Youtube the whole of the East German TV version - but without subtitles.

  2. According to Felix Bucher’s history of film in Germany, the Nazi government in 1938 planned a remake of “Little Man, What Now?” to be written and directed by Theo Lingen the actor, writer and director associated with the 1934 production. They wanted him to tag on another ending where the young couple joined the Nazi party and their fortunes change for the better. However, the project was shelved and it was not remade.