The Drinker by Hans Fallada

This book was a gift from a kind friend for whom I had done a trivial service. The author is most famous in the UK for Alone in Berlin, which is the story of a couple who are executed for leaving subversive postcards on stairwells during the Nazi regime. His real name is Rudolf Ditzen. The name ‘Fallada’ comes from the name of a horse, called ‘Falada’, in one of Grimm’s fairy tales. The horse’s head is cut off and the heroine speaks to it as she passes until her betrayer is caught and killed. Typically dark – Grimm by name, grim by nature.

This story is about a man lapsing into drunkenness and madness. It is partly autobiographical. Ditzen was himself imprisoned as well as confined to mental hospitals, and he was an alcoholic. The complex relationship between writers and alcohol is detailed very well here.

He was part of a literary movement in 1930s Germany called ‘Die Neue Sachlichkeit’, or ‘the new matter-of-factness’. A sort of social realism, I think. And that is very much the style of this book – matter of fact, almost banal, but portraying something awful and compelling about how the individual is subsumed into organisational structures and norms of behaviour. The first person narrator, Erwin Sommer, is a respected businessman who just degenerates very rapidly into a raging alcoholic and is then swept along by the system of incarceration. It is set in Nazi Germany but that does not figure very much, although some see it as an allegory of Germany’s own descent into madness.

The reader sympathises with Sommer, to an extent, because we are inside his head. But it is also clear that he is not an especially good or admirable person, as he himself admits. So it is not a simple book, but the economical style is not judgemental. The reader has to bring a lot of him or herself to the party.

Intriguing.

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