It’s odd how ideas from disparate kinds of reading can coalesce in the mind: I have been reading The Censor’s Library, Uncovering the Lost History of Australia’s Banned Books by Nicole Moore, and amongst other propositions that she puts is that the enthusiasm with which books were banned in Australia led to the modernism movement passing us by. However it wasn’t just works by authors such as James Joyce which had too many naughty bits for the good people of Australia to read, it was all kinds of other books as well, including during the Great Depression, many realist and socialist books banned on the grounds of sedition. The Grapes of Wrath was referred for censorship in 1939 but scraped in, while Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was banned in 1933.
Other realist and socialist novels of the 1930s with similar critiques of a degenerating society were also banned as obscene. High cultural literary forms like the novel were compelled to seriously engage with life on the other side of the class divide during the 1930s, as the depression continued and socialist and Communist critique informed aesthetics across the world. Australian censors strongly policed the access of working-class or ordinary readers to publications critical of existing economic and social orders, however.
(The Censor’s Library, Uncovering the Lost History of Australia’s Banned Books by Nicole Moore, UQP, 2012, p. 90)
Well, I haven’t finished reading Moore’s book yet, so I don’t know if Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? was banned, but if it wasn’t, it must have been an oversight on the part of our otherwise zealous authorities because it depicts the cruel downfall of a white-collar worker during the Great Depression in Germany. Published in 1932 on the verge of Hitler’s ascendancy, and making allusions to both scapegoating the Jews and to Communism as a political alternative, the novel depicts the grinding poverty and the absence of a social safety net for ordinary Germans at the time.
Johannes ‘Sonny’ Pinneberg is a salesman who marries prematurely because his girlfriend Emma ‘Lämmchen’ Mörschel is pregnant, and is promptly sacked because he’s now not free to marry the boss’s unappealing daughter. The newlyweds are both naïve and Lämmchen in particular thinks that love will conquer all, but life has some rude shocks in store for them… Neither of them has much in the way of savings and apart from a few bits and pieces in Lämmchen’s ‘glory box’, they start out with nothing much but dreams, and the gold wedding rings never eventuate.
In times of very high unemployment it becomes a matter of ‘who you know’ so it is fortunate that Pinneberg’s mother has a new boyfriend. She’s a rather dubious character, and Jachmann, her strangely cash-laden lover is even more dubious, but he wangles a job for Pinneberg as a menswear salesman. But the pressure on Pinneberg is intense because he’s always under threat of retrenchment. Management masks this as sacking the workers for minor infringements or failing to make a sales quota, but the reality is that there isn’t enough work for them to do because there aren’t enough buyers during the Depression.
The search for somewhere affordable to live is a nightmare. At various times they live with his mother and Jachmann; in an attic; and in a concealed illegal apartment at the top of a storage room, accessible only by a ladder perilous to ‘Lämmchen’ in the late stages of pregnancy and even more perilous for getting a baby up and down. The rent they have to pay is always more than they can afford and their pitiful savings dwindle away to nothing, not helped by Pinneberg’s loving impulse to buy his Lämmchen the dressing table she wants. They can’t afford to eat properly, exacerbated by the culinary disasters of a young inexperienced bride and a truly tragic scene where Lämmchen’s hunger gets the better of her and she doesn’t share the food she craves, despite the best of intentions.
Despite these harrowing scenes and the disastrous circumstances in which this couple find themselves at the end of the novel, Little Man What now? is not sentimental or overwrought. There are comic moments and moments of joy, as when Pinneberg manages to find flowers to present to Lämmchen after the birth. Fallada, who knew at first hand what it meant to be one of the underclass, writes with great empathy of the surprise discovery of the young father that babies can bawl for a very long time indeed. Fallada also knows when to exercise restraint, as when it dawns on Pinneberg that it is his wife who is supporting him and not the other way round. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who cheers when Pinneberg exerts his masculinity to insist that a well-off woman pay for the darning and hand over the 8 marks she owes!
BTW While I was scouring the web for references to Australian Depression era novels, I came across a 2009 broadcast called Literature During the Depression on Radio National (from the Good Old Days when they had a dedicated books and writing show). The program was meant to explore whether the current GFC might trigger literary works like those of the Great Depression, but surprisingly it didn’t mention Three Dollars, Eliott Perman’s iconic 1998 story of the impact of economic downturn on an ordinary man. Instead, it focussed more on American novels of the Depression such as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) as does the disappointing Wikipedia entry. Still, it’s a broadcast worth listening to, not least because historian David Potts, author of The Myth of the Great Depression warns against literature being taken as social history at face value:
… literature is heavily geared to show a lot of the worst moments of the worst off. … there was concern with social issues and so it stresses those things where the greatest social injustice lies. … I’ve recorded in my book some instances where there’s a flow-on from one horrific example to another down the line of literature and history that can be seen to be somewhat exaggerated.
This comment did make me wonder whether Little Man What Now? was an exaggeration of conditions during the Great Depression in Germany, but even if it was it made me curious about Australian novels inspired by economic calamity. I dug out my ancient copy of Geoffrey Dutton’s The Literature of Australia (Pelican 1976) to see what I might find about Depression era literature in Australia, but while there’s a very interesting survey of our writing in the 1920s and 30s, when an Australian tradition was emerging in the form of sagas, the picaresque and the documentary, Dutton doesn’t mention the Depression in Australia as a catalyst for literature. In other contexts, he does refer to Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) as a novel which reveals its Australianness in ‘a strand of melancholy and pessimism’ (p. 203) which is most serendipitous because I bought a copy of this just yesterday at the Woodend Secondhand Bookshop! He refers to Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers (1941) which I have read and reviewed and also The Pea-pickers (1942) which I have read but not reviewed here. Recently released in the Angus & Robertson Australian Classics series, both these novels were set in the 1930s and explore the travails of workers and the unemployed, but I can’t think of a Depression era Australian novel depicting urban life.
Still, I’m inclined to think that Fallada’s novel was universal in the issues it raises. It’s an excellent book, what a wonderful author he was! I have two more great books in the series released by Scribe and am looking forward to reading them too…
Tom at A Common Reader reviewed it too, commenting that
Fallada’s books give a fascinating glimpse of what life was like on the ground level while national leaders prepared for war. Fallada’s books are immensely readable, and with both Little Man What Now and Alone in Berlin, I found myself speeding through them to find out what happened next. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Europe between the wars. The excellent translation by Susan Bennett makes this a very readable novel with no hint that it was originally written in another language.
Author: Hans Fallada
Title: Little Man, What Now?
Translated from the German Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? by Susan Bennett
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications