Hans Fallada (1893–1947) is one of those tragic literary figures whose life story seems to resonate through every page of his novels. This was true of the semi-autobiographical story of Little Man, What Now (see my review) and - in the sense of being one man alone against an all-powerful state which is crushing his spirit – it’s also true of Alone in Berlin. (See my review). But it is The Drinker, the third novel I’ve read by Fallada this year, which really seems to tell his own personal story …
Fallada had substance abuse problems throughout his life, and this novel was actually written while he was in an asylum for the insane. He was supposed to be writing another novel, one to suit the Nazi regime which had alternated between approval and harassment throughout his literary career. What he wrote instead was the story of an undistinguished small businessman who takes up drinking with a vengeance and pays a terrible price. What is on one level a sordid story of self-delusion and degradation is on another level a metaphor for the destruction of an individual by an oppressive state.
Erwin Sommer narrates the story, so we have only his perspective to draw on, but he seems to have no inhibitions left with which to muddy the waters. By his account, in middle age, and with a lifetime of respectability behind him, he begins to resent his wife’s ‘efficiency’ and starts drinking. The trigger seems to have been a costly mistake made at work, but the way in which he plunges into alcohol-induced oblivion suggests that the misery he is trying to escape is more than merely having to admit his folly.
Before long, he is engaged in a grotesque flirtation with a barmaid, and his drinking is beginning to cost serious money. Rather than face Magda he seeks lodgings with a rogue, and his losses begin to mount. These need to be obscured with lies and further thefts, and eventually the law becomes involved and from then on it is a downward spiral from which there is no escape.
Yet even though all this misery is self-inflicted, Sommer has our sympathy. He is exploited by everyone he comes into contact with, and the medical profession is in cahoots with what passes for the legal system. The way in which he is treated in the various institutions is shocking, and the utter hopelessness of his situation is all the more tragic because of the way Sommer builds up his hopes, dreaming up schemes that are never going to work and believing to the end that Magda will come to his rescue.
It’s grim, but it’s a very powerful book. Highly recommended.
Author: Hans Fallada
Title: The Drinker
Translated by Charlotte and A.L. Lloyd
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications