Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 31, 2014

Wolf Among Wolves, by Hans Fallada, translated by Philip Owens

Wolf among WolvesWolf Among Wolves is the fourth novel that I have read by Hans Fallada.  It was his sixth book, published in 1938 just before the outbreak of World War II.   It follows on from Fallada’s attempts to deflect unwelcome attention from the Nazis by writing children’s stories and other non-political material, and because it is a critique of the chaotic Weimar Republic, Goebbels was very pleased with it.  Unfortunately for Fallada, far from deflecting Nazi attention, the success of this brilliant novel encouraged them to commission anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi works, and before long he capitulated to Nazi intimidation, earning him trenchant criticism from the likes of Thomas Mann who fled Germany rather than submit.

Although he later showed great courage by writing The Drinker while in gaol (see my review) and redeemed his reputation with Alone in Berlin (see my review) Fallada was vulnerable to intimidation because of his mental illness and drug addiction.  He made numerous suicide attempts, and his unstable situation was exacerbated by his failed relationships, his ambiguous sexuality and of course by the onset of a brutal war.  Yet it was these very vulnerabilities which make his writing so powerful.  The authenticity of Wolf Among Wolves derives from Fallada’s own experience of weakness and folly, and of living in a society that was crumbling.

Wolf Among Wolves is completely absorbing.  It’s nearly 800 pages long but it’s one of those books that make you want to drop everything else until you’ve finished reading it.  Uncompromisingly realistic, it is written in what is called the New Objectivity  style:

The New Objectivity … is a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American: “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional conscientiousness, and usefulness.” (Wikipedia)

Not unlike the great classic Russian novels in the way that it depicts domestic concerns on a sprawling canvas, Wolf Among Wolves is a love story, a coming-of-age story and a story of flawed personalities struggling to cope in a society which was in economic and moral chaos.  The love story is thwarted by the characters’ ignorance of themselves and each other,  by their mutual immaturity and by the society which is crumbling all around them.

It’s not just that monstrous inflation makes money worthless, though the impact of that is graphic, it’s that the fundamental values are distorted too.

‘So many people are running away from their jobs,’ went on Studmann. ‘To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason.  But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask.  Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.  (p. 235)

For Wolfgang Pagel, a compulsive gambler in Berlin, there is no point in working because any money earned is devalued daily.  The purchase of anything is always a race against the clock because the money you have may be enough to buy a loaf of bread in the morning, but not enough in the afternoon.  By the end of the novel the reader has become almost more conscious of this than some of the characters are, taking on the anxiety that they should be feeling about the diminishing value of hard-won money.  Because the devaluations are inexorable: there is no time to dawdle about, to be indecisive,  to have a quarrel or do anything else that delays using your money, especially when it’s needed to bail someone out of gaol or to pay rent on a lease with a merciless default clause.

The economic and moral nihilism spreads outwards from Berlin like a cancer.  In the countryside people ask to be paid in sacks of grain rather than money, but small-scale thieving has been replaced by unabashed thefts that threaten the viability of farming.  The old forester Kniebusch becomes afraid to walk the paths, because everyone’s a timber thief, and poachers don’t play by the ‘rules’ any more.  The bucolic serenity of rural life is upended when Von Prackwitz can’t hire labourers and his manager Studmann has to engage a prison detail to harvest his crops.  And it’s not just escapees making everyone feel afraid – there’s a putsch being planned and a shady amoral Lieutenant working for the overthrow of the government catches the eye of Prackwitz’s silly fifteen-year-old daughter…

The story begins with two seemingly unconnected narratives – in Berlin, and on the farm at Neulohe – and because there are so many characters it can be somewhat confusing when some of the minor characters seem to disappear and then resurface later.  But the main characters are unforgettable, and the narrative trajectory never falters..

The central character is Wolfgang Pagel, a chronic gambler who is living in a moral vacuum with his girlfriend Petra.  When the story begins these two barely know each other – they have merely drifted into each other’s company.  She is blinded by an inchoate love, and he uses her loving acceptance to mask the reality of their abject poverty.  Petra has no family at all while Wolf’s mother is a judgemental termagant who rejects Petra as ‘unsuitable’.  Frau Pagel represents middle-class Berlin deluding itself that there is no fundamental change: she cherishes her delusions about her only son and she clings to the customs of the social class he has so comprehensively abandoned.

Wolf and Petra have been surviving between wins at roulette by pawning her clothes, but things go awry when the pawnbroker calls a halt.  Wolf takes off into the countryside to borrow money from an old friend, leaving Petra with (literally) nothing to wear but an overcoat.  When Wolf doesn’t come back she makes her way onto the street where, hallucinating from hunger, she is noticed by a good-hearted policeman.  A chain of events leads not only to her imprisonment but also to a grave misunderstanding between Petra and Wolf.  He has his first moment of truth when he realises how badly he has let her down.

It is Wolf’s good fortune to run into old army comrades, by whose agency he ends up on the farm at Neulohe.  (This is not the first time in literature that rural life has been the salvation of a dubious character!)  Von Prackwitz has been in Berlin trying unsuccessfully to hire labourers for the harvest, and Von Studmann has just lost his hotel job under bizarre circumstances.  Prackwitz, a hot-tempered and impulsive man, hires them both although neither knows the first things about farming, but they turn out to be valuable assets in his battle against his greedy and manipulative father-in-law.

Back in Berlin, Petra has a stroke of good luck too.  In gaol, she meets Ma Krupass who needs someone to help her out while she does her six-month sentence.  More importantly, she talks sound good sense to Petra, whose naïveté has been painful.  So while Wolf is coming of age in Neulohe, Petra is growing up fast in Berlin.

But like any good story-teller, Fallada creates a plot with many twists and turns to keep the reader guessing about whether the couple can ever be reunited.  Wolf has to contend with a mad employer, dangerous criminals on the loose, and the leader of the insurgency who thinks that his desired ends justify any means, but he also has to contend with his doubts about Petra and his own self-doubt.  For her part, Petra has to decide whether Wolf is worth the risk.

It’s a wonderful story, that offers much to think about as well.  If you haven’t read it, add it to your wishlist, you won’t be disappointed!

Author: Hans Fallada
Title: Wolf Among Wolves, first published as Wolf Unter Wolfen, 1937
Translated from the German by Philip Owns, with Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs
Publisher: Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2013
ISBN: 9781922070302
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Fishpond: Wolf Among Wolves

Or direct from Scribe


Responses

  1. I’ve read three of Fallada’s novels but have not attempted ‘Wolf Among Wolves’ yet. It sounds fascinating. It would be difficult for any writer if the Nazi leadership told you to write certain stuff that is horribly distasteful to you, or else… I wasn’t aware that Thomas Mann sitting is the comfort of Hollywood criticized Fallada. Those two, Thomas Mann and Hans Fallada, are probably the two greatest German writers of the twentieth century and so different.

    • Enormously difficult, but I’m not surprised that Wikipedia relates this criticism about Mann. He was judgemental about his brother too, and according to Evelyn Juers’ bio of Heinrich Mann, Thomas himself took his own sweet time to get round to denouncing the Nazis. See https://anzlitlovers.com/2009/11/02/house-of-exile-by-evelyn-juers/ (about half way down).

  2. […] indebted to this book by Evelyn Juers for my knowledge that Thomas Mann’s criticism of Hans Fallada for staying in Nazi Germany was not untypical of a rather judgemental […]

  3. The plot sounds great, as does the period and setting, but your post reminds me that I’ve yet to read Fallada’s Alone in Berlin…

    • Hi Jacqui:)
      That was such a brilliant book – they all are, but that one is completely riveting even though you know what will happen to the couple in the end.

      • Thanks, Lisa. I feel bad about this one – it’s a book that has been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years. I really ought to read it this winter!

        • Oh heavens, never feel bad! None of us can read everything, I’ve got huge gaps in my reading. Lots of ambitious plans, of course…

  4. I’ve added this to my TBR list as it sounds brilliant. I’m not aware of many novels set during the Weimar Republic – it’s a fascinating period. I’ll probably read ‘The Drinker’ first though.

    • I don’t know of any others either, but I haven’t read much GermanLit anyway. I would never have discovered Fallada if Scribe Publishing hadn’t brought out Australian editions.
      I’ve got one more of his to read: it’s called A Small Circus…

  5. I’ve this on my tbr I may have it as my Christmas read as I love to read a long book over Christmas

    • I usually like my long books over long holidays too, but *true confessions* when I finished reading the previous book late at night it was cold and I didn’t want to get out of bed to find another one, so I started this one just because it was on the bedside table. And then of course I couldn’t stop reading it.


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