Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2018

Tales from the Underworld, by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann

I really like Hans Fallada’s writing and will forever be grateful to the publicists at Scribe who sent me three of his titles at a time when I’d never heard of him. I’ve now read five of his novels: Alone in Berlin, Little Man What Now? The Drinker, Wolf Among Wolves and Nightmare in Berlin and have two titles on my TBR: Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? (a Penguin Moderns edition) and A Small Circus.  So of course I swooped on Tales from the Underground as soon as I saw it at the library.

What I like about Fallada’s writing is the way he manages to capture the sepia tones of life in Germany between the wars and during WW2, and how he tells the stories of flawed ordinary people who somehow manage to be engaging characters all the same.  He was not living that life in sepia, of course, he was living it as dreary realism, as the introduction to this collection of short stories explains.  What Jenny Williams does really well in this introduction is to show how these mostly autobiographical stories mesh with events in Fallada’s turbulent life: periods of unemployment; working as a labourer for the landed gentry, his addictions to alcohol and morphine, marriage and fatherhood and his imprisonment for embezzlement.  She also shows how some of these stories reappear in his novels, so it’s an introduction well worth reading.

It sounds grim, but there is a jauntiness about some of the stories, and a refusal to give in.  I particularly liked the stories about struggles with married life and fatherhood… in ‘Happiness and Woe’ (1932) he depicts the simple games of father and son, and the father’s anxiety about having to leave a small child at home alone.  It couldn’t be helped: his wife was at work and he had to go into town to collect his unemployment relief payment so that the rent could be paid.  But then there is his terrible failure when his sense of relief takes him to drinking at the bar afterwards…

‘Fifty Marks and A Merry Christmas’ (1932) is about a young couple living close to the breadline and their dreams of spending a Christmas bonus from his work. At the moment The Guardian is running a series about poverty in Australia and Fallada’s story with its Christmas wishlist shows the same melancholy detail.  Finding the money for simple things such as a haircut is a struggle, and the purchase of a lottery ticket is not the folly it appears to be but rather a desperate clutch at hope for better things.

What I often find when reading a collection of short stories is that by the time I’ve finished the collection, I can’t remember much about any of the stories.  But this is not so with this extraordinarily vivid collection.  Two stories show how land ownership impacts on the life chances of ordinary people.  In ‘The Good Meadow’ (1946) a father sacrifices his best meadow (in a village where there is not enough pasture for the cattle) as a dowry for a selfish daughter, leaving his son tormented by its loss – and now too poor to marry.  In ‘The Good Pasture on the Right’ (1934) a wealthy landowner blackmails a man into marrying his daughter by withdrawing long-held access to a prime meadow, and so the son loses the love of his life because he can’t let his father slide into destitution.

There are other stories about work—dull, unfulfilling work that must be endured because there is nothing else, and also stories about the slide into thievery.  ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’ (1931) (which is the title story in my Penguin Modern edition) is about a boy whose father sells watches, and how he lies to evade telling his father the truth about how he’d lost two valuable watches and then of course his father doesn’t believe him when the third is stolen.  This story, told in a jaunty style, is much more engaging than the series of fables in ‘Calendar Stories’ (1946) where the morals of the stories are explicit, and frankly, tedious.  By contrast, the moral in ‘The Missing Greenfinches’ (1935) is a lively tale about caring for the natural world and once again, is vivid in its depiction of emotion:

The little clumps of foliage looked strangely empty to him… bare twigs… no sign of a nest… all gone… nothing.

‘Cheep, cheep,’ went the mother finch.

Herr Rogge’s heart was beating hard. It’s not possible, he thought.  Thomas wouldn’t do anything like that.

He looked down at the ground.  No trace, no dropped feather, no helpless chick, no sign of the homely nest.

Grief and rage in his heart, Herr Rogge started to run.  So meaningless… he thought. Perhaps as early as tomorrow they might have fledged… Twenty-four hours—and fate has other ideas. Fate?! (p.175)

This is an excellent collection, either as an introduction to Fallada or to enhance the pleasure of having read his novels.

Author: Hans Fallada
Title: Tales from the Underworld
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Introduction by Jenny Williams
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2014, 305pp
ISBN: 9780141392851
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Tales from the Underworld: Selected Shorter Fiction (Penguin Modern Classics)


  1. Is this a good place to start with Fallada’s work, Lisa?


    • Yes, I think so, but read the intro first because Jennifer Williams (who is also Fallada’s biographer) alerts you to the stories that are not his best because they were written under pressure from the Soviets. I also don’t find his stories about addiction very interesting. But I certainly think you will get a feel for his writing and his preoccupations especially his concern for the ‘little people’ whose stories rarely get told.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review, Lisa! I read a little bit of ‘Little Man, What Now?’ but later got distracted and couldn’t continue. Hoping to get back to it one of these days. I also want to read ‘Alone in Berlin’. I was disappointed that they changed the title from ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ to ‘Alone in Berlin’ in the British edition. You have read ‘Wolf Among Wolves’? Wow! I remember it being a thick novel – maybe 700 or 800 pages. I will add this short story collection to my TBR list. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


    • Thanks, Vishy. I think Fallada is one of the finest writers of the C20th and he would have got a Nobel Prize if he hadn’t died so young. There’s a film of ‘Alone in Berlin’ which is very well done, though (naturally, you know me!) I thought the book was better.


      • Yes, it is sad that he died young. Didn’t know that there was a film adaptation of ‘Alone in Berlin’! I want to see that! Thanks for telling me about it, Lisa :)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s interesting to hear that some of these stories flow through to his novels. Purely by chance, I started reading Fallada’s Alone in Berlin yesterday, and I’m finding it very compelling. Your comments about his focus on ordinary people definitely ring true.


    • Yes… I loved the quiet heroism of the characters in that novel.


  4. I don’t know how to deal with the international writers that you read (and extol). I’m so unlikely to ever read them myself, except by accident on audiobook and then they’re without context. Still, I always enjoy your reviews, and feel, just for the moment, cosmopolitan.


    • Gosh, Bill, I don’t expect my readers to read the books I read! You’re all busy reading your own books, and none of us can keep up with what everyone is reading around the web.
      But I find, even when I can’t read a book that someone else is enthusing about, that I enjoy the review and usually learn something from it too.
      However, I do always appreciate it when you drop by with a comment. Quite a few people ‘like’ a post here and there, but there’s nothing like the affirmation that comes from people taking the time to comment. It’s lovely:)


      • Having written the above, I find in my emergency reading for when I’m stuck away from home The 7th Function of Language. I’d forgotten borrowing it and so started (last week) on another international book, The Natasha’s by Yelena Moskovich. Still, I should be able to start on Binet tomorrow. And yes, one writes for oneself, but it would be lonely without comments.


        • And not just that: think of the friendship networks that arise when f2f meetings occur!


  5. I have still to read Fallada. Mr Gums has read Alone in Berlin, but managed to water damage it along the way. We still have it but it may not be lovely to read so I keep putting it aside. Poor excuse I know, but any works when you have a big TBR (as you probably understand!!)


    • I love Fallada. Not just his books, not one of which is a dud, but the idea of him as well: an inadequate, flawed little man, standing up to the might of the Nazis with words. The wonder of it…

      Liked by 1 person

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