Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

It’s not the only irony of this novel that such a title leads a deeply life-affirming story.  The book is essentially a meditation on individual response to unjust corrupt authority.  The setting is Berlin at the start of World War II, an unambiguously evil authority in political control.  Through the choices and actions of the characters, Fallada urges the essential questions for us:  how do we live in an unjust society? is resistance moral, even possible? is resistance worth the cost of the almost inevitable failure to effect change?

Fallada faced that issue himself as he attempted to maintain his writing career through the 1930’s and by choosing to remain in Nazi Germany rather than emigrate.  His own experiences and observations carry into the novel and give it powerful immediacy and authenticity.  The story revolves around a working class couple whose son has died in the early months of the war.  They decide to write postcards with anti-war/anti-Nazi messages and to leave them in public places to encourage others to resist.  A small, probably futile scheme that nonetheless risks their lives and eventually the lives of others.  They get away with it for a couple of years and imagine that the cards are having an impact.  Like most people, they “believe what they hoped.”

Their are several other interlocking stories which show the whole range of responses to life in Nazi Berlin – enthusiastic participation, trying to live a separate private life, passive resistance, criminal opportunities, gaming the system and more.  There is humor mixed with the horror, not all of the black variety.  The repellent basement dwelling “super” is obsessed with stealing the goods from an upstairs apartment.  His schemes are continually thwarted, though, like the rat he resembles, he survives all the destruction around him. The characters are well-drawn and much of the story is carried in dialogue which gives it an unexpectedly fluid easy-reading quality. As with a classic studio period movie, it’s easy to miss the structural care and skill in a “new realism” style novel.

All of the efforts at resistance fail, as we know they failed historically.  It took armies and lives to bring down the Hitler government.  Repeatedly, the resisters ask each other and then are asked by their interrogators, “Why? why do it?”

Eva Kluge, postmistress, quits her job and leaves the party to preserve her self-respect.  Facing up to life alone, thinks maybe she can amount to more.

Judge Fromm retires rather than serve this government and tries to help threatened neighbors.  His actions are undetected but “bombs fall on the just and unjust alike.”

Trudy, the son’s fiance, not sure what can be done, but knows the “main thing is that we remain different from them…Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.”  We can be “like good seeds in a field of weeds”

Otto Quangel, the card writer, a man who loved peace and quiet, but refuses to let that make him a coward who can ignore the oppression and injustice around him.  Reflecting on his “crime” he thinks “my only crime was thinking myself too clever, wanting to do everything myself, though I know that one man is nothing.”

Dr. Reichardt, orchestra conductor, sharing a prison cell with Otto, asks him “who can say (if the cards did any good)?  At least you opposed evil.  You weren’t corrupted.” The time for a big plan was before Hitler came to power.  “As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone.  But that doesn’t mean that we are alone or that our deaths will be in vain…we are fighting for justice against brutality”







Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

2017 Knopf

In this collection of short conversational essays, Schwalbe takes us on a tour of books that have had meaning in his life and offers observations on the ways certain books have particular impact, when they seem to speak to our life at that moment – “the right book at the right time”.  The books we return to for insight or comfort, the books that link us to a person or memory, the books that helped us see other lives and other possibilities, these would make an interesting bookshelf  of a life.

His reading list included many familiar titles but also several unknown to me.  Some of the familiar ones are unread as well.  I’ve shelved many copies of Anne Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea at the library booksale but never given it a look.  His enthusiasm makes me reconsider my casual dismissal of a “celebrity” book.  Several others have been added to that long list of books I’d like to read or at least sample.  I’m generally content to let those come to me by chance in a used bookstore, but I think I’ll go looking for A Journey Around My Room written by Xavier de Maistre in 1790 while he served 42 days of house arrest for dueling. Too intriguing to miss.

Books connect us to other readers, to authors, and to other books in an unending chain or web of language and associations.  Schwalbe urges us when we read to think about the ways those connections of language and ideas shape our lives.  Talking about literature can help us understand ourselves better and can foster deeper connections with the people we care about.   He suggests we greet friends with “what are you reading now?”  And most importantly, to share what we read.  He used to say that a book is the greatest gift you can give anyone, but no longer.  The greatest gift is to give a book and then share it in conversation.  “What did you think? Did it make you remember/feel/want to do…?  I was moved by…”  We give ourselves when we meet another person over a book.


on the nature of Writing…

an excerpt from Memoir of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have to admit: my life changed because I’d made myself an author.  Or to be precise, it wasn’t exactly me who did that, I was made an author by the sentences I’d written, and that wasn’t even the end of the story: each result gave birth to the next, and I found myself being transported to a place I hadn’t known existed.  Writing was a more dangerous acrobatic stunt than dancing atop a rolling ball.  To be sure, I’d worked myself to the bone learning to dance on that ball and actually broke some bones rehearsing, but in the end I attained my goal.  In the end I knew with certainty that I could balance on a rolling object – but when it comes to writing, I can make no such claims.  Where was the ball of authorship rolling?  It couldn’t just roll in a straight line, or I’d fall of the stage.  My ball was supposed to spin on its axis and at the same time circle the midpoint of the stage, like the Earth revolving around the sun.

Writing demanded as much strength as hunting.  When I caught the scent of prey, the first thing I felt was despair: would I succeed in catching my prey, or would I fail yet again?  This uncertainty is the hunter’s daily lot.


The Tale of the 1002nd Night by Joseph Roth

(c1939)  1998 St. Martin’s Press

How surprising that a novel by Roth should only find English translation (by Michael Hofmann) and publication nearly fifty years after it was written.  It’s an unusual book, not so much a story as a series of vivid scenes of Vienna life in the last years of change and decay before the Great War, scenes strung together like the pearls of the fabulous necklace gift of the Shah.

Roth conjures the physical Vienna with great specificity, walking us around the city with the details that prompt that “I know that place, I’ve been there” feeling in any visitor.  But we know only too well that the social world is decayed and dying.  We meet characters across the social spectrum but there will be no happy ending for any of them.  Roth is an incomparable stylist whose work gives the reader an exquisitely melancholy pleasure.

“…she sometimes surrendered to her dangerous dreams, knowing full well how foolish they were, and how bleak and bitter it was to wake from them.  Ridiculous dreams, fleetingly kind and beatific, for all the misery of waking from them.”

The last word from the waxworks sculptor: “I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion, and decency.  But there’s no call for that at all in the world.  People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters.  Monsters are what they want.”

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

1984 Scribner

I have a strict rule that I will always buy something when I visit an independent bookstore.  It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge in a small shop like the combination coffee and book shop I visited in Bend Oregon last summer.  So I was pleased to find this reissue edition of a novel I’d enjoyed quite a few years ago.  I was even happier to find the story still fresh and engrossing, a really excellent novel.

It’s the original surfer noir novel,  well-plotted, strong characters, wonderful descriptive language eg when our young hero comes home after a shocking party night. “The sun was climbing fast by the time he reached the Sea View, heating up the streets, and the machinery of the town was heating up as well, moving into high gear now, the boomer gear, greased with hash oil and cocoa butter, hot-wired with cocaine, chugging to some New Wave anthem, and his heart was beating time, hammering erratically as he reached his room and stepped inside.”

or in a better moment in the surf – “On the horizon, the sun had begun to melt, had gone red above a purple sea.  The tide was low and the waves turned crisp black faces toward the shore while trails of mist rose from their feathering lips in fine golden arcs.  The arcs rose into the sky, spreading and then falling back into the sea, scattering their light across the surface like shards of flame.”

The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick DeWitt

It might be overreach to say that the Western is an infinitely adaptable literary form but it has proven to be a remarkably useful framework for cultural and psychological exploration.  That there are still new ways to tell a story within its seemingly simple structure is dazzlingly demonstrated in this 2011 novel.   Canadian author Patrick DeWitt spins elements of the traditional Western with the knightly quest tale, medieval morality plays, fairy tales, road movies and a contemporary comic sensibility into a fresh, funny, completely compelling story that might have been told around a campfire, in a mead hall, or on a comedy club stage.

The two brothers are characters usually seen only in the background of a standard Western, the hired guns who serve the corrupt boss.  DeWitt plucks them from the shadows to make them the leading men of a perverse knightly quest.  They are dark knights clad not in armor but in long dusters with the sleeves ripped off. The Commodore(king) sends them on a job(quest) to recover something of “great value”.  They have adventures and meet all manner of odd characters.  Much is learned and much is lost.  They betray their trust for the lure of the alchemist’s dream but perhaps find truer treasure at the end.

Continue reading “The Sisters Brothers: A Novel by Patrick DeWitt”

Browse: The World in Bookshops

ed. Henry Hitchings, Pushkin Press 2016

In his essay, “A Tale of Two Bookshops”, Juan Gabriel Vasquez quotes remarks made by Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares about why he writes.

“I dare to advise people to write, because it’s like adding an extra room to the house of one’s life.  There is life and there is thinking about life, which is another way of living it intensely.”

“What I did like was literature.  I felt that it was my homeland and I wanted to participate in its world.”