Novels by ‘Hans Fallada’ in English translation

Fallada  A little piece in this week's Bookseller (18 June, p. 15) charts the UK success of Hans Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen)'s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin. The novel was translated into English by Michael Hofmann and pubilshed just over a year ago in this country; now, thanks to support from Waterstones and independent bookshops, as well as "word of mouth" (for example, on that excellent blog Crime Scraps), this anti-Nazi novel has sold bout 75,000 copies in the UK. In the last week of May, its week-on-week sales increased by 325 %, from about 2,000 to about 7,900 copies. (In the Bookseller column is a graph depicting sales since January 2009 to June 2010.)

None other than Primo Levi has written that Alone in Berlin is "the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis"; the novel was discussed recently on the TV programme Newsnight by Anthony Beevor and Jeremy Paxman; and reviewers such as Ben Macniture and Philip Henschler have called it "beautiful". The book has been widely reviewed, for example in newspapers by The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardianon websites, for example Euro Crimeand on many blogs including Reading Matters and The View from the Blue House.  I do not really want to link to the just-released Independent's 2010 guide to "50 great summer reads" because of its awful layout – one has to click through clunkily 50 times, once each book by its order in some obscure Independent order (i.e. not alphabetical), with no listing or search – and when you get there all you get is the cover of the book and a brief phrase about it. Shocking – talk about advertising-led. However, Alone in Berlin is there, at number 13 - which will also help sales if anyone can be bothered to laboriously click through. 

One thing I don't appreciate about the novel is that the paperback is priced at £9.99. At the moment, it is available on a "buy two get one free" offer at Waterstones, and a "buy one get one at half price" at W H Smiths. On Amazon, you don't have to bundle it with anything else and can get it for £4.96, a bit more like it for a paperback. What is Penguin, the publisher, playing at, though, charging a penny short of £10 for a standard-format paperback (admittedly with 600 pages)? Ridiculous, especially as the author himself isn't making anything out of the deal.

In related news, another novel by Fallada, Wolf Among Wolves, is published in the UK this week (Melville House), according to Saturday's Times (brief on p. 11). First published in Germany in 1937, this "enormous saga" (also paperback –  justifying its price of £13.99 given its 816 pages, no doubt) looks back to the rampant inflation of the early 1920s. The German economy is in ruins and the streets are full of unemployed soldiers. One former soldier tries to support himself and his girlfriend by playing roulette, while "prices climb and  the day's food depends on how far the mark has fallen." The Times's Kate Saunders calls it "an unmissably brilliant portrait of Berlin before the Nazis" – the translation is by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs, based on an incomplete 1930s translation by Philip Owens.

13 thoughts on “Novels by ‘Hans Fallada’ in English translation

  1. Have you read Alone in Berlin, Maxine? I found it incredibly disappointing and in need of a seriously good edit. I really don’t understand how anyone could describe it as “beautiful” — it’s clunky, meanders all over the place and lacks focus.
    I, too, wonder at the £9.99 price tag. Penguin charge the same price for most of their Modern Classics range, which always makes me wonder, who’s the money going to because most of the authors are dead. I suspect in the case of Alone in Berlin some of that money goes to the translator, as well it should, but where does the rest go? Perhaps in this case it also goes on a large marketing budget, because Penguin have really pushed this one. It was advertised on the Tube for a long while, which can’t be a cheap exercise to carry out.

  2. Maxine – Thanks, as always, for your updates. I have to agree strongly with your frustration about the price of paperbacks! Not only is it frustrating for me as an avid reader (no wonder I love libraries!), but, to be candid, it’s also frustrating as a writer. Hard to interest folks in a paperback that costs that much…

  3. Good point, Margot. And as Kim points out, it definitely is not the author’s fault!
    Kim – I have not read this yet though it is on my list…..I don’t usually read historical novels but had been tempted by this one…I thought your review very good and it provides a balance against some of the other, more ecstatic, ones, for those like me trying to decide whether to invest 600-plus pages worth of time…..

  4. I tend to avoid making comments on WW2-era stories, since I know too much to be a fair target audience (my PhD is on post-1945 German culture!). However, I read Alone in Berlin (in German) some time ago, and thought it was OK, but couldn’t quite understand the rave reviews. I didn’t mind the length (never met a book that couldn’t have been longer), but I had serious problems with its portrayal of the German resistance. Not quite to the extent that David Cesarani did (although it’s nice to be in such good company):
    but I wasn’t comfortable with anyone’s motives being shown as heroic.
    Incidentally, I know it’s both trendy and far more exciting, but I seriously wish authors would set Nazi stories somewhere that’s not Berlin. The city was simply not typical, even if seedy Weimar characters cavorting in cabarets are fun to read.
    OK, takes critical hat off.

  5. I believe the book is at the number one slot in Ireland. I stand over my review of the book from mid last year, not long after it was published – a great book if you want to understand the micro-circuits of power.

  6. Thanks Maxine for your kind comment about Crime Scraps, and the link to my review at Euro Crime.
    I did not see this book as an apologia, but simply an account of ordinary people, in terrible circumstances, some of whom were trying to do something small and insignificant against the Nazi regime. Resistance is too grand a word for anything that occurred in the book.
    From my review “The story humanises the German people and takes the reader into a world where wrong is right and right is wrong, and lunatics decide on a whim whether you live or die.”
    If the book was intended to diminish German guilt it failed. The Quangels had not cared what happened to their government until their son was killed, and by then it was far too late to do anything effective. A lesson for us all.
    I may also disagree with the term “beautiful”, but the multiple strands of the story, and the large cast were necessary to show the variable effect of the regime’s immorality on people’s lives.

  7. I’ve read of many stories of resistance inside Nazi Germany, many small acts, it’s true, but nearly any act of defiance or nonconformity could result in people paying the ultimate price from the fascist regime. I’ve read articles (in the New York Times and elsewhere) about hundreds of thousands of people in jail in Germany for resisting in one way or another.
    Even Binnie Kirschbaum in “Hester Among the Ruins,” talks about a street (I forget which city) where people could walk down to avoid having to give the Nazi salute on other streets. A silent type of defiance.
    Also, several people hid Jews, an ultimate act, which happened in Germany, Poland and elsewhere.
    It is courageous to do anything, hand out a flyer, write postcards, do anything that even questions a regime like that, which could result in the worst consequences, and most people do the quiet, small things.

  8. Although the author is no longer alive, and has not been for awhile, the book is not in public domain, so I would think standard royalty rights were negotiated with his estate, his heirs. His son is still alive and has talked and appeared re the book.
    And, yes, extra payments even royalties might be going to the translator, an unsung hero.

  9. I too would challenge the idea that this is not resistance. Resistance comes in all forms, and just as underground schools in the ghettos were resistance, so is this. I enjoyed the novel for how uncomfortable it made me feel, and the questions I asked myself. Would I have been so brave?
    It is also worth remembering that books written decades ago can often seem ‘meandering and in good need of an edit’. They are often of a different style and pace than what we are used to, and don’t fit the formula of more contemporary novels.

  10. This is a real bugbear of mine. And penguin aren’t the only culprit.
    Faber’s fantastic initative “Faber Finds”, which has brought back into print (although only on a print-on-demand basis) many, many wonderful novels, charge anywhere between £12 and £15 per title. I recently bought “Hemlock & After” by Angus Wilson for this princely sum.
    I can sort of understand why it works that way in terms of commercial pressures, but print on demand titles in particular are not that expensive to produce (randomhouse produce them at no extra cost), and are certainly not of great quality. And if you’ve got such an initiative, which clearly follows the ethos of an indepedent publisher like Faber, then why only reintroduce such novels at prices that are – effectively – prohibitive? Possibly the argument is such that there is a very limited market for Angus Wilson (or Cyril hare, or Elizabeth Berridge, or etc etc) then the people who will buy them are prepared to pay the price (which, griping aside, I am, but only because I have no choice). But it stills doesn’t sit well with me.
    Paul Bowles’ four wonderful novels were recently re-jacketed in the Penguin Modern Classics range, and they range from £12.99 to £15! It’s ludicrous. No wonder Katie Price trash is so popular when other options are so expensive (not that the same markets would be targeted….). It will just narrow the market even further I’m sure.

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