Melville House republished the translation of what appears to have been Fallada’s best known book, Little Man, What Now? (written and set in Germany in 1932, when the Depression was still raging and the Nazis had not yet taken power) as well as a late work entitled The Drinker. The most notable book up to now was Every Man Dies Alone, a work (based on a true story) commemorating an almost senseless act of protest by an ordinary citizen living in Nazi Germany — leaving anti-government post cards in the lobbies of apartment buildings — which was published for the first time in English.
Now comes Wolf Among Wolves (Melville House, 18.95), a novel written in 1937 but set in 1923, the time of the great inflation in Germany, when a loaf of bread cost millions of marks. In addition to the widespread misery that this caused (for example fixed-income people on pensions were ruined when their monthly stipends were insufficient to buy a postage stamp) there were also the numerous former soldiers who had fought in World War One, embittered still by the loss of the war and by what they perceived to be the socialist government in Berlin, freely printing money; many of these formed rogue militias with vague hopes of organizing uprisings against the government.
Against this historical background, Fallada tells a story that is actually of Tolstoyan dimension; the first part, some 300 pages in length, weaves together the seemingly unrelated activities of a large number of disparate characters in a single day. Although we certainly are told the tale of the decline of a family, the von Prackwitzes, who live on an estate in East Prussia, there is little of the delicacy or charm of, say, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks.
Fallada is concerned for the most part with the "little" people trying to grapple with forces beyond their control in an increasingly ugly world. Von Prackwitz, a retired Army officer, knows nothing of business or farming and is ensnared into an onerous lease forced on him by the owner of the estate, his father-in-law, with whom he is on very bad terms. After a night of drinking and gambling in Berlin, Prackwitz brings two former military comrades in the hope that they can bail him out of his desperate situation (although neither of them know anything about farming either).
We learn a great deal of the lives of all of these people, including Prackwitz's over-sexed 15-year old daughter who becomes infatuated with one of those wandering former soldiers who wants to overthrow the government; Prackwitz's wife, who winds up pretty much taking over the farm with the two colleagues her husband had brought on board; and, most notably, Wolfgang Pagel, who at the start is a ne'er-do-well interested in nothing but gambling and not particularly attentive to his lover, Petra, but who manages despite everything to become a strong and decent person through his months in the country, enabling him to return to Berlin and to convince Petra to accept him as her husband.Even this description omits all the local color, both in Berlin and at and around the Estate, the bailiffs and policemen, the foresters; Prackwitz's fumbled efforts to find workers for his harvest, first looking to hire them in Berlin, then, finally, using convicts from a local penitentiary.
This is an intensely rich brew, as mixed and diverse as life itself. Perhaps Fallada, who now knew that the “What Now?” from the title of his earlier book meant the Nazi government, wanted to go back to 1923 to show some of the roots of Naziism and also wanted to prove from the power of his fiction that yes, even in the grimmest of times human decency can survive (even if only in isolated cases). This is a wonderful and inspiring book and I strongly recommend it.
— Jeremy Nussbaum
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