FROM MY FIRST READING of Hans Fallada’s treasure of a novel Little Man, What Now? some eight years ago, I’ve been unable to shake the way the “known unknown” (forgive me for quoting Donald Rumsfeld) affects the reader’s sense of the action. This tender account of a young German family trying to make ends meet just before Hitler’s formal rise to power in 1933 was published in 1932. Fallada could have had no actual knowledge of the nightmare ahead, which makes the story of the Pinnebergs, Johannes and Lammchen and their baby Shrimp, even more devastating.
At the novel’s beginning, Lammchen has discovered she is pregnant. Up until now, she has been living with her parents, while Johannes, referred to as Pinneberg in the novel, rents in the country, near the grain merchants for whom he works. When Lammchen’s mother angrily asks how they managed to find a place to have sex, “Pinneberg had no reply,” writes Fallada. “‘We’re young people,’ he said softly.” And though they decide to marry, Pinneberg doesn’t tell his future wife that his boss, Kleinholz, intends for him to wed his own daughter. Instead, he brings Lammchen home and tries to hide her existence from his employer. As can be expected, this is a recipe for disaster, and Pinneberg is soon let go. The young couple moves to Berlin, where Pinneberg finds a job in a department store. An unrealistic sales quota means he never feels safe in the position, and so he remains ever fearful about his ability to support his wife and the child who is coming.
He had no protection.
He was one of millions. Ministers made speeches to him, enjoined him to tighten his belt, to make sacrifices, to feel German, to put his money in the savings-bank and to vote for the constitutional party.
Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, according to the circumstances, but he didn’t believe what they said. Not in the least. […] It’s all the same to them whether I live or die. They couldn’t care less whether I can afford to go to the cinema or not, whether Lammchen can get proper food or has too much excitement, whether the Shrimp is happy or miserable. Nobody gives a damn.
This contemplation of the indifference of government and industry is rare for Johannes. As Philip Brady writes in the afterword to my edition, which was translated by Susan Bennett, Fallada, and thus Pinneberg, pays little attention to the main players in the drama unfolding in Germany, to the competing forces of National Socialism and communism and the widespread social disorder. Instead, the author “has chosen characters whose perspective is narrowed, even blinkered, people for whom the major political issues, if they arise at all […] are incidental, reduced to virtual invisibility in the day-to-day struggle to stay above the breadline.”
It is this choice of Fallada’s which has frequently returned to my thoughts since the endless, irritable dissections of the 2016 election began. What is less often examined is the largely apolitical way that life continues: the prioritizing of our immediate circle of family and friends, the backdrop of the need to make a living. Like Johannes and Lammchen, who want nothing more than to care for one another and their child, we would like to get on with our normal lives.
The novelist’s job is to create a world in its entirety, to bring us in and allow us to feel what living there is like. Little Man, What Now? performs the most astounding task, of taking us to a moment before history. One can almost hear the film score, with its minor chords, its sudden dissonances, but our anticipation is infected by something far worse: the sickening sadness that hovers over this performance is what we, the readers of today, know is coming.
Did Fallada himself understand what he was doing? I don’t know. Certainly he was aware of the chaotic times in which he lived. Much as we’re wondering now if what we are seeing is the beginning of a decline into authoritarianism or a right-able tilting of the ship of state, Fallada was contending with similarly daunting concerns: I think that’s why I can’t shake the novel. His portrait of the insidious difficulties of day-to-day life in Germany in 1930 — of the way the human spirit can be placed under siege — gives us an understanding of how things might actually spiral out of control tomorrow if not later today.
In fact, the consequences of the novel’s publication were devastating for Fallada himself. Because he became an internationally best-selling author, he drew intense interest from the Nazi Party. By 1935, the Nazis had deemed him an undesirable author. Yet he chose not to immigrate to England, as had been arranged by his British publisher, continuing to publish, and focusing on what he hoped were nonpolitical books. He also began to drink heavily; eventually he was institutionalized by the Nazis, dying in 1947 at the age of 53. He left behind his hurriedly written (in just 24 days!) great novel of Nazi resistance, Every Man Dies Alone, which was published a few months after his death.
Was Little Man, What Now? also a novel of resistance? I believe so. But perhaps it’s even more a novel of resistance for us. A reminder that when we don’t know what’s coming we had best not ignore the prickling of our instincts and our imaginations. But even as we must look beyond ourselves to consider larger concerns and consequences, we can and we should get on with our lives. “You’re with me, we’re together,” whispers Lammchen near the end of Little Man, What Now? “It was the old joy, it was the old love. Higher and higher, from the tarnished earth to the stars.” This kind of attention, too, is a form of resistance: that even when we know what’s coming, we believe in the resilience of youth, the power of decency. In the shadow of the coming Holocaust, Fallada shows us hope.