Hans Fallada’s “Little Man, What Now?” which has been published here in clear and colloquial translation by Eric Sutton, is two excellent things in one package: it is a novel and it is a revelation.
In fiction, it is the story of the Pinneberg couple, members of the lower middle class, and of their struggle to keep going against the most discouraging odds without the loss of pride and hope. The ordinariness of its tragedy sometimes makes for depressing reading, but Fallada lifts the commonplace into something like literature. It has moments of fine poignancy, but without stopping over. There is no Prometheus in this book chained to a rock and being fed on by vultures; it is the tragedy of little people fighting sometimes wildly and sometimes with calm deliberateness against a Fate of whose operations they have no clear understanding; this is the tragedy of such things, for example, as meeting a sales quota in a department store or losing your job, moving out to a cheaper lodging, buying for your home a piece of furniture you can not really afford, swallowing the boss’ insult because a baby’s coming, all of which is suffered because the Pinnebergs love one another and because they dare hope for better things.
Now I have purposely deferred telling you that the people of this story are German and that the locale is Germany, principally Berlin. I have deferred communicating this information in order to stress the universality of the appeal which the story makes. But the story is special as well as general, and the time and the setting give the universal story of a couple’s fight against adversity an accent of their own. And this is where the revelatory nature of the story enters.
It must be said right now that this is a work of art, meaning that it tells what happened to a typical German couple during a specific, though undefined, period in recent times. It is not a work of propaganda. It is not a Nazi book; neither is it an anti-Nazi book. It describes the state of mind which made the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis possible. If Germany today were ruled by Communists, “Little Man, What Now?” would explain, by indirection, how it came about that Communists govern Germany. And as a description of a state of mind, conditioned by a desperate state of being, this book is a revelation of how it was possible that Germany could be ruled today in the way that she is ruled.
About a year ago at a dinner given in honor of Pearl Buck, the author of that marvelous novel, “The Good Earth,” Henry Seidel Canby pointed out that one of the explanations for its success was that it appeared at a time when there was curiosity about China and also, of course, because it satisfied that curiosity without being a dull handbook of information. I do not believe that “Little Man, What Now?” is as great a book as “The Good Earth” nor that it answers so thoroughly as did Mrs. Buck’s book the asked and unasked questions about a land in turmoil. But Herr Fallada does tell us enough to make his book worth reading. You can not say of his novel: Read this book and learn why something like Hitlerism or Communism had to happen, through the pre-Nazi lives of two ordinary German people, neither Jew nor Gentile, just Germans, who wanted to live in work and peace and have each other.
Or, in other words, read Hans Fallada’s “Little Man, What Now?” Because there is no hate in it, only the attempt to understand, I nominate it as one of the books the Nazis ought to burn at the next literary bonfire.