The early years, before he was old enough to understand the extent of the destruction unfurling around him -- these are the ones Ulrich Ditzen likes to remember. He was just a kid at the time, no more than 4 or 5, and his family lived in a farmhouse in the lakeside town of Carwitz, 72 miles and a world away from wartime Berlin. Among his first memories are the sounds of the Remington typewriter clattering through the narrow hallways and the circuitous clucking of the geese in their pens.
And then in the 1940s, the long and savage nightmare began. Ulrich’s father, the popular German novelist Rudolf Ditzen, was pressed into service first by the Nazis, who wanted him to write an anti-Semitic tract, and then by the Russian occupiers. He was installed as mayor of Feldberg in the postwar years, but his constituents didn’t much care for him; to dull the pain, he took up morphine and, later, sleeping pills. He died in 1947, at a decrepit Berlin hospital, by his own admission “nothing more than a weak man.”
All this Ulrich Ditzen calmly recalled recently, sitting in the lobby of a plush midtown Manhattan hotel, surrounded by photos of his boyhood home. At one point, he reached into a blue folder and produced an image of his father on his deathbed, his eyes closed, his lips curled up into a half-smile. Ulrich, now 79, didn’t get to the hospital until after the photograph was taken, but he says he has never forgotten that expression. “He was at peace,” he sighed. “I hadn’t seen him like that in a very long time. It gave me some hope.”
Ulrich Ditzen was in New York to participate in one of the most extraordinarily ambitious literary resurrections in recent memory. The objective: Haul back from the grave the work of Rudolf Ditzen, a titan of German humanism and the author of a novel, “Every Man Dies Alone,” once heralded by Primo Levi as “the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.”
Ditzen, better known as Hans Fallada -- the last name comes from the Brothers Grimm tale of a horse with magical powers -- was the author of an astonishingly dynamic canon of writing: fiction and nonfiction, children’s books, journalism and political essays. Many of his books were bestsellers; one was made into a Hollywood movie. He had a poet’s heart and a dramatist’s ear. But after the war, Fallada’s reputation fell into steep decline. American and British publishers let his titles slip out of print, and in Germany, he was relinquished to school reading lists and dusty library shelves.
Now, Melville House has released three of Fallada’s best books, including “Every Man Dies Alone,” appearing for the first time in English, in a vibrant translation by Michael Hofmann. (The other two, “Little Man, What Now?” and “The Drinker,” a chronicle of addiction, were popular here in the ‘50s.)
The campaign represents something of a calculated risk for Melville House and its publishers, Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians. Although historical fiction like “Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky has proved popular in recent years, there is no guarantee that Fallada’s fiction -- sprawling, dark and densely observed -- will appeal to modern audiences.
And yet if the Fallada books do sell, the project could be a breakthrough success for Melville House, an organization still struggling to find its footing in the crowded indie market. (Not so long ago, Johnson and Merians were doing all their work in the kitchen of their home in Hoboken, N.J.; they have since moved to a larger office in Brooklyn.)
A conflicted man
“This man was a hero. I truly believe that,” Johnson said. “And I think readers will see that too. Yes, Fallada was a drug addict, and yes, he was a drunk. He wasn’t always in control of himself. And yet that’s what makes him touchingly heroic. He managed to write about the war years more concisely than any of his contemporaries. He cast such a clear eye on the situation.”
“Every Man,” more than 500 pages in length, was finished in four feverish weeks in 1946. At the time, Ditzen was living with his second wife, a 22-year-old named Ulla Losch, and struggling to reconcile himself with the harsh realities of the Soviet occupation. He poured everything into “Every Man”: his addictions, his guilt and his sadness. What emerges is on its face the thrilling tale of a grass-roots, anti-Nazi propaganda campaign, spearheaded by a pair of working-class Berliners.
But Ditzen, who based the book on a true story, was concerned with more than just the Nazis, specters by then deposed. As he writes in the final chapter, the book is dedicated “to life, invincible life always triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death.”
Rudolf Ditzen was born in July 1893 in Greifswald, a quiet town on the Baltic coast. From an early age, he was a victim of fierce depression, and in his teens he entered into a suicide pact with his best friend. The two held a duel; Ditzen fatally wounded his friend and then shot himself, trying unsuccessfully to follow suit, and was quickly sent off to a mental institution.
Later, as his novels developed a sizable audience, Ditzen was plagued by mental illness. At one point he went to jail for embezzlement. He liked cocaine and morphine, but he liked booze better, and in 1944, near the end of the war, he threatened his first wife with a loaded pistol. This time he went to a Nazi psychiatric facility, and unbeknownst to his captors, he produced three books in tiny, cramped handwriting. One of those books is “The Drinker,” and it bears all the marks of a shattered mind, teetering on the brink of insanity.
Adding to Ditzen’s problems were the continued overtures of the Nazi leadership. He tried to keep his head down, but on several occasions he was forced to substantially revise his fiction to placate the censors. Later, as the war entered its final, bloody phase, Ditzen accepted two requests to tour the French front, leaving his family at the farmhouse in Carwitz. But unlike most of the major voices in contemporary fiction, he seems never to have made a serious attempt at escape.
“He thought if he could just find a rural retreat, they might leave him alone,” says Jenny Williams, the author of “More Lives Than One,” a 1998 biography of Fallada. “You could criticize him for this, but he wasn’t the only one to stay. To survive in a dictatorship, everyone has to compromise. That’s not to excuse him, but it is to say what would you do? The majority couldn’t leave Germany.”
In an e-mail, Geoff Wilkes, a lecturer at the University of Queensland, in Australia, and the author of the afterword to “Every Man Dies Alone,” wrote: “Fallada’s collaboration only ever concerned himself. . . . There’s no evidence that he ever sought benefit to himself at the expense of other people, for example by political denunciation.” Furthermore, Wilkes explained, “It might be worth remembering here that even the most famous of all the resisters to Nazism had originally complied with the regime.”
Ulrich Ditzen remembers the war years as ones of constant struggle -- his father sequestered in his study, smoking upward of 100 cigarettes a day and struggling to write enough to keep his family solvent.
Once, Rudolf emerged to find his son bent over a shortwave radio -- a highly illegal activity in those days. “I was listening to opposition broadcasts from outside the country,” Ulrich says. “And my father didn’t believe the local papers. He asked me, ‘Tell me how the French are doing. Is there news?’ When I am asked if he was a Nazi, I say definitely no. He couldn’t express himself as an anti- Hitler man, but I knew he was.”
Still, the very fact that Rudolf Ditzen stayed in Germany -- to say nothing of his trips to the front -- has long cast a black pall over his writing. Publisher Johnson, who poured months of work into acquiring the English-language rights to Fallada’s later books, is convinced that many publishers were simply unwilling to take the risk. “I can only suspect it was believed he was a sympathizer, because he stayed,” he said. “And in fact, if you want to believe that, there’s evidence -- Fallada cut some corners.”
Johnson was first tipped off to Fallada’s writing a few years ago, by a friend, the designer Diane von Furstenberg. He tracked down a few titles, but others proved elusive; eventually, he took a trip to Germany. “Every time I’d finish one of the books,” he said, “I’d think, ‘Why is this out of print?’ I was shocked that I’d never read these books. And now we’ve got the chance to get them out there.”
Thus far, Johnson said, sales of all three books have been strong, and he is pleased with the critical reception. For Von Furstenberg, the books’ publication heralds a restoration of a writer she has always cherished. “These books are so insightful, so interesting, that they will sell themselves,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m so happy for Dennis. It’s a nice thing, no? When something is dead, and you can bring it back to life.”
Shaer is a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor.