‘The Drinker’ by Hans Fallada (1950) – 282 pages
Translated by Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd
There are two distinct sides to German writer Hans Fallada. In ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ (also called ‘Alone in Berlin’), he wrote what Primo Levi called “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”. That is a wrenching powerful account of what Berlin was like for working class people during the Nazi era. Fallada wrote it soon after the end of World War II shortly before he died.
‘The Drinker’, another of his novels, captures the other side of Hans Fallada. It was written in an encrypted notebook by him while he was locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane in the early 1940s. He was locked up, because he had made drunken threats with a gun against his ex-wife during an alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown.
‘The Drinker’ tells the story of one man’s descent due to alcohol. While it certainly is fiction and written as a novel, one gets the sense while reading that this is very much Fallada’s own story. The first part of the novel is about the drinking taking over this man’s life, and the second part is about life in the asylum.
“This place was horrible with its filth and meanness and envy, but that is how it was, and what was the use of rebelling against it? We prisoners, we patients, were not worth it.”
Lately the subject of American writers and alcohol has been up for discussion due to the recent book, ‘‘The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” by Olivia Laing. The case of Hans Fallada would suggest that alcoholism is a problem not only for American writers.
‘The Drinker’ very much reminded me of the novel, ‘Disturbing the Peace’, by American writer Richard Yates. Like Han Fallada, Richard Yates had a form of alcoholism that went well beyond the fashionable. His alcoholism was also mixed in with bouts of psychosis and depression. At age 34, he spent one weekend in the Men’s Violence Ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York. He put that weekend into his novel ‘Disturbing the Peace’.
‘Disturbing the Peace’ was the first novel by Richard Yates that I read, so this searing account of an alcoholic has always had a special place in my memory. Since then I’ve read all of Richard Yates’ fiction. Recently I came across a critic saying that ‘Disturbing the Peace’ is one of Yates’ lesser novels, and I don’t believe that critic for a second.
The style of ‘The Drinker’ is much different from the style of ‘Disturbing the Peace’; they are very different writers. ‘The Drinker’ captures a bit of the humor of the drinking episodes, while ‘Disturbing the Peace’ is more heartfelt and sincere. What Hans Fallada and Richard Yates share is a brutal accuracy about themselves. Perhaps that honesty gave them the empathy and insight into the plights of other people so they could get beyond their walls and deceptions and reach the real story.