Smart prose cannot conceal grim content
Classic author's lesser known work offers sombre,gritty realism
A Small Circus/ By Hans Fallada/ Penguin Classics, £20
Hans Fallada was a member of that extraordinary generation of central European writers who have been rediscovered in recent years. Born in 1893, a contemporary of Walter Benjamin, Joseph Roth and Bertolt Brecht, he published more than 20 novels, mainly in the 1930s and ’40s, before dying in 1947 in his mid-50s.
He vanished into obscurity in the English-speaking world until the 1990s but it was Michael Hofmann’s best-selling translation of Alone in Berlin (2009) that most spectacularly revived Fallada’s reputation.
First published in Germany in 1947, Alone in Berlin is the story of a German working-class couple who were executed for producing and distributing anti-Nazi material in Berlin during the war. Primo Levi called it, “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” Since it sold over 200,000 copies within a year of Hofmann’s translated version, publishers have fallen over themselves to republish other Fallada novels.
Now comes A Small Circus, also translated by Hofmann. Originally published as Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben (“Farmers, Bosses and Bombs”), it is very different from Alone in Berlin.
It was first published in 1931, before Hitler came to power, whereas his story of wartime Berlin came out after the war. Fallada’s biographer, Jenny Williams, writes in her foreword that it is not so much about pre-Nazi Germany as “one of the best fictional representations of the forces that brought the Weimar Republic to its knees and paved the way for National Socialism.”
Secondly, while Alone in Berlin is set in the German capital, A Small Circus is set in a small town in Pomerania, near the Baltic coast, where the farmers are reeling from the German economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash.
This was an area where the Nazis dramatically increased their vote in the elections of September 1930 and the novel offers a grim depiction of Germany in free fall: angry farmers, greedy journalists and corrupt politicians.
In a huge cast of characters there are no heroes. From the beginning, the novel offers a mix of cynicism and bitterness. The circus in the title is the Circus Monte, which refuses to advertise in a local paper, which in turn retaliates with a nasty review.
What will immediately be familiar to readers of Alone in Berlin, however, is the style: a kind of sombre, dirty realism. The prose may be clear and accessible but the novel is a hard read. There is little drama to encourage you to plough through almost 600 pages of local politics.
Perhaps what is most surprising about A Small Circus, given when it was published, is how little sense it conveys of the imminent rise of Nazism. There are a handful of references to Hitler and the Nazi Party but with scant hint of what was to come. Apart from a little casual antisemitism, there are very few references to Jews.
This is small-town Germany; the larger world seems far away.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer