I have recently finished Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, densely printed on 509 pages by Melville House, which I began last fall. If you like long realist fiction, I recommend this book as one of the best novels I’m familiar with. It deserves comparison with Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Dos Passos.
What struck me most strongly about Every Man Dies Alone is how much his picture of Nazi Germany resonates with our own time, when a fascistic nationalist political party is working fanatically to destroy our republic. As one of the few decent characters in the novel says about the Third Reich, it is “vile beyond all vileness.” So far, we Americans have been lucky that such vileness has not yet overtaken us, though elements of the far right try to sow the seeds of it.
But even a conservative would appreciate Fallada’s depiction of the ways the Nazis succeeded in subverting decency and supplanting it with a dog-eat-dog mentality that allowed the survival of the fittest at exploiting fascist immorality and brute force. Thus one of the young strivers in the Nazi Party, when confronted with possible arrest for a break-in, formulates his behavior during an interrogation this way: “For an instant, Baldur Persicke thought the game was up. But then he remembered one of his maxims, Shamelessness wins out,” and he proceeds to lie his way out of his predicament by putting the blame on others.
“Shamelessness wins out” strikes me as the rationale of the executives at Enron and on Wall Street, of many politicians and their “strategists,” of too many Americans who today manipulate our own immoral, broken system. But leaving out any comparisons to contemporary topics, Every Man Dies Alone is a powerful fiction that lays bare a rotten time and shows how two principled people try to bring down Hitler and pay with their lives.
Fallada, the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, survived the Nazis but not his own abuse of alcohol and other drugs: he died, at 53, a few days before this, his last, novel was published in 1947.
I’ve also recently finished Spies of the Balkans, the latest of Alan Furth’s eleven novels about the origins of World War II in central and eastern Europe. While I can recommend the three previous Furst books I’ve read—Dark Voyage, The Polish Officer, and, especially, The Foreign Correspondent—the new one is too generic, with sterotyped characters (always a problem with Furst) and clichéd language, for me to endorse. Furst, by the way, provides a blurb for the Melville House edition of Every Man Dies Alone.
Two outstanding films are now playing the art houses in Manhattan, and my wife and I loved them. One is a documentary on the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who is best known for Fiddler on the Roof, the musical comedy based on his stories about Tevye the Milkman. The film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness offers not only a biography of the writer but a history of shtetl life and Jewish culture in the 19th-century in what is today called Ukraine. Sholem Aleichem, by the way, lived in New York for the last few years of his life and is buried in Queens.
The other terrific movie is also a documentary of sorts, Passione: A Musical Adventure, a musical history of Naples, directed by John Turturro. This is a thrilling movie, because the music of Naples, influenced by opera, jazz, pop, folk, and North Africa, is so thrilling as performed by local singers and musicians. Anyone who is of Italian descent or an Italophile or a music lover should find Passione wildly entertaining.