Review of A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman.
This novel is set in Altholm, Pomerania, Weimar republic (Pomerania is now split between Poland and Germany) in 1929 the title comes from the prologue where as the visiting circus refused to buy as space in the Altholm chronicle calling it a "fish and chip paper", the newspaper publishes a scathing review calling it a small circus.
The rest of the novel, the circus is not i it in a real sense but a metaphorical sense. The narrative structure is a third person and there is no focal point of a character with various characters in the novel being important. There is the mayor Gareis (though the translation of mayor may be a bit disconcerting as there is also the position of Lord Mayor in the small town). The press is a main focal point too with the Altholm Chronicle editor Stuff and advertising manager Tredup also featuring strongly. We then also the farmers, who form the main crux of the events that spiral in the storyline as two Revenue bailiffs go to confiscate oxen from a farmer who had a crazy estimated tax bill levied against the farmer. (Considering how the topic of the novel comes froma Revenue bill, could I claim the time spent reading it as part of a Continual Professional Development time needed for my annual return? *ponders*)
The novel is split into three section, the first entitled "the farmers", the second "the townies" and the last section is called "judgement day". There is really no character that comes out of the novel looking good but this isn't a bad thing. In the portrayal of the characters there is a darki comedic force (I burst out laughing at a couple of things in it, for example
Fallada was looking at making the going on of the small town in question, based on his own experience as a journalist in the region to be the circus that it was, encapsulating the last days of the Weimar Republic. If it was a new novel now, I'd probably be criticising it for being just based on the benefit of hindsight on the crumblings of the Weimar Republic. Being as it is from around the time it was written, it seems very prescient in the portrayal of the Weimar Republic.
This is not the best book ever written but it is a very good book. Fallada has a great ear for dialogue and this book is very big on dialogue, maybe if Fallada was alive today, he might have been a script writer instead as his novel do tend to be dialogue hevy (though that is only based on reading 2 of his other novels, one which was specifically made for the intention of making a film of it)
The version this review alludes to is a newly published edition by Penguin Classics of a new translation by Michael HOFFMAN. ISBN 978-0-141-18938-3
As I cannot entrust myself to use the 'spoiler' mechanism correctly I shall limit the precis to the information presented on the fly leaf of the book.
In essence it is about a German couple living in war-time Berlin engaging in low level rebellion against the machinations of the Nazi State following the death of their son in the war. Their particular form of rebellion takes the shape of placing postcards with hand written anti-Nazi messages placed in public areas in the hope that this stimulates unrest. The ensuing conflict with the state and its organisations such as the Police and Gestapo is the basis of an effective thriller leading to a nicely considered conclusion.
The conclusion that is reached is all the more amazing when the basis of the book is that of original Gestapo files that Fallada gained access to in 1947 when the book was written. Fallada himself has a very chequered history and there is a very interesting chronology/ biography at the rear of this edition that added immensely to my enjoyment of the text. As I cannot read German to a sufficient standard I will have to assume that the translation is accurate. The prose certainly reads very nicely with a real pace and flow of a thriller.
I felt that we got a sense of the secrecy and climate of fear during this era through the clipped, short dialogue that exists between the characters where a lot is 'unsaid' rather than said and we are introduced to many characters each of whom is dissenting is some way but none seeming to have a significant wider impact. I sense that the impact is all personal and redemptive to each character rather than earth shattering in changing the regime of which they were living under.
Although I had an idea of how the book finished I was reading the final chapters in a coffee shop and I had to remind myself to breathe as the conclusion is quite dramatic and powerfully written. There is no melodrama in the writing- it is just executed in a very stoic manner just as most of the characters had lived.
Iron Gustav by Hans Fallada, translated by Philip Owens, completed by Nicholas Jacobs and Gardis Cramer Von Laue
Firstly a note on the financing of the original novel (courtesy of the interesting introduction to the novel by jenny Williams). It was originally financed by the Nazi government as a propaganda work with intention of adapting it into a film for propaganda purposes. The original version of the novel by Fallada had displaced the Nazis and alot of censoring took place to make it into the propaganda piece they wanted. This translation is based on the original draft, which was helped to be recreated thanks to the 1940 british translation by Philip Owens. This makes an important point of the value of translations particularly where there is a totalitarian government which supresses the freedom of the people. With out the 1940 translation by Owens, could this edition have seen the light of day or would too much have been lost through the Nazis. After the original draft, Goebbels viewed Fallada as a writer hostile to the Nazis and the British publisher had gone to organise the evacuation of Fallada and his family in 1938 but Fallada at the last minute decided against it. The other Fallada novel I have read so far was Alone in Berlin which was financed by the Soviet government as a propaganda piece against the Nazis.
Anyway that aside, the novel starts with the news of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Gustav is the owner of a successful horse drawn carriage taxi company and the stern patriarch of the Hackendahl family. He and his wife have 5 children, Erich, Heinz, Eva, Sophie and Otto. With the advent of the war, Otto and Erich are both enlisted though Erich through a connection has a cushy position in Lille in an office. Sophie is a nurse, Heinz despite being too young wants to fight much to the credulous response of Gustav that the army doesn't need a marching boy leading the procession to war.
When I started the novel I expected that Gustav would not be a likeable character, not a sympathethic character and certainly in the early sections of it, this rings through but as the novel goes on, this changes and I became to care for it. One particular instance as motor cars take off and his business hits very hard times, this part sticks in my mind 15 months after I read it, that the hardest thing about the difficulty for Gustav being that at the end of the working day, driving the horse carriage, coming home without anything to give to his wife, that the difficulty isn't a day with nothing to show but to have nothing to give the woman he loves, that instant is a part of the strength of Fallada's writing.
There is a lot to this novel and despite being 586 pages long, there is no drag in it, no part of it felt to me to be overwritten and the dialogue by Fallada is superb throughout the novel. Keep in mind as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this was intended to be adapted for film and so Fallada had borne this in mind as he was writing.
The novel goes through World War I and then years following the hard depression that had hit Germany in the aftermath. Through the difficulties of the time, Heinz represents a perfect antidote to Gustav, a very complimentary character.
This was an excellent book and I should have done a review of it earlier like last year when I finished it instead of waiting to now. I look forward to reading more Fallada with A Small Circus the next of his novel