The history of postwar German literature was written by the defeated. Poet Paul Celan, for example, wrote in German despite it being the language of those who sent his parents to the gas chambers, seeking to cleanse even words of their bloodstains. Günter Grass was drafted into the Waffen-SS as a teenager in the final months of the war. Grass spent the decades afterwards performing the crabwise work of using fiction to acknowledge the real atrocities committed by his compatriots.
The biggest literary loser was a man named Rudolf Ditzen. A child of the prosperous upper-middle class, he became an addict, an alcoholic, an embezzler and a thief. During the Weimar era, he spent as much time incarcerated for his crimes as he did writing some of the bestselling books of the period under the pen-name Hans Fallada.
Lilly and Her Slave gathers short stories recently discovered in files given to the courts during the mid-1920s to mitigate Ditzen’s crimes. They are strange, overripe narratives: psychologically acute, retaining something of the expressionistic overkill of his earliest work but also pointing forward to the realist accounts of German society that made Fallada’s reputation.
The longest story in the collection begins in fairytale mode. “The Machinery of Love” describes the stainless rural childhood and youth of two sisters, Violet and Marie. The elder, Violet, is exceptional in her perfection: “There was something triumphant about her beauty, she was always beautiful, like a summer’s day is forever blue, and she was young and healthy as an apple on its branch.”
When this innocent is raped by a group of men on her way home from a visit to the city, the folkloric frame of the story is smashed too. The world as it is, with its violence and callousness, infects the narrative. The voice of the narrator, Marie as an adult looking back, is awful in the flatness of its affect.
“I knew that this was life, real life, and that the impure is always victorious over the pure,” says the younger sister. And in the wake of her sister’s suicide – caused by the shame of the unwanted pregnancy that resulted from the assault – she tells the story of her own impure existence in the years that follow.
Fallada is extraordinary in the combination of subtlety and buried distress he brings to depicting the sister’s secret life. She grows to adulthood and marries a kind, blameless man, whom she betrays, continually and without compunction, with other men. Yet the foundational trauma driving her renders these affairs as events outside traditional moral structures.
There is instead a sense that violence of the kind that destroyed her beloved sister has been internalised and retooled. The pleasure she seeks in adultery is masochistic in nature and the various affairs she relates – encounters at once thrilling and squalid, longed-for and potentially destructive – come to feel like a penance on her sibling’s behalf: a recognition of the dark grounds on which her life and world view have been built.
“We are nothing but components of a great, indifferent machine,” she says. “It purred away, we approached each other, we performed our antics and capers, but in the end, it was all nothing but the cruel machinery of love, which I had studied in the encyclopedia as a child.”
The title story of the collection is even more extreme. Sybil Margoniner is the Jewish–German daughter of wealthy parents, hailing from the same class as the author. She is attractive and intelligent but also spoilt and manipulative. Sybil uses illness to ensure her whims are satisfied, and she has many of these. She is, in other words, a piece of work.
Her schooldays are a series of bids for power launched against peers and teachers. Later, her gambits are transferred to those boys drawn to her flirtatious caprice. When, after a series of conquests, she encounters an older, unattractive man who sees her exactly for what she is, Sybil is checked for the first time.
She is immediately drawn to the contempt he holds for her. What follows is a barbaric account of mutually assured emotional destruction: “He mocks her relentlessly. She hates him, because he portrays her as a sweet little animal created to cause suffering without being able to suffer herself, an empty, shiny puppet that the monkeys can’t stop falling for.”
These stories of love and hate, sadism and masochism, are compelling in isolation. But what makes them remarkable is that they prefigure his final works, published in the years before his death in 1947.
Fallada stayed in Germany throughout the war. He collaborated with the authorities when required. In his writing, he welded the terrible personal dynamics explored in these early pieces to a larger exploration of life under the Nazi regime. And the morphine addict and small-time crook who wrote Lilly and Her Slave eventually became the author of Alone in Berlin, which Primo Levi called “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”.
Scribe Publications, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Lilly and Her Slave, Hans Fallada (translated by Alexandra Roesch) ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription