Invisible ink No 252: Rudolf Ditzen


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One reader’s favourite author is often unknown to others, and the works of Rudolf Ditzen, (pen name; Hans Fallada) were shamefully unfamiliar to me. Not anymore, for they haunt my sleep.

However his real life, which involved murder, theft, madness, suicide, alcoholism, drugs, and Nazis, is as disturbing as anything he wrote about. Ditzen drew his pseudonym from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but if his novels are fables they’re remarkably detailed ones.

Born in 1893, the son of a German magistrate, at 16 he was in a terrible road accident, then contracted typhoid. His adolescence actually worsened; forming a suicide pact with his best friend, the pair staged a duel to cover their intentions and Fallada shot his friend dead. He was declared insane, to keep him from prison, and struggled with painkiller addiction in the sanatorium, but started writing.

Tortured by the wartime death of his brother, he committed a string of alcohol and drug-related thefts, but finally emerged from hospital cured. He married, and his books started to sell, despite being critical of German politics. The success in 1932 of Little Man, What Now?, the story of a young couple trying to stay afloat during the rise of National Socialism, was a poisoned chalice. It became a hit Hollywood film in a Jewish production, which brought him to the attention of the Nazis, and the book was banned in Germany. His sales dropped and mental breakdowns followed.

In 1935, he was declared an undesirable author, but Ditzen loved his homeland too much to leave, and switched to writing harmless children’s stories. Two years later he wrote Wolf Among Wolves, which, to his utter discomfort, found a fan in Joseph Goebbels, who asked him to follow it with an anti-Semitic tract. Intimidated into writing carefully ambiguous works, he decided to emigrate but changed his mind at the last minute.

Staying behind meant undergoing Nazi predations (including a lack of paper). When he finally found himself back in an insane asylum, suffering from further drink and drug problems, he wrote an extraordinarily bleak novel, The Drinker, which was critical of life under the Nazis. It escaped attention, partly because his handwriting was deliberately indecipherable, and because by 1944 the Nazis had bigger problems on their hands. The tension-drenched Alone In Berlin gruellingly depicts fascism as experienced by the residents of a single house. Restored translations from Penguin have deservedly placed Fallada at the forefront of European writing.