Hans Fallada's The Drinker

by Nick Stillman

Hans Fallada. Photo by Uli Ditzen, 1933.

Melville House, 2009

Originally published posthumously and recently reprinted by Melville House, The Drinker is Hans Fallada’s brutal account of provincial German shopkeeper Erwin Sommer’s loss of a business client, refusal to admit this to his wife, lightning-fast descent into sordid alcoholism, and incarceration in prison and an insane asylum. Fallada—the pseudonym for the German writer Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen, whose Little Man, What Now is a major work of 20th-century German literature—was an alcoholic and painkiller addict who was locked away in a Nazi insane asylum in 1944, where he produced The Drinker in code. Most writing on The Drinker dwells on its anti-Nazi symbolism—and it’s there, especially in Sommer’s blundering incompetence when faced with a state machine much too powerful for an individual—but Fallada isn’t exactly a deft allegorist. The Drinker is black realism, terrifying for the accuracy with which it plumbs the lows of addiction.

Fallada writes Sommer’s character in convincing first-person; while Sommer seems cool and objective in the novel’s first 50 pages, he careens into alcoholism with incredible rapidity, earnestly justifying himself at every devastating stage. A true drinker drinks alone, and married life becomes incommensurate with his more important marriage—to schnapps. Squalid inns and muddy ditches become Sommer’s hovels where he readies himself anew for waking unconsciousness with the sleep of a drunk: “I was extinguished. I no longer existed.” His freefall down the ladder of social class is almost comically brisk, and Fallada snaps it into momentary focus when Sommer catches occasional glances of himself in mirrors, in the final instance with a nose nearly bitten off by a thieving nemesis. Sommer proves just as unfit in the lowest social classes as he was in the middle class; he is too self-conscious to work shirtless like the other convicts and he blunders through the tricky manual task of brush making. The moments of drunken exultation in The Drinker are not only achingly fleeting, they’re formed out of delusions. Before Sommer is incarcerated, following his slime trail is a lurid chore, and after he is, it’s still a tough call whether Fallada’s vision of alcoholism or imprisonment is the more defeating. For both he and his fictional drinker, they were the same thing.

—Nick Stillman is managing editor of BOMB.

Historical fiction
Prison writing
german literature
BOMB 111
Spring 2010
The cover of BOMB 111