Monday, May 30, 2016
THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: “The Drinker” (A Book Review).
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
A respectable 40-year-old businessman returns home from a normal workday to discover that the maid has neglected to replace the floor mat by the front door.
Annoyed at the omission, he tracks mud into the entryway, is mildly chided by his wife and becomes uncharacteristically angered.
A short time later, he suddenly recalls the existence of a long-forgotten, stale and vinegary bottle of red wine stashed in the cellar. Although a virtual teetotaler, a glass of this rancid wine helps to take the edge off his day, and he feels far better. The floor mat spat now forgotten, he gifts his wife with money to buy herself something special, and goes to bed.
Next thing we know, his permanent residence is an insane asylum.
For Americans of a certain age, reading Hans Fallada’s novel The Drinker brings to mind the Simpsons episode, wherein a flashback depicts Barney’s very first drink of beer, as offered to him by Homer. With one swallow, the well-groomed and sober young dandy morphs immediately into a swollen, drunken slob, forever destined for dissolution, and hilariously so.
A similar downward trajectory awaits Fallada’s main character, Herr Sommer – and there is little humor to be found in this amazingly detailed and poetically rendered description of a descent into lunacy. However, the story of The Drinker doesn’t end with a gripping, frightening novel, because the circumstances surrounding Fallada’s fictional work hardly were imaginary at the time of its writing.
Hans Fallada’s real name was Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen. He was born in Greifswald, Germany in 1893, and died in Berlin in 1947. In 1944, with World War II still raging throughout the continent, Fallada managed to write The Drinker in two weeks flat while incarcerated … in an insane asylum.
It would have been an incredible feat of concentration anytime and anywhere, much less one undertaken secretively in an institution run by the Nazis, who obviously were unbound by considerations of the Hippocratic oath.
In fact, Fallada’s entire life was not easy. A severe injury to his head during adolescence seemed to have changed him, and it may have led directly to lifelong mental health issues, suicide attempts and drug addiction, and yet, in that strange way sometimes characterizing an artist’s process of creation, Fallada became an exceptionally gifted writer prone to frenetic periods of work activity followed by elongated spirals into madness.
During the 1920s, Fallada married and enjoyed an extended period of domestic harmony and commercial success, including a worldwide readership for his novel, Little Man, What Now? But a collision course with Hitler’s totalitarian regime was inevitable owing to its determination to channel all manifestations of art into approved delineations of support for the regime.
Storm clouds gathered, yet Fallada chose to remain in Germany and did not seek exile, spending the war years walking a tightrope -- neither an overt collaborator, nor seeking involvement with the resistance. From our vantage point these many years later, cohabitation with repression does not seem the ideal path for a writer possessing only a fragile grip on sanity, who already was peering into the abyss with clock-like frequency.
Fallada tried his best to wait it out. Perhaps these pressures hastened his demise, but maybe he was doomed, anyway -- just like the rest of us.
Does Fallada’s wartime work as a writer represent acquiescence with the various Goebbels party lines, or was he endeavoring to write in the sparse available spaces between them? The debate persists to this day. Was The Drinker allegorical, suggesting the common man’s struggle to cope with oppression?
Or, was it an autobiographical work so meticulously researched from personal experience that larger themes aren’t really necessary? Of course, it’s up to the reader to decide.
Getting through The Drinker is like watching a cat torture a mouse before killing it. As the pages turn, Herr Sommer’s layers of dysfunction are unsparingly peeled away by the first-person narrative, and the deep-seated rot is unblinkingly exposed. It becomes clear that none of the character’s many difficulties originate with that first drink of spoiled wine; rather, the alcohol merely emboldens them.
It transpires that Sommer already has started losing grip of his business, and is growing apart from his wife, whom he resents for being efficient when he is anything but. The lies and self-deceptions merely require readily available fuel to explode into self-destructive behavior of epic proportions, and bottles of schnapps and cognac typically consumed with the speed that most of us reserve for ice water during a hot afternoon in the garden are ideal for ignition.
When describing the weeks-long binge embarked upon by Sommer, Fallada’s prose is hazy and replete with confusion, self-loathing and false bravado, but when he lands in jail and begins drying out, matters become quite clinical. Eventually transferred to the asylum to receive the “help” he quite clearly needs, the inmate offers a portrait of daily life therein that is detached, detailed and thoroughly horrendous.
By novel’s end, has anyone been saved?
It’s unlikely. There are no Hollywood-style happy endings to The Drinker, a novel that I recommend unreservedly, although not without certain caveats. If you’ve ever wondered whether your most recent drink was one too many, owing not to ordinary intoxication, but to extraordinary curiosity as to whether there might come a point when the altered state persists even after the alcohol’s gone away … well, Fallada’s tale will not be an easy read.
It wasn’t easy for me.
So, is it Happy Hour yet?
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April 25: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part one.