Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Drinker by Hans Fallada

How unreliable is the unreliable narrator? In the case of Hans Fallada’s “The Drinker,” we are able to chart the moment Erwin Sommer’s descent into alcoholism starts, and mark each digression down into it by his excuses, his explanations, his evasions. As Sommer says early on, “Man gets used to anything, and I am afraid that perhaps he gets used quickest of all to living in a state of degradation.”

Hans Fallada was no stranger to alcoholism or degradation. Last year, his final novel "Every Man Dies Alone," became a surprise bestseller 60 years after he wrote it, a fitting tribute to a trouble life. In Nazi Germany, he was committed to an insane asylum during the war as his marriage broke down because of his drinking problem.

But there is no mention in "The Drinker" of Hitler, or Nazis, or even the slightest political tinge to the story of Sommer, who slowly devolves from a respectable businessman into a man who threatens his wife’s life for a drink. Yet we are confronted with the question of how an author who obviously felt himself at odds with the ruling system could write a novel like this and it not, somehow, be about the evil all around him.

But let us come back to that. From the moment Erich Sommer enjoys a bottle of wine with his wife, we can see his self-control slip away as he warms to alcohol. But there is more to it than that. Erich tells us that he also gives his wife some money to ease over a quarrel, and that this is a ruse - he is really masking the fact that his business is not doing well. We know that he feels animosity toward his wife, Magda, because she is better at running the business than he is. His anxiety blossoms to jealousy, rage and self-pity under the alcohol, and soon he is making eyes at a bar maid, just for another glass of schnapps.

Fallada does a remarkable job at rendering the alcoholic in stunning clarity. His denials reveal, his explanations obfuscate, his evasions point to the very facts he hopes to obscure. He cannot see the flaw apparent to others, yet he perceives the stealing of his soul in the clink of a glass. And even as Erich Sommer leaves home, becomes a thief, then a criminal, then is committed, he has perfectly good explanations for each situation which contradict his earlier resolves. He is not interested in the future, but only in surviving the present.

In doing so, he presents us with a reminder of the nature of persistent sin. Sommer carries around the idea of himself as a gentleman, respected in his community, valued as a member of society. But he perceives his enemy as his wife, so each degradation is somehow his twisted revenge against her. And yet, at the same time, he ignores those degradations and sees no change in who he essentially is, even as his nature bears little resemblance to the man who began the novel.

Contrast him with Lobedanz, his temporary landlord, who keeps him supplied with alcohol and sheltered from the world even as he is bleeding him dry of money and possessions. Lobedanz caters to Sommer’s self-image as he fingers Sommer for an easy mark. “I’m sorry sir,” he says, at their first meeting. “I’d like to have you as a lodger, an educated man who wants to frighten his wife a bit in a gentlemanly way. We beat our wives, it’s simpler and cheaper.”

Sommer doesn’t even bother trying to justify his behavior later, once he enters the asylum. He relies on his own wit and instincts to save him, and succeeds in plunging deeper into delusion and decline. He becomes disfigured in a prison fight. Leaving for the asylum, he must walk in handcuffs through his hometown “like my own ghost.” The asylum, which he describes as “hell,” offers some hope of eventual release, but Sommer’s problem isn’t alcohol, but the denial that there is a problem at all. “In this life, you are driven forward pitilessly. There is no rest, no remission,” he says.

So is this novel about an alcoholic, or the collective denial practiced by millions of Germans who gave their lives and their futures over to Adolf Hitler? There are hints at the soiled, soul destroying tyranny, such as the way in which Sommer and his wife Magda communicate near the book’s climax, when he is hesitant to say anything negative about the asylum for fear he will never leave. There is Sommer himself, who carries the literal wounds of his experience in prison. The book’s climax shows that there is never really any escape for ourselves from prisons of our own making, which means that our unreliable narrator may be the most clear-eyed character in the book.

But it hardly matters whether Fallada was trying to say something more than is apparent in “The Drinker.” The story was familiar enough long before Hitler’s rise and fall - how a person’s own justifications can twist them, while at the same time convincing them that if this is true, if they are irredeemable, then they are merely a reflection of a world twisted beyond repair, with no rest, no remission, no hope of grace this side of Heaven.

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