Postcards From the Damned

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Books Communism Eastern Europe Europe Germany History Literature

These novels share a subject – civilian life under Nazi rule – but are utterly different. One, set in Berlin, was originally published in 1947, and is a powerfully impassioned first-hand indictment; the other, published this year, is set in the Czechoslovak state, and is an elegantly wrought work of retrospective artifice. Each, however, is magnificent.

Hans Fallada took his pseudonym from one of the Grimms’ fairy tales. Fallada is the name of the talking horse that continues to tell the truth even when its decapitated head is nailed above the city gate. Fallada’s own life was suitably macabre, involving drug addiction, a teenage suicide-pact-duel, incarceration in both mental asylums and prison, and alcoholism. His break-through as an author came in 1932, with a novel about a newly-married couple in the pre-war Depression; success led, however, to intense scrutiny by the authorities. Denunciations revealed that he had not joined the Party; his house was raided, and Fallada briefly imprisoned.

Alone in Berlin is a powerful portrayal of the corrosive paranoia engendered by such all-pervading tyranny. When every neighbour is a potential informer, the bonds of human trust are torn apart by selfishness and fear, until as the title puts it, Jeder stirbt für sich allein-“Every Man Dies Alone.”

Primo Levi described this as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” Readers should not however expect a tale of heartwarming derring-do. Alone in Berlin is completely, even remorselessly, gripping and tells the tale of a true-life campaign of resistance – but conducted through acts of defiance which are paltry, dogged and utterly doomed.

The hero and heroine are convincingly unheroic. Otto Quangel is a conscientious factory foreman, hard-working, monosyllabic, miserly, with “thin lips” and “cold eyes.” His courage is indistinguishable from stubbornness. He loves his wife, Anna, to whom he has been married for 30 years, but is constitutionally incapable of expressing tenderness. Anna has always been the one to “bring a bit of life to the place.”

The novel begins on the day that France capitulates, with the delivery of a formulaic letter to the Quangels, informing them that their son has “died a hero’s death.” Lashing out in pain, Anna turns on her husband and accuses him of complicity in his son’s death, by seeking only “peace and quiet.” Silent Otto retreats into himself; but his inflexible nature crystallises around a secret and useless plan. He sets himself the task of writing two postcards a week denouncing Hitler and the Reich, which he drops in busy offices around Berlin.

Fallada’s account was based on the transcripts of the trial of the true-life couple who inspired this novel; and none of his original readers would have expected the Quangels to go uncaught – though perhaps, like this modern reader, they desperately hoped against hope for the consolations of fiction. But Fallada’s world is brutally coherent. The Quangels share their house with a terrified elderly Jewish woman, whose husband has been taken away, and with the greedy, cowardly, bullying Persickes-a drunken father and his apparatchik sons. The Persickes are not the only human hyenas circling the stricken Frau Rosenthal. A savagely satirical strand of the novel concerns the competition between various repulsive characters to despoil her flat: the characterisation is grotesque, almost two-dimensional. There may be little subtlety in the psychology; yet the world these grotesques inhabit, in which absolute power has corrupted absolutely, trickling from bloated Gestapo officials right down to drunken little sneaks, is hammered out with such passion that it is painfully convincing.

Fallada’s novel, scribbled in 24 days, is nonetheless neither raw nor inchoate, but reads as if molten emotions have been obsessively pounded into hard shape.

The Glass Room, by contrast, is delicately subtle – an affair of shifts and shades, retrospective ironies and elegiac grace-notes. Again, the book is constructed around a kernel of truth, though the true-life core of this book is a house, not a hero. The glass room in the novel is in the Landauer House, a modernist masterpiece near a provincial Czech town, with an extraordinary wall of translucent onyx. The original is evidently Villa Tugendhat in Brno, built by Ludwig Mies van de Rohe.

“Architecture”, Mies declared, “is the will of the epoch translated into space”; and this is the theme of The Glass Room. The spaces of the Landauer Hous – built as a shrine to a modern marriage, but becoming a Nazi laboratory and then a communist clinical gymnasium – witness the epochs of Czech history. This sounds desperately pretentious. Against all expectations, however, Mawer has created a novel that is subtly and movingly human rather than ponderously symbolic.

This is because in Mawer’s novel the symbols are shifting, perceived and projected by the changing cast of characters that pass through it. For the young couple who built the House, the Jewish car manufacturer Viktor Landauer and his gentile wife, Liesel, it is a symbol of their thoroughly – perhaps dangerously – modern marriage. Like John Donne, proclaiming that writing his name on glass is a symbol of “all-confessing and through-shine” love, the Landauers see their Glass Room as a shrine to luminously modern personal honesty – and also to “a dream that went with the spirit of the brand new country in which they found themselves, a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people.”

But “a work of art like this”, as the architect in the novel ominously remarks, “demands that the life lived in it be a work of art as well.” From the moment when Liesel is deflowered on her honeymoon, and finds the experience “curiously dispiriting” (though she comforts herself that its unromantic aspects are “rather modern”), we know that life is messier than art. Soon, we learn that Viktor is sleeping on his business trips with Kata, a part-time prostitute, and the first of several women in the novel to sacrifice integrity to desperation. Sincerity and honesty are not simple; and nor is love.

This is only one of the triangles of betrayal reflected in the walls of the Glass Room. When the Landauers, and Kata, flee from the advancing German forces, focus shifts to Liesel’s friend, Hana – a caustic, tender, bisexually predatory bohemian, simultaneously decadent, barren and life-affirming, who is married but serially unfaithful to a Jew. But the House becomes a clinical laboratory, and Hana takes as her lover a Nazi doctor there who is investigating racial differences. There is a chilling scene in which, after a brutal rape, the doctor wipes the print of Hana’s hands off the glass walls, eradicating the human stain.

If the communist love triangle in the last part of the book is less interesting, this is partly because Mawer is the victim of his own imaginative strengths. One is altogether too impatient to discover what happened to the Landauers, Kata and Hana to care about a physiotherapist and her two-timing boyfriend.

And what does happen to them is superbly handled. The Landauers know that they are the lucky ones, though their lives are warped by exile. Others are less lucky. The horrors of a concentration camp are related by a survivor, flatly and retrospectively: Mawer’s sympathetic reticence effectively suggests that some things are literally unimaginable.

The Landauer House was a symbol of modernity, which is now completely dated, utterly trapped in its period; yet this fragile glass shell nevertheless survived the war: a space for dreams, romantic, foolishly idealistic, purely evil, or merely human.

A reviewer is usually lucky to be sent two books of this calibre in a year: two for one review is untold riches.