Hans Fallada, a German author who survived World War II by only a few years, wrote The Drinker while imprisoned in a German insane asylum following a drunken altercation with his wife that ended in gunfire. (No one was injured.) While in the asylum, Fallada agreed to write an anti-semitic novel based on a court case about corrupt Jewish financiers in the 1920’s. However, instead of writing the novel Joseph Goebbels expected, Fallada used the pencils and paper he was given to secretly write The Drinker, an autobiographical account of a respectable man whose life is ruined by alcoholism.
The Drinker is of interest on two levels. The novel stands on its own as a work of fiction. Its narrator, a successful, happily married business man, tells the story of his descent through drink to lower and lower rungs of society to his end in a psychiatric asylum from which he will never escape. As he sees it, he is the victim of a society that stacks the deck against him and of a wife who is out to get all his wealth and then abandon him. Every step of the way, the reader is aware that the narrator is unreliable, that what he tells us, how he sees events, is determined by his alcoholism. The narrator does not realize that he provides his readers with a case study in the effects of uncontrolled addiction to drink.
The Drinker is never a glamorous story. Hans Fallada is a realist, one who could stand toe-to-toe against Zola any day of the week. The narrator frequents neighborhood bars until he is banned from them. Then he frequents dive bars in worse parts of town. Eventually he is reduced to begging for drinks, until his wife agrees to take him back. He swears he will stop drinking, he will get the business back on its feet, he will be a good husband again. The moment things don’t go his way, success doesn’t come easily, he returns to the bars, steals his wife’s money, falls in with a more criminal element and ends up in prison.
The Drinker is not just an excellent novel, it is a historical document. The account of alcoholism Hans Fallada presents is a record of what that experience was like in 1930′s Germany. There was no 12-step program in place, no enlightened approach to treatment for alcoholics. The only option the narrator’s wife has is to press charges against her husband as soon as she can, have him imprisoned, and determine whether or not to divorce him. He can’t get help because there is none to be given. The asylum where he is eventually imprisoned for life, is not a place of treatment, nor one of refuge, but a dog-eat-dog world where each man struggles daily just to get enough food to keep himself alive another day. I’d like to think that asylums in Germany were much worse than other places, but I imagine they were probably on par with the rest of the world in the 1930’s.
Alcoholism is certainly still a serious problem, but things have improved over time. There has been progress. The disease itself is still as serious as it ever was, and those who suffer from it still find themselves losing everything like the narrator of The Drinker does. Fortunately, now when someone finally hits bottom, there are people and programs who can help with recovery.
Hans Fallada died in 1947. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker is translated into English by Charlotte and A.L. Lloyd.
I first reviewed The Drinker for my old blog, Ready Whey You Are,C.B. back in 2009 shortly after I discovered Hans Fallada. I don’t recall how I came across Each Man Dies Alone, the first of his novels that I read, but I was impressed enough by it to seek out more. I still have What No Little Man on my TBR list so I’ll have something “new” by Hans Fallada to read in retirement.