German Literature Month
Once a Jailbird: A Novel by Hans Fallada - 1934 - translated from German 2014 by Eric Sutton
Born 1893 Greifswald, Germany
Died 1947 Berlin
I am glad to be initiating my participation in German Literature Month Eight with a novel by Hans Fallada. This is the fourth work by Fallada to be featured on The Reading Life, all during a German Literature Month. In 2015 I posted on two of his novels. A Small Circus is centered on just that. Wolf Among Wolves is a grand sweeping panorama of society in Weimar Germany (1919 to 1933). Some call it the Vanity Fair of the era. In 2016 I read his consensus masterwork, Every Man Dies Alone. Primo Levi said it was the best presentation of life in Nazi Germany. It is the best by far of the four Fallada books I have read. For sure start Fallada there.
Once a Jailbird is set toward the end of the Weimar Era (1919 to 1933), we meet our central character, Klaus, as he is finishing up a five year prison term for embezzlement. We learn quite a bit about what life was like in the prison. Klaus was a three star prisoner, awarded more privileges for good behavior. He keeps his cell very clean and he works diligently at the piece work the prison assigns him. He will be paid for this work upon release. He has only a few days to go. The warden, not too bad a person, asks him his plans. His parents are passed and his brother in law will not help him. He was an experienced typist before he was arrested and hopes to get a job doing that. He wants to move to Hamburg where no one knows him. The warden refers him to a service that houses ex-convicts and the unemployed and luckily runs a business typing addresses on envelopes. He finds the money he thought he was getting, maybe three months living expenses, will be paid him through the manager of the home. When he objects the warden tells him it is for his own good to prevent him from squandering his money
Of course after five years he wants a woman, they call them girls, and this being The crashed German economy the streets are full of cheap women. He soon wants a real girlfriend, some decent food, some drink, and to make money.
Fallada devotes a lot of time to showing us how ex convicts were taken advantage off, cheated and of course looked down upon. Klaus meets lots of shady characters. He and eight others decide to start their own typing business after discovering they were being ripped off by their employer. Of course it starts out well but......
No one wants to trust him. We hear the refrain “once a jailbird” quite a few times. Klaus sometimes wishes he was back in jail where at least he got food and had no rent.
Fallada gives a vivid picture of life on the mean streets of Weimar Hamburg. There are lots of interesting people.
Once a Jail Bird was an enjoyable read for me.
There are several more Fallada novels available as Kindles and I hope to read one in German Literature Month in 2019.
I purchased the Kindle edition on a flash sale for $1.95. It is back up to $11.95. My guess is it will go back on sale soon and I don’t endorse this book to those I do not know at the full price.
Bio Data from Melville House
Before WWII, German writer Hans Fallada's novels were international bestsellers, on a par with those of his countrymen Thoman Mann and Herman Hesse. In America, Hollywood even turned his first big novel, Little Man, What Now? into a major motion picture
Learning the movie was made by a Jewish producer, however, the Nazis blocked Fallada's work from foreign rights sales, and began to pay him closer attention. When he refused to join the Nazi party he was arrested by the Gestapo--who eventually released him, but thereafter regularly summoned him for "discussions" of his work.
However, unlike Mann, Hesse, and others, Fallada refused to flee to safety, even when his British publisher, George Putnam, sent a private boat to rescue him. The pressure took its toll on Fallada, and he resorted increasingly to drugs and alcohol for relief. Not long after Goebbels ordered him to write an anti-Semitic novel he snapped and found himself imprisoned in an asylum for the "criminally insane"--considered a death sentence under Nazi rule. To forestall the inevitable, he pretended to write the assignment for Goebbels, while actually composing three encrypted books--including his tour de force novel The Drinker--in such dense code that they were not deciphered until long after his death.
Fallada outlasted the Reich and was freed at war's end. But he was a shattered man. To help him recover by putting him to work, Fallada's publisher gave him the Gestapo file of a simple, working-class couple who had resisted the Nazis. Inspired, Fallada completed Every Man Dies Alone in just twenty-four days.