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Penguin Moderns: Hans Fallada and Saul Bellow

9780241339244Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada *** (#34)
I have really enjoyed what I have read of Fallada’s work thus far, and was therefore looking forward to Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, a short story collection included in the Penguin Moderns series.  These are ‘darkly funny, streetwise tales of low-lifes, grifters and ordinary people trying to make ends meet in pre-war Germany.’  All of the stories collected here – ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’, ‘War Monument or Urinal?’, and ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ – have been taken from Tales of the Underworld, which first appeared in English in 2014.  All have been translated by Michael Hofmann.

I found Fallada’s prose style interesting; he uses a rather conversational narrative voice, which I did not feel always worked.  I must admit that I found this collection a little disappointing.  The title story is a little odd, and seemed to end quite abruptly.  Given the beauty of Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone, I was expecting something rather different from these short stories.  Whilst they have a considerable amount to say, there is little cohesion between them.  The second story is clever, and makes many comments about German politics, and I did enjoy the third, about a couple who are adamant to have the happiest Christmas they can, despite the husband not expecting payment of his yearly bonus.  Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? isn’t a bad collection by any means, but if I had come to Fallada’s work with no preconceptions and read this, I can’t say I’d rush to get to the rest of his oeuvre.

 

Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow *** (#36) 9780241338995
The thirty-sixth book on the Penguin Moderns list is a short story entitled ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ by Saul Bellow, which was first published in 1956.  In it, ‘a stubborn, hard-drinking elderly woman living in a desert town finds herself faced with an impossible choice, in this caustically funny, precisely observed tale from an American prose master.’  I do not recall reading anything of Bellow’s before, and as I am always keen to discover new to me short story authors, I was looking forward to reading this.

The opening of the story really sets the scene, and the period in which the story is set: ‘The neighbors – there were in all six white people who lived at Sego Desert Lake – told one another that old Hattie could no longer make it alone.  The desert life, even with a forced-air furnace in the house and butane gas brought from town in a truck, was still too difficult for her.’  Hattie has settled here after being left a yellow house by her friend India, described throughout as a real ‘lady’.  I did enjoy Bellow’s portrayal of Hattie, and found this one of the strengths of the novel.  He describes her, for instance, in the following way: ‘You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.  She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs.’

After having ‘a few Martinis’ one evening, Hattie loses control of her car, and it veers onto the railway tracks.  ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ is ultimately a character study of Hattie, which charts her gradual decline.  She begins to plan for her death, and debates who to leave the yellow house to in her will.  The premise of the story is interesting, and it is well executed.  Whilst it kept my interest throughout, I was not quite blown away by it, however.  This taster of Bellow’s work has unfortunately not made me want to pick up any of his other books in the next few months, as I had hoped it would.

 

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‘A Small Circus’ by Hans Fallada

A Small Circus was written in 1931 and is set just two years before this, in 1929. It takes place in a small German town, and many of the details which fill its pages are autobiographical. The introduction to this volume by Jenny Williams is an informative one, even for a reader who has studied Nazi Germany for many years, both at school and University. Williams states that the novel is ‘one of the best fictional representations of the forces that brought the Weimar Republic to its knees and paved the way for National Socialism’.

Throughout, many different characters are followed. A list of Dramatis Personae has been included, which is most handy when there are over 78 characters in the novel, the majority of whom are named. All of these characters create the community, and are therefore from all walks of life. We meet a disgruntled journalist named Tredup, who works for the Pomeranian Chronicle, farmers who are plotting their revenge upon ‘greedy officials’, and a ‘mysterious travelling salesman’ from Berlin, who seems intent on stirring up dissent within the town. All of these characters have been placed against a background in which the Nazis grow ever more powerful, and where the Communists are battling with them at every turn. In this novel, Fallada has created a political satire of sorts, encompassing such elements as battles between the poor and rich, Left and Right and bosses and their workers, and the vast disparities between each pairing.

Whilst the novel is rather a long one, standing at 578 pages, each chapter has been split into separate short sections, almost like a series of vignettes. Whilst the writing style throughout works well, the sheer length and vast list of characters are rather off putting, and they make it seem as though the reader is wading through treacle almost from the outset. Whilst A Small Circus is interesting from a political and historical standpoint, as a novel it does feel over confused.