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  • Book Review: Wolf Among Wolves

    Posted by David Foster on June 20th, 2012 (All posts by )

    Little Man, What Now?, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, impressed me enough to look up some of the other works by author Hans Fallada. I just finished his Wolf Among Wolves, published later than LMWN, but set in an earlier period: 1923, the time of the great Weimar inflation. It tells the story of a collapsing society through the intertwined lives of many characters, who include:

    Petra Ledig, a sweet-natured girl from a rough background in Berlin, driven into prostitution by financial desperation. On impulse, she asks one of her clients to take her home with him, and he does. That man is…

    Wolfgang Pagel, son of a fairly-well-off but overprotective and controlling mother–the mother being less than thrilled about his relationship with Petra. Wolf supports himself and Petra, in a very marginal way, by working as a professional gambler. One day in Berlin, Wolf meets up again with an old Army acquaintance…

    Joachim von Prackwitz, who everyone calls the Rittmeister (cavalry captain). The Rittmeister married the daughter of a major landowner in East Prussia and is now managing a large farm at Neulohe under lease from his father-in-law, who cannot stand him…indeed, the father-in-law does everything he can to make the Rittmeister’s life miserable, including for example scheming to increase his portion of the electric bill from the estate’s shared diesel generator. (This is surely the only novel I’ve read in which depreciation and cost-allocation calculations come into play.) The Rittmeister was known in the Army as a brave if not terribly bright officer and a good comrade, but he is having great difficulty in dealing with the pressures of his civilian life.

    Eva, the Rittmeister’s well-balanced and long-suffering wife, is losing confidence in her husband and is very worried about the erratic and mysterious behavior of her daughter Violet, an attractive 15-year-old who has developed a passionate and secret crush on…

    The Lieutenant, agent for a group of former military men who are plotting a putsch against the Weimar government

    Mr Studmann, another Army friend of Wolf’s, who has been working as front-desk manager for a hotel. He and Wolf are both invited by the Rittmeister to leave Berlin and come help with the running of the farm. Despite his total lack of agricultural experience, Studmann turns out to be a very effective manager, using the skills he developed at the hotel. Eva is drawn to Studmann, seeing in him the stability and rationality that are absent in her husband–and he is VERY attracted to her.

    Raeder, a young and deeply weird servant who has an unwholesome sexual attraction toward Violet

    One “character” never absent from the story is the mark, the German unit of currency. In fact, the valuation of the mark is mentioned in the very first page of the book:

    This is Berlin, Georgenkirchstrasse, third courtyard, fourth floor, July 1923, at six o’clock in the morning. The dollar stands for the moment at 414,000 marks.

    (By the end of the period covered in the story, the dollar-to-market conversion rate was a trillion to one.)

    A few samples of the writing. Here, a description of Violet’s attraction toward the Lieutenant:

    He was quite different from all the men she had yet known. Even if he were an officer, he in no way resembled the officers of the Reichswehr who had asked her to dance at the balls in Ostade and Frankfurt. The latter had always treated her with extreme courtesy; she was always the “young lady” with whom they chatted airily and politely of hunting, horses, and perhaps of the harvest. In Lieutenant Fritz she had as yet discovered no politeness. He had dawdled through the woods with her, chatting away as if she were some ordinary girl; he had taken her arm and held it, and had let it go again, as if this had been no favor…Just because he thought so little of her, because his visits were so short and irregular, just because all his promises were so unreliable…just because he was never polite to her, she had succumbed to him almost without resistance. He was so different. Mystery and adventure hovered around him…Infinite fire, mysterious adventure, a wonderful darkness, in which one may be naked without shame! Poor Mamma, who has never known this! Poor Papa–so old with your white temples! For me ever new paths, ever different adventures!


    Wolf, writing a letter to his mother:

    He wrote of his life in Neulohe, a little insolently, a little coarsely, as one writes when one is twenty-three years old…so long as a man is young, he still believes that the past is really past, is completely finished with. He believes he can begin a new life every day and assumes fellow human beings think the same, including his mother. He does not yet know of that chain which he drags behind him his whole life long; evry day, every experience, adding its new link. He doesn’t yet hear its clanking; he has not yet understood the hopeless significance of the precept: because you do this thing, you must be that.

    Eva and the Rittmeister, as seen through the eyes of Mr Studmann:

    It was dreadful how quickly a comradeship dating from before the war broke down in times like these, under such conditions…He was no longer a comrade–he was only a superior, and an unjustly critical superior at that. He was no longer brave–he preferred to let his wife go alone to a distressing interiew. He was no longer pleasant company–he spoke only of himself, of the insults he had suffered, of the troubles he had, of the money he lacked…But there sat the Rittmeister’s wife, and whereas her husband was cowardly, she was brave. Whereas he only though of himself, she remained a comrade…She looked radiant, the country did her good, she was mature as gold-tinted wheat, there was a charm about her. When the old woman had spoken of the low-necked blouses, Studmann had not been able to prevent himself from glancing at the gently heaving silken bosom, and had lowered his eyes like a schoolboy caught in mischief. He saw only virtues in this woman. The more distorted, the more imperfect he found the Rittmeister’s once friendly figure, all the more perfect did his wife appear to him.

    Amanda Backs, the poultry girl, is being set up for public humiliation by the old lady of the estate, Eva’s mother, who intends to force her into a public confession of her sexual dalliances, at a prayer meeting (even though the pastor has made it clear that public confessions are not appropriate,) Unwilling to be a victim, Amanda strikes first:

    Hardly had Frau von Teschow said the last “Amen” and risen from her knees…when Amanda rose with bright red cheeks and eyes dark with anger, and said that madam need not trouble herself, she (Amanda) knew very well who was referred to in all this talk, and there she stood, and perhaps madam was satisfied. On top of these words, however, Amanda Backs, in a perfect fury, turned on Black Minna, who was pushing her forward so that she should be clearly seen by the whole assembly. “Will you take your muddy paws off my clean dress? I won’t be pushed forward–and least of all by you! The confession and penitence in this show have nothing at all to do with God!”

    Having, with this angry hiss, crushed Minna, her enemy, Amanda turned again to the assembly and said (for she was now well wound up) that she had climbed through a window last night and, so that they should know everything down to the smallest detail, it had been the staff-house window, Bailiff Meier’s window. And she was not ashamed of it, and she could point to at least ten women present at the meeting who had climbed through other windows to other fellows! And with that she lifted her finger and pointed at Black Minna, who thereupon cowered down with a screech on her bench. And Amanda lifted her finger again, but before she could point it the bench where the younger girls sat in the dark corner at the back fell over with a crash, so exceedingly occupied had they all been in making themselves inconspicuous.

    Kind of like the song Harper Valley PTA!

    As you can tell from the characters and the excerpts, this book is something of a soap opera…and a good one, and often a funny one. But it is much more. There is great detail about the operations of the Neulohe farm—Fallada, as he demonstrated in his descriptions of the department store in Little Man, is a writer who is very interested in the processes of ordinary work.

    Mainly, Wolf Among Wolves is about the disintegration of a society, and about the differing effects of this collapse on particular individuals. A central tension of the book is this: will the man who is called Wolf be able to avoid becoming a wolf, as did so many others?

    Fallada does an excellent job of character development: an individual’s personality and character are unveiled gradually, and the reader may be as surprised as the other characters by what a person really turns out to be.

    This book was published in 1937, and was very much liked by the chief Nazi propagandist, Josef Goebbels. I doubt that he was primarily attracted by the cleverly intertwined plots, the excellent character development, and the deeply humane tone of the work as a whole…what the Nazis liked about the book was its extremely negative portrayal of the Weimar era. Although the proto-Nazi in the book, the putschist Lieutenant Fritz, is portrayed in such extremely negative terms that it’s surprising Goebbels would have found the story to be in the regime’s interest.

    This is a very long book, but it’s also very readable and involving. If you’re interested in the history of the Weimar era, you should definitely read it; if you’re not particularly interested in this history you might still want to consider reading it as a very worthwhile piece of literature.

    Alfred Kazin reviewed Wolf Among Wolves in 1938, when it first came out in English: he closes his (NYT) review with these lines:

    Fallada’s power is never a deep thrust, a forward glance, but the slow, meticulous, affectionate envelopment of suffering. But circumscribed, plodding, lacking much that makes great fiction, he has evoked in this novel more than one can bear in comfort, but not more than it is necessary to learn, to keep, and to understand.

     

    6 Responses to “Book Review: Wolf Among Wolves”

    1. Whitehall Says:

      Sounds depressing as all get-out. I’ll pass.

    2. David Foster Says:

      Depressing, yes, but also very funny in parts. And not as dark a view of human nature, I think, as “Vanity Fair,” to which it was compared by a customer-reviewer at Amazon.

      Though one could argue that given what lay ahead, more darkness would have been appropriate.

    3. ErisGuy Says:

      The description of Violet reads as if it were excerpted from Roissy’s site.

    4. David Foster Says:

      ErisGuy….yes, Violet definitely fits the “girls like bad boys” meme.

      Note that Violet is daughter of a minor aristocrat who is ruler of his laborers, so she is used to being treated as special and is bored by it.

    5. David Foster Says:

      Violet also provides a good example of the every-generation-thinks-it-invented-sex meme, wiith her thought “poor mamma, who has never known this.” (The books suggests elsewhere that things were actually pretty hot between Eva and the Rittmeister back in earlier days)

      If Violet had been a real person, she would have been born in 1908, and if she had survived the events that lay just down the road, then in 1968 she would have been 60. At which point her granddaughter, an enthusiastic participant in the German version of the Summer of Love, would have thought, “poor grandma, who has never known this.”

    6. Whitehall Says:

      Still, an insightful review. Thanks.