(edited, with updates)
I’ve often seen this 1932 book footnoted in histories touching on Weimar Germany; not having previously read it I had been under the vague impression that it was some sort of political screed. Actually it is a novel, and a good one. The political implications are indeed significant, but they’re mostly implicit rather than explicit.
Johannes and Emma, known to one another as Sonny and Lammchen, are a young couple who marry when Lammchen unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Their world is not the world of Weimar’s avant-garde artists and writers, or of its risque-to-outright-degenerate cabaret scene. It is far from the world of a young middle-class intellectual like Sebastian Haffner, whose invaluable memoir I reviewed here. Theirs is the world of people at the absolute bottom of anything that could be considered as even lower-middle-class, struggling to hold on by their fingernails.
When we first meet our protagonists, Sonny is working as a bookkeeper–he was previously a reasonably-successful salesman of men’s clothing, working for the kindly Jewish merchant Mr. Bergmann, but a pointless quarrel with Bergmann’s wife, coupled with a job offer from the local grain merchant (Kleinholz) led to a career change. Sonny soon finds that as a condition of continued employment he is expected to marry Kleinholz’s ugly and unpleasant daughter, never an appealing proposition and one which his marriage to Lammchen clearly makes impossible. Lammchen is from a working-class family: her father is a strong union man and Social Democrat who sees himself as superior to lower-tier white-collar men like Sonny.
When Sonny and Lammchen set up housekeeping, their economic situation continually borders on desperate. Purchasing a stew pot, or indulging in the extravagance of a few bites of salmon for dinner, represents a major financial decision. An impulsive decision on Sonny’s part to please Lammchen by acquiring the dressing table she admires will have long-lasting consequences for their budget.
The great inflation of Weimar has come and gone; the psychological damage lingers. Sonny and Lammchen’s landlady cannot comprehend what happened to her savings:
Young people, before the war, we had a comfortable fifty thousand marks. And now that money’s all gone. How can it all be gone?…I sit here reckoning it up. I’ve written it all down. I sit here, reckoning. Here it says: a pound of butter, three thousand marks…can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?…I now know that my money’s been stolen. Someone who rented here stole it…he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing…how can fifty thousand have all gone?
Inflation is no longer the problem, unemployment is. There are millions of unemployed, and those who do hold jobs are desperately afraid of losing them and will do anything to keep them.
Both Sonny and Lammchen are limited and flawed people with many redeeming and even lovable attributes. Sonny, possibly as a result of upbringing by his cold and sleazy mother, is lacking in a sense of worth and in self-confidence–when he returns to the business of selling menswear, the store’s establishment of a quota system (apparently a radical innovation at the time) is so stressful to him as to greatly harm his sales performance. His devotion to Lammchen and to the coming baby (“the Shrimp”) is unshakable and keeps him going. Lammchen herself, despite her generally sweet nature, can on occasion be a irrational, unrealistic, and very unfair to Sonny, although these episodes are of short duration.
In pursuit of possible employment for Sonny, they move to Berlin, where life definitely does not get any better. Germany’s vaunted social-welfare system does provide a certain amount of help for the couple, but there is a psychic cost. When they apply for the nursing-mother allowance to which Lammchen is clearly entitled when Shrimp is born, they find themselves enmeshed in a bureaucratic paperwork nightmare. They finally do get the money, but Lammchen is so upset by the experience that she resolves to vote Communist in the next election. (Yeah, that’ll help.) Sonny does receive compensation during his periods of unemployment, but this does little to ease his feeling of uselessness and fears for the future. After finally getting hired by Mandel’s Department Store, he passes a group of still-unemployed men:
Pinneberg had the feeling, despite the fact that he was about to become a wage-earner again, that he was much closer to those non-earners than to people who earned a great deal. He was one of them, any day he could find himself standing here among them, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had no protection. He was one of millions.
Despite the social safety net, despite a few helpful friends and acquaintances, the dominant feeling of Sonny and Lammchen is that they are utterly alone in the world, like children in a dark wood or like American pioneers on the great plains–but without the hope.
Neither Sonny nor Lammchen is a very political person, but they have the strong feeling that “the system” is rigged against them. While Lammchen does make an anti-Semitic remark early in the book (“I’m not too keen on Jews”), neither she nor Sonny seems to be among the growing number who blame Germany’s Jews for their economic difficulties–indeed, Sonny is appalled when a Jewish businesswoman tells him of her mistreatment at the hands of Jew-haters. The couple’s (rather vague) political leanings are to the Left, and they attribute the source of their problems to the rich and the powerful generically. They have no faith in the political system or leadership.
Ministers made speeches to him, enjoined him to tighten his belt, to make sacrifices, to feel German, to put his money in the savings-bank and to vote for the constitutional party. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, according to the circumstances, but he didn’t believe what they said. Not in the least. His innermost conviction was: they all want something from me, but not for me.
Of Lammchen’s political views, the author says:
She had a few simple ideas: that most people are only bad because they have been made bad, that you shouldn’t judge anybody because you never know what you would do yourself, that the rich and powerful think ordinary people don’t have the same feelings as they do–that’s what Lammchen instinctively believed, though she hadn’t thought it out.
Sonny is resolved to succeed in his sales job at Mandel’s department store, and is greatly helped by an older salesman, the very dignified Mr. Heilbutt, who possesses both practical sales skills and general life skills that Sonny has not yet developed. For the most part, though, the relationship among store employees is of a dog-eat-dog, knife-in-the-back nature, and some of the customers are very difficult–like the man who comes into the store accompanied by his wife AND his sister AND his mother-in-law, with vociferous opinions about each item from the first two women and a constant repetition of the complaint we-should-have-gone-to-a-different-store from the mother-in-law.
When Sonny again becomes unemployed, this time for a protracted period, Lammchen is able to bring in a little money by doing sewing for more-affluent families, while Sonny takes on the role of a house-husband. The author implies that this situation has become common in Germany, as Lammchen asks:
What d’you think, Mr Jachmann? D’you think it’s going to be like this from now on with the men at home doing the housework while the women work? It’s impossible.
At one point, Mr Jachmann invites Lammchen and Sonny out for dinner and a movie, which they could not have afforded on their own. The film is sort of a play-within-a-play, in which a young bank clerk is struggling financially, and is desperately afraid his wife will leave him. He begins to get the idea of embezzling from the bank, and his hand actually moves to grasp the money, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He is observed by his friend the Management Trainee, who is son of a bank director. The friend begins helping the clerk out by giving him money.
The clerk can’t bear to let his wife know that he’s accepting charity, and lets her *think* that he’s stolen the money. She is thrilled–“you did that for me?”, and their relationship becomes much more passionate.
The management-trainee friend falls in love with the wife, “but she only had eyes for her husband, that brave, reckless man, who would do anything for her.” Jealous, the friend tells the wife the *real* story. Now, she laughs contemptuously at her husband the charity-accepting clerk, and clearly is planning to ditch him for the management trainee.
(Note the implied hierarchy of the wife’s attractions: her husband the Thief is more attractive than the Management Trainee, but the MT is probably more attractive than her husband the Mere Bank Clerk, and definitely and overwhelmingly more attractive than her husband the Recipient of Charity.)
When the movie ends, Sonny is so devastated that he is almost unable to get up from his seat, seeing too many parallels between the Bank Clerk’s situation and his own. But he need not have worried: Lammchen remains steadfastly loyal to him, come what may. (The character of Lammchen struck a real chord among the German public of the time: a Stuttgart newspaper even ran a contest for essays on “Your view of Lammchen.”)
There are many interesting minor characters in the book–Mr. Heilbutt the senior salesman, Mr. Jachmann, who is Sonny’s mother’s gangsterish but sporadically helpful boyfriend, the famous actor Schlueter, who Sonny much admires and who he actually meets while working in the store. Fallada’s obvious liking and sympathy for Sonny and Lammchen and some of the other characters doesn’t keep him from being able to develop and show their weaknesses and even to laugh at them every now and then–in this the book reminds me a bit of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. Overall, Little Man, What Now? is very human, readable, and engrossing, and I was sorry to say goodbye to Sonny and Lammchen when reaching the end. Highly recommended.
Fallada originally intended this book to be a cheerful one, to be simply “a story about a marriage, a quite simple good little marriage–a baby is born: two are happy, three are happy.” But the times inevitably pointed him in a different direction. For the details of the book’s setting and action, he drew not only on his personal experiences but on the 1930 study by Siegfried Kracauer: White-collar Workers . (Title also translated as The Salaried Masses.) In the Afterword to Little Man, Philip Brady notes that “To Kracauer the white-collar worker–twenty percent of all workers and numbering three and a half million–was a vast underclass, undefined hitherto and, in contrast to the proletariat, overlooked.”
It’s hard to avoid seeing parallels between the plight of these lower-tier white-collar workers and that of today’s unemployed/underemployed college graduates in America. Not many of the latter, of course, have (so far) reached the stage of being unable to afford the purchase of a stew-pot, but the senses of disappointment and lack of hope for the future are too similar to be comfortable. And Sonny’s certainty that the politicians are opportunistic speech-givers who care nothing about him, which goes beyond the normal politician-bashing to be expected in any democracy, certainly finds an echo in the America of today.
The plight of Sonny and Lammchen, I must note, is not entirely a matter of social and economic forces beyond their control–their fate is not entirely in the stars rather than in themselves. The case of the senior salesman Mr Heilbutt demonstrates that a more confident and astute individual could carve out at least a little more security, affluence, and sense of agency for himself than our protagonists have been able to do. But–as a customer review at Amazon points out–all Sonny and Lammchen were able to offer the world was “hard work and honesty”..and in their place and time that was not enough.
Again, I recommend this book highly. Amazon has it on Kindle as well as in paper format.
An American movie based on Little Man, What Now? was released in 1934, starring Douglass Montgomery as Sonny and Margaret Sullavan as Lammchen. My review is here. The film is available on Amazon, and can also be found on YouTube. There was also an Israeli play based on the book; here is a very favorable review from the Jerusalem Post.