Friday, 18 June 2010

Ulrich Ditzen in Company in Berlin

Much more excitingly, Bookslut and Dialogue Berlin held a fantastic event last night to big up Michael Hofmann's recent translation of Hans Fallada's Jeder stirbt für sich allein. I won't go into the vagaries of evening childcare solutions here - suffice to say I was very pleased to make it.

Sharmaine Reid of Dialogue and Jessa Crispin of Bookslut are a bit of a dream team, two women with burning passions for books and the get-up-and-go of a herd of rhinos. And I'm not just saying that because they're my friends. This wasn't their first joint event, but it was the first to focus on a German book in translation. And they went to a great deal of trouble to organise a very impressive evening of Anglo-American-style literary entertainment.

It started with readings in German - very expressive with much finger-pointing and Berlin dialect, a pleasant change from the Charlie Brown's teacher-style delivery you often get over here - and English. Bizarrely, the readers were interrupted by something Hans Fallada and his characters could never have imagined – large numbers of gays and lesbians in sailor suits partying on barges outside the windows of the gorgeous venue, the Direktorenhaus. If you happen to organise literary events in Berlin, I can highly recommend the place by the way, provided Cristopher Street Day isn't coming up.

After this brief intermission, Jessa interviewed Fallada's oldest son Ulrich Ditzen. A former lawyer, 80-year-old Ditzen had us all rather charmed. He talked about growing up with his father, how he was a great teller of bedtime stories and an obsessive writer who set himself the near impossible target of never writing less than the previous day. He refuted the claim on the book jacket that his father could have left Nazi Germany. Fallada had two families there to support, Ditzen with his brother and mother installed in rural Mecklenburg, and his second wife and daughter in Berlin. He saw no way to leave without plunging them all into poverty and insecurity - as in fact happened to many writers in exile.

Ditzen also talked about how the book came about, based like all of his father's writing on fact. He was a little coy about the involvement of the writer Johannes R. Becher, at the time a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, in providing his father with the Gestapo case file on which the novel is based. I find it interesting that Alone in Berlin has been so enthusiastically received in Britain and the US, and I think one reason is that its author is untainted by political scandal in a way that almost all other German writers who tackled the subject of resistance to the Nazis weren't. In fact the book could be placed next to many others by East German writers who went on to get drawn into Cold War cultural policy. Anna Seghers, the writer of the outstanding The Seventh Cross and Transit, is just one case in point. After her return from Mexican exile, she became a functionary in the East German system and ended up making many questionable literary and political decisions in her later years. Fallada, of course, died in 1947, before the GDR was even founded.

The questions from the floor revealed how mixed the audience was - from Germans with perfect English who grew up with Fallada's children's books to new arrivals obviously (how shall I put this?) making their first acquaintance with German literature and history. Ditzen fielded them with aplomb, only answering the bits he wanted to and getting really rather flirtatious towards the end. He gave the impression of being a man with a strong mind who genuinely loved his father and still loves his work. And he highly recommended Fallada's Wolf Among Wolves about 1920s Germany - his best book, he told us. I bought the newly revamped English version, and found it was originally translated by Philip Owens with modern additions by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs.

Ditzen then had to leave, but the evening was rounded off with more readings from the original and translation. All in all, it was a great success - standing room only, happy punters, books sold. I hope there'll be more opportunities to present translations from German in the Bookslut/Dialogue events series - which seems like a logical thing to do in Berlin – and I can well recommend their other readings too.


David said...

Great stuff.

Fallada was actually one of the few German writers who could have made it big in the US (like Mann and Franz Werfel). Kleiner Mann, was nun? was made into a 1934 Hollywood feature film with Margaret Sullavan as Laemmchen.

manan said...

was totally great. on an unrelated note, did you see this?

kjd said...

I hadn't, Manan - although I'd heard about the event in advance. Thanks - nice piece.

kjd said...

Not to forget the film of The Seventh Cross and the comic version produced for the US Army, David.

X.Trapnel said...

What did you think of the "Wolf Among Wolves" translation? I picked it up the other day, and--hrm. I don't really have the vocabulary for expressing this, but I think what I'm looking for is this: I felt *too aware* of the translated nature of the text, in a way that was a bit distracting (there were one or two passages that seemed to be literally translated idioms, for example, though I can't seem to find them now).

But this may simply be my reacting against the prose seeming a bit ... old-fashioned, if that's the right word.

kjd said...

Hi X.

You know what? I lent the book to a friend and haven't got it back yet! But I do know it's not a new translation, so that could be what's giving you that olde-fangled feeling.