A Small Circus (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 28 Mar 2013
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Uncommonly vivid and original (Robert Musil)
Real love and real humanity (Hermann Hesse)
The best account of small-town Germany ... so terribly genuine, it is frightening (Kurt Tucholsky)
This novel's genius ... lies in Fallada's ability to reveal ... as well as to analyse the macabre game of musical chairs that was the Weimar Republic. Fallada gives us front-row seats to Germany's decade-long quest for a sacrificial scapegoat that culminated in the Nazi takeover. ... Two years after Alone in Berlin's runaway success, A Small Circus continues the Fallada revival that owes so much to the efforts of its translator, the poet Michael Hofmann (André Naffis-Sahely Independent)
Fallada creates characters with Dickensian prodigality, each yokel, hack, pig and pen-pusher brought to life in Michael Hofmann's beautifully judged translation ... a generous, life-affirming treat (Jake Kerridge Telegraph)
Michael Hofmann ... comes as close as possible to giving us Fallada's work in all its coarse, humorous, immediate, tragic glory (Charlotte Moore Spectator)
Not for the first time, all praise is due to Michael Hofmann's art and feel for nuance. His translation catches the many voices - some exasperated, others bewildered, a few downright angry - that make this bold, exuberant and candid narrative sizzle with life and the relentlessly shocking reality of it all (Irish Times)
Fallada's own experiences as a regional journalist in north Germany underlie the action, and it is this sense of realism, combined with an ear for dialogue and an acute understanding of human frailty, that make the novel such an authentic portrayal of an imploding era (Ben Hutchinson Observer)
About the Author
Hans Fallada was one of the best-known German writers of the twentieth century. Born on 21 July 1893 in Greifswald as Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen, he took his pen name from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. His most famous works include the novels Little Man, What Now?, The Drinker and the bestselling Alone in Berlin. Fallada died from an overdose of morphine on 5 February 1947 in Berlin.
Michael Hofmann is the author of several books of poems and a book of criticism, Behind the Lines, and the translator of many modern and contemporary authors.
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That sets the scenes for the childish Machiavellian antics that run through this book. We then have cows being confiscated by tax collectors to be auctioned in lieu of payment; the farmers refuse to bid at the subsequent auction and then block the tax inspectors exit, leading to a hullabaloo. Things soon spiral out of control when the farmers stage a march through the town to air their grievances. The police behave like absolute thugs and the local politicians keep playing double deals to try to please all of the people all of the time.
We see how the townies react to the farmers and the way the papers twist everything whilst absolutely everyone is stabbing each other in the back. All the while the influence of national politics looms over everyone in the shape of the `Jewish Republic' as the Weimar Republic is referred to in this work.
This is written in the style that was fashionable at the time, in that the author tries to remove as much of himself as possible from the tale, leaving the characters to develop the story. So there is an awful lot of dialogue with very limited scene setting. This takes a while to get used to it, but it is worth persisting as the story is truly fascinating. You do start to see why people would turn to a strong alternative even The National Socialists. There were some fifteen main political parties at this time the largest in 1930 being The Social Democratic Party with only 24.5% of the vote. So not what could be claimed as a mandate and the second biggest party by this time were the National Socialists on 18%.
There are no real role model characters here, some of them are ruthless brutes. Like the farmer who hates his children, the reporter who hides money from his wife and the police who lie even on oath. This is not even warts and all it is saying that all of society is plagued with problems, half naked self interest being the most prevalent, looking for scapegoats then becomes a national pass time; so you can see where society was heading.
This is a fairly long book too so requires commitment but I was hooked by at least half way through and it is the fact that this was written in 1931 Germany that makes it almost essential reading. Michael Hoffman has done a great job of translation and the foreword by Jenny Williams is both edifying and enlightening. This is a five star book on many levels, but I do not `love' it as such hence my 4 star rating.
There is no hero or anti-hero as such to this novel, it is quite strongly dialogue led and at times you feel that you are viewing a documentary of the fly on the wall type. Mixed with this is the more traditional type of story telling with what people are thinking, etc. Set in the last years of the Weimer Republic this story takes place in the fictional town of Altholm, and the outlaying area. With a newspaper trying to put out stories, small town politics, demonstrations and a bombing, an agent provocateur, and party politics getting in the way this is what the arena was like in Germany at the time.
This has a very dark strain of humour throughout, and with the current newspaper scandal this is a very opportune time to bring this translation out, as it can be seen as a satire on the topic. Why this works is because it isn't about just one person, it has a multitude of characters, all wanting money, power and trying to stay afloat in an uncertain world. With local politics as well as more senior levels breathing down the necks of these local people, and the array of political parties and affiliations this is a novel that draws you in and holds you throughout. With farmers against townies this is a great book to read again and again that nowadays can also be read as a study of how Nazism rose to power.
It is true that a broad canvas of characters includes none easy to admire. But that is in part Fallada's point. Germany was entering an era of brutal repression, of fear of one's neighbours, of a need to keep authority at bay as long as possible; at the same time it was a climate that invited anyone with a position of power, however trivial or limited, to exercise it for his own benefit.
Nothing in A Small Circus excuses the path that Germany took in the next two decades, but it helps us to understand it.
This review is a great shame as I usually enjoy reading Fallada's books.
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