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The Drinker

The 1944 novel by Hans Fallada

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Mid-Life Crisis Turns Man into Low-Life; Or, What to Read When You're Bored with Bukowski

  • Jan 27, 2010
  • by
Rating:
+5
Riveting and devastating, The Drinker chronicles one man’s rapid descent from the heights—or at least the comfortable ledges—of middle-class respectability, down to the depths of alcoholic degradation.
To most normal people, the story will perhaps seem baffling and incomprehensible, even in spite of Fallada’s excellent, spare prose; most rational minds will have a hard time comprehending how one man can sink so low, so fast. But alcoholism, alas, is not a rational disease, and anyone who has ever seen the inside of an AA meeting or spent the night in a drunk tank will likely find this novel—particularly its early chapters and its final ones—impossible to put down, or to forget.
Fallada’s narrator, Herr Sommer, starts as a somewhat well-to-do businessman in Nazi-era Germany, but pretty much skips the social drinking phase of alcoholism and entangles himself in a rapidly worsening cycle of marital strife and monetary struggle, exacerbated by bad schnapps and worse decisions. “Jails, institutions, or death” are frequently cited as the three likely eventual destinations of any alcoholic who chooses to keep drinking; Sommer almost manages to hit for the cycle.
For those familiar with the literature of alcoholism, it will probably feel like an extended version of one of those first-person accounts if 1930s-era inebriated insanity that pepper the front of AA’s “Big Book.” Only for Sommer, there was no opportunity for a feel-good happy ending; rather than Dr Bob and the Good Old-Timers, his deliverance came from doctors and judges who shunted him off to a Nazi insane asylum.
This book is reportedly somewhat autobiographical, for Fallada wrote it while confined in such an institution. Remarkably, though, it is relatively free from the twin perilous pillars of alcoholic authordom: self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Instead, it is full of honest writing, lean and spare, full of power and truth. Relatively early on, the narrator—unable or unwilling to maintain the effort needed to keep living the high life—tells his wife that people “can feel joy and sorrow down below, Magda, it’s just like being up above, it’s all the same whether you live up or down. Perhaps the most beautiful thing is to let yourself fall, to shut your eyes and plunge into nothingness, deeper and deeper into nothingness.”
This is, perhaps, a stretch, for what follows is as ugly, and as compelling, as a car accident. Still, it feels true, in that the alcoholic often secretly longs to simply stop living, without expending the effort or mental energy required for suicide. For the alcoholic who keeps drinking, the warm numbing fuzz of inebriation remains infinitely preferable to the bright sharp edges of reality; ultimately, however, their only salvation is oblivion.

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January 27, 2010
This makes you think about other things in life.
 
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About the reviewer

Ranked #242
Alfonso Mangione has a Clark Kent job that involves managing data for a small telecommunications company.At night, he's been spottedswooping through the blogosphere at www.alfonsomangione.blogspot.com. … more
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Synopsis

Written in an encrypted notebook while incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum and discovered after his death, The Drinker may be Hans Fallada’s most breathtaking piece of craftsmanship. It is an intense yet absorbing study of the descent into drunkenness by an intelligent man who fears he’s lost it all.

Biography

Before WWII , German writer Hans Fallada’s novels were international bestsellers, on a par with those of his countrymen Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse. In America, Hollywood even turned his first big novel, Little Man, What Now? into a major motion picture.

Learning the movie was made by a Jewish producer, however, Hitler decreed Fallada’s work could no longer be sold outside Germany, and the rising Nazis began to pay him closer attention. When he refused to join the Nazi party he was arrested by the Gestapo—who eventually released him, but thereafter regularly summoned him for “discussions” of his work.

However, unlike Mann, Hesse, and others, Fallada refused to flee to safety, even when his British publisher, George Putnam, sent a private boat to rescue him. The pressure took its toll on Fallada, and he resorted increasingly to drugs and alcohol for relief. After Goebbels ordered him to write an anti-Semitic novel, he snapped and found himself imprisoned in an asylum for the “criminally insane”—considered a death sentence under Nazi rule. To forestall the inevitable, he ...

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