The "Drinker", Erwin Sommer, experiences drunkenness as euphoria, a deceptive hallucinatory epiphany, a rush of release from reality and responsibility. I've seen such drunkenness in friends and strangers, but I've never felt it, never completely acknowledged its power until reading this book. That, if nothing more, would make `The Drinker' a book profoundly worth reading. Author Hans Fallada, with his insidiously prosaic prose, drags me vicariously into his drunken rapture even more convincingly than such authentic drunkard novelists as Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski.
And his prose is truly prosaic, both in the original German and in English translation. He was prominent in the between-wars German literary movement called the Neue Sachlichkeit - the New Matter-of-Factness - which devalued literary `effects', but no one who relishes poetic sentences should seek them in The Drinker. Fallada has been described as writing in frantic outbursts. He might best be compared to three other writers who had similar psycho-social weakness, including trouble with alcohol: Jack Kerouac, who wrote in similar manic frenzies and who drank himself to death; Joseph Roth, who wrote with journalistic urgency and who drank himself to death; and Robert Walser, who had no chance to drink himself to death because he committed himself to a mental asylum in which he spent the latter share of his life. Fallada was a better writer than Kerouac simply because his material was better. Roth wrote with equally deceptive simplicity but had a much finer poet's ear for language, a brilliant way of turning decription into metaphor. Walser, a generation older than Fallada, is perhaps the closest match-up; both writers knew what `madness' really felt like, and both spent time in asylums and prisons. But Walser was a lyricist of the psyche, a writer of whimsy as well as pangs. Both Walser and Fallada were pathological outsiders to their repressed and repressive society, but Fallada's commonplace sorrows were truer to the lives of most people then or now.
Only the first half of The Drinker portrays Herr Sommer's precipitous transformation from a respectable middling merchant to a violent, self-destructive drunkard. The second half depicts his miseries in penal custody, first in an ordinary jail, then in a jail-like asylum, a `house of the dead' as he calls it. Most readers, I'm sure, will think immediately of Dostoevsky's House of the Dead and/or Solzhenitsyn's Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The comparison is valid; that's the shelf on which this semi-fiction belongs.
My psychologist wife and I lay down at bedtime to read Der Trinker/The Drinker side by side, ich auf Deutsch, she in English. That way I could sneak a peek at the translation if a passage eluded me. But my wife laid the book aside after a few chapters. "I'm sorry," she muttered, "but I gave at the clinic." Her diagnosis of Erwin Summer, and by implication of Hans Fallada, was `severe depression, self-medicated with alcohol' -- unquestionably correct. She declared that she could "fix" such a patient with a steady dose of Celexa or Prozac. Who am I to challenge the professional, but somehow I'm skeptical. Fallada's distress ran deeper, I think, than insufficient serotonin; it was coupled like quantum attraction to the psychosis of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. More recent critics of The Drinker have professed to see an almost allegorical depiction in it of the catastrophe of authoritarian efficiency for the ordinary individual. But in any case, as I tell my wife, it would have been a tragedy to cure poor Hans Fallada with a handful of pills, at the cost of his gifts to literature.