Bookclub: “The Carhullan Army”

Sarah Hall was on Radio 4’s Bookclub programme this afternoon, discussing her novel The Carhullan Army. I rather agree with Niall over at Torque Control on the matter of that novel’s quality, although I’m not sure that the readers asking Hall questions were quite so bowled over – at least one just came out and said that they were frustrated by it. Her criticism was one which was made at the time of the book’s publication: The Carhullan Army is a short novel, and refuses to paint in very much of its background detail. It instead focuses, as Hall explains in the programme, on the emotional journey of its nameless point-of-view character, Sister, and on a gritty, earthy sense of place.

At least in part, this unconventional approach to speculative worldbuilding is explained by a slightly surprising admission Hall makes in conversation with James Naughtie: she has never read 1984. Everyone should read the book for purely political reasons, of course; but when Niall writes about the force of the novel’s “entry into the discourse of feminist utopia/dystopia”, he chooses his modifier wisely: Hall has read The Handmaid’s Tale, not George Orwell. Hall makes reference to the ‘dialogue’ of science fiction, but is vaguer on her own place within it.

The programme’s well worth a listen.

Every Man Dies Alone

Hans Fallada’s novel of resistance to the Nazis, Alone in Berlin, has been sitting unread on my shelves for a while. I picked it up, entirely coincidentally, the day before BBC Radio 4 began its two-part serialisation of the novel, by Shelagh Stephenson. Even more coincidentally, I stumbled on the dramatisation by accident whilst driving. I chose to carry on listening even when I realised it might spoil my enjoyment of the novel – the performances alone, particularly from Tim McInnerny as the Gestapo detective Escherich, and Ron Cook as the writer of seditious postcards, Otto Quangel, were worth swallowing the spoilers.

But the adaptation itself was also worth the risk in an dof itself. Stephenson has transformed a ruminative, at times wilfully slow, novel about a disparate cast of equally unsympathetic Berliners, into a fast-moving, nasty chase drama. If this suggests dumbing down, then that would be a little unfair: Stephenson has to chop viciously at Fellada’s novel to squeeze it into a bare two hours, but she keeps the essentials and, crucially, its unifying theme of the seductive impotence of self. This is treated within the context of a pared-down drama about a crime and its investigation, as a sort of cross-section of Nazi brutalisation; but it is treated nevertheless. I’d recommend it for a listen.

The novel, meanwhile, is simultaneously a richer and more watery affair. Abigail Nussbaum gets the measure of the book in her capsule review here, although I think she’s unfair on the level of its reliance on redemptive stereotypes: even early on, I didn’t read the novel as drawing great divisions between Good and Bad Germans. Whilst the Hitler Youth zealot Baldur Persicke is certainly the sort of charismatic demagogue we’re used to seeing in one-dimensional condemnations of Nazi Germans, the rest of his family are varyingly more complicated. Likewise, our ‘Good German’, Otto Quangel, is an anti-social, petty patriarch with little feeling for his own son and previously a complicit ambivalence towards the Nazi state. Not only that, but his chosen form of resistance – dropping postcards here and there in the hope that others might read them – is a sort of narcissism, keeping Quangel separate from the community he is single-handedly trying to save. Likewise, characters who begin as comic mechanicals – Kluge, Borkhausen – come to be pathetic and venal in equal measure, as Nazi Germany takes human selfishness and allows no other outlet for human endeavour.

What Fallada argues is that Nazism did not encourage or nurture this selfishness, but that it existed – exists – in constant tension with more communal tendencies. Yet Alone in Berlin ultimately allows Quangel’s appeal to the community – his postcards – to go unheeded and unrewarded; it is the brutal self, as personified by Escherich (whom McInnerny initially plays as a sort of fascist Maigret, before he is slowly wittled down to nothing by the effects of his own dehumanising actions), which triumphs. The destruction of the Nazi regime, which is clearly afoot by the close of the novel, doesn’t undo this defeat, even if it makes the Gestapo’s victory Pyrrhic.

This is a depiction diffuse in execution – Fallada’s novel, unlike Stephenson’s necessarily more explicit whistle-stop tour of it, never labours its points or tries for anything so bathetic as a moment of revelation. Quangel’s poscards are more the thread its many beads hang upon, rather than a single arrow of plot. But the arc is nevertheless consistently, darkly, done. If the epilogue holds out a hope at odds with the bleakness of the rest of this bitter, clear-eyed novel, it, like the Allied bombs which destroy the Führer’s Bedlam, is a very fragile sort of deliverance.