Monday, 3 October 2011

Men, women, war - and books

Two very different books from the middle of the last century with similar concerns. German author Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now? (1932) presages the rise of the Nazis in much the same way as Michael Haneke's film The White Ribbon (2009) posthumously chronicled their coming: indirectly. Fallada's grimly comic tale of an impoverished, none-too-bright everyman was made into a popular film in 1934, which in part sealed the author's fate with the incoming fascists.

Cinema plays a central role in Fallada's book, too, when the little man Pinneberg and his wife, Lämmchen, go out to enjoy a movie, which is described in some detail. The main actor, so sympathetic on screen, brings about Pinneberg's downfall. As the character struggles to cope with unemployment, the one-time communist Fallada finds hope in his heroine, much as he did in his own wife: 'Lämmchen is my answer, I know no better one.'

Just over a decade later, Alexander Baron pitches the British soldiers of There's No Home (1950; cover detail, pictured) into a form of leave in Catania, Sicily, following the island's bloody invasion. The men retreat into domesticity around the street where they're billeted, many of them moving in with local (married) women. (This is the Via dei Martiri; in Baron's 1963 book The Lowlife, the central player finds pre-war domestic bliss in Paris on the Rue des Martyrs.)

Baron was inspired by his own experience in the Eighth Army as a scene, again in a cinema, attests: 'Once, in some back-street hall, I sat squeezed on a bench among an audience of women who were all weeping loudly. The cause of their grief was the film we were watching, Wuthering Heights. They rocked in sympathy with Cathy Earnshaw. From all parts of the hall they cried, "Ah, la poverina, la poverina!"' It plays pretty much identically in the book.

In his afterword, John L Williams examines the roles of the different sexes in the book: 'The men… feel the imperative of narrative, the need to move forwards. The women, on the other hand, want life to stand still. They have all lost men to the war: husbands and lovers, fathers, brothers and sons.'

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