Literesurrections (or The O.D.A Phoenix)

on Friday, December 25, 2009
The streets are quiet, the bookshops closed... A fitting time, I suppose, to speak of literary resurrections. Cast your mind back to 2005, when the fiction world went into apoplexy over a certain handwritten manuscript found in a tattered suitcase that was tucked into the back corner of an attic in France. The script was tiny but the story that unfolded epic. Until that time, few people had heard of its author, Irene Nemirovsky, aside from those Francophiles who might have had sixty year old bells ringing in the back of their Vichy-haunted heads. Before the war, Nemirovsky was a fairly popular novelist, renowned throughout France for her Dostoevskian output. Not that that helped her when the tanks rolled in. Thoroughly assimilated, but Jewish nonetheless, she was carted off to the east where she perished in Auschwitz on August 17, 1942. Her final, incomplete novel, Suite Francaise, was stuffed into that suitcase and hidden, eventually recovered by her daughter some sixty years later. Its discovery hit the literary world like a comet, catapulting her into the stratosphere of immortality. Nemirovsky's own sad tale certainly didn't hurt either. Since then, seven of her works have been published in English, all to great critical acclaim.

Nemirovsky was the first in what has become a regular series of O.D.A.s to hit the big time. In case you haven't worked it out, that stands for Obscure Dead Authors. While publishers are always on the lookout for hot new writers to keep the industry afloat, the O.D.A. phenomenon has shown that said writers need not actually still be around. Guess that makes the thorny issue of publishing rights (and literary agents) somewhat easier to navigate. Not to mention the book tour. Two years after the "Nemirovsky Affair", another O.D.A caused an even bigger sensation with his massive road novel of two poets in South America. Almost instantly, Roberto Bolano became one of the hottest literary properties around. Like countless others I await each new release, whether it be his short works (Amulet, The Skating Rink, Distant Star), poetry (The Romantic Dogs) or his other monster tome, 2666. Next year sees the publication of what promises to be another important work, Monsieur Pain.

2009 had its own O.D.A., who in my opinion is the best of the three. Hans Fallada was a popular German novelist with a rather peculiar personal life who was imprisoned by the Nazis because (and this really is a wonderfully wacky reason if I've ever heard one) one of his novels was filmed by Jewish producers in Hollywood. Fallada was not Jewish. He was just liked by Jews. That is, of course, simplifying things. He had a long history of institutionalisation for drinking and mental instability before the Third Reich took exception to him. But there is no doubt his fate would have been different had the film of Little Man What Now never been made. Fallada was, for me, the discovery of this past year. The three books that have thus far been published in English (there are more coming I am assured) are all amazing examinations of the ways in which ordinary people deal with life in repressive circumstances. Be it Nazism, or addiction, Fallada understands like few others because he well and truly lived it. Little Man What Now shows how ordinary people were slowly squeezed out of functional society if they did not conform. The Drinker, of particular note because it was written in code while Fallada was in prison, shows the unremitting grip that alcohol addiction has on a regular guy. The book is both harrowing and very funny, reminding me of Catch 22 in the way it runs in concentric circles around its theme, proving its point in ever more absurd but brilliant ways. And finally there is Fallada's masterpiece, Every Man Dies Alone (or, Alone in Berlin as it was published in England). Based on a true story, it is the tale of an ordinary couple who mount an extraordinary two person rebellion against the Nazi machine by leaving small postcards with messages of dissent around the city of Berlin. I was reminded of another book I love, In The Pond by Ha Jin where anonymous art becomes the means of a minor stand against oppression. At the heart of Fallada's book lies the question of whether a futile rebellion is inherently worthwhile inasmuch as it allows one to live morally through a time when moral fortitude is nowhere to be found. It is an antithesis to Daniel Goldhagen's controversial study Hitler's Willing Executioners, and a very important one at that. I particularly recommend the American edition of the book as it contains an afterward that is not present in the English edition, detailing the true story of the couple upon whom the novel is based.

The three Fallada books should keep you going until another is published or, at the very least, until another O.D.A. comes along. Start scouring your attics people!


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