The Drinker, Paperback
3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)




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I read this book very quickly when I picked it up, but was a bit reluctant to do so because the narrator is extremely unsympathetic. The narrator is the drinker of the title, and we spend the whole book in his head. Erwin Sommer starts out as a happily married, successful businessman, then quickly becomes a selfish, violent, stupid, delusional drunk. I have to give the author credit, as the book is in part a brutal self-portrait, and he writes unsparingly about the narrator’s descent. It’s very readable, but is a somewhat unpleasant experience. The narrator at first gives a quick picture of his marriage. It starts out happily, as they were both very much in love. He and Magda, his wife, started a successful business and bought a house. After Magda left the business and became a housewife, the couple grew apart and the business faltered. Sommer quickly turns to drink after losing an important contract and trying to keep it from Magda. Soon he is drinking all the time and hiding his drinking. Fallada’s depiction of a marriage that moves from happiness to discomfort and quarrels seems realistic, though it is only shown in a few scenes. His narrator’s too-rapid alcoholic is a little too convenient though. Sommer’s selfish actions make him extremely unsympathetic and you don’t even have any other characters to focus on – the long-suffering Magda is only seen through his eyes and Sommer starts associating with just-as-horrible con men and women. Soon enough, he is thrown into prison and ends up in a sanatorium. It was interesting to read about the daily life of Sommer and the other inmates, and his characterization of the various types he meets while incarcerated is also good. The afterward in my copy is very thorough, and there’s an apt quote describing the strength of Fallada’s work – “The technique is straightforward; it is good old Naturalism, slightly short on imagination, but then the author is not claiming to have written a great work of imaginative literature…This is no artistic masterpiece. But it is genuine, so uncannily genuine that it give you the shivers…It is written by someone who knows that particular world like the back of his hand, yet can keep exactly the right distance needed to depict it…close, but not too close.”

Review by

As a teenager, Hans Fallada killed a friend in a suicide pact but only managed to wound himself, leading to the first of various stays at mental institutions. He later developed an addiction to morphine, clashed repeatedly with the Nazi authorities over his work, lost his first baby hours after its birth, and endured betrayals from his neighbors, who persistently reported his drug use to the Nazis. After his publisher’s flight from Germany in 1943 and the decline of his marriage, Fallada started to drink in earnest. Sometime in 1944, after their divorce, Fallada attacked his ex-wife and was again committed to an insane asylum. It was during his four months there that he wrote The Drinker in code to avoid having it be discovered by the Nazis, who had ordered the once-successful writer to write an anti-Semitic propaganda novel.When the previously abstinent Erwin Sommer endures a large business loss, he goes to a bar, has a couple of beers and moves on to “Schnaps” (a generic term for clear liquor in German – not to be confused with the candy-flavored sweet Schnapps that you got drunk on when you were younger). It’s not long before he begins abusing his wife, stealing from his business and spending all his money and time getting wasted and trying to woo a trashy barmaid who ends up fleecing him. The first half of the novel displays an irrational frenzy reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger or Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, as the hysterical protagonist plunges headlong into debauchery, blaming others for his predicament while inwardly chastising himself.Once Sommer is committed and sobers up, the tone of the book changes, slowing down and becoming a naturalistic account of life in a mental hospital (comparable perhaps to Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead). Sommer begins sounding reasonable, makes friends and enemies in the hospital, gets his nose badly bitten, shares some of the inmates’ sad stories and finds a vocation as a brush-maker. As his confinement nears its end, Sommer seems to have reached some peace, until his wife visits him to tell him she is planning to marry a business rival. The book snaps back to the turmoil of the first half and Sommer steals a bottle of pure alcohol from the hospital’s medicine chest and drinks it, leading to his permanent incarceration. The extent of Sommer’s alcoholism then really becomes apparent in the novel’s shocking last chapter, a scant three pages that overshadow everything that precedes it.It’s hard to believe the level of desperation for alcohol in The Drinker, but considering that it was written while the author was confined in a mental institution due to events very much like the ones described in the book, we might want to take his word for it.

Review by

It's a very sad thing when a book and a reader are mismatched especially one bought on a whim. It did sound good; it's by the author of the lauded Every Man Dies Alone (which I have wanted to read for years), the enticing blurb states that it was written in a Nazi asylum and smuggled out to friends waiting to publish (a lie so afterword tells me). Ok I thought maybe not the best written but maybe visceral. Sadly I cannot think of one good thing to say about it. I can recognise it's not a terrible book but personally although it promised to get better, it never did (even the afterword describing Fallada's interesting life sent me to sleep!) The style (translation?) feels off as the light tone doesn’t work with tragedy but adds only to a feeling of superficiality. The main character is boring, annoying and his heart breaking doomed descent feels banal. Then the most promising observational aspects come across feeling small and flat compared to much more emotive literature I have read. The afterword states that like or loathe the protagonist you want to get under his skin and understand why he is this way, but sadly I can categorically say I just wished him a speedy end so I could stop reading the damn book. No I cannot recommend this book at all, one for fans only.

Review by

As Fallada's novel 'Every Man Dies Alone' is also known as 'Alone in Berlin' so should 'The Drinker' be known as 'The Narcissist'. As he tells his tale of descent into alcoholism and mental turmoil, Erwin Sommer says of his fellow 'sufferers'..."The medical officer must have been able to see there was more in me than in the others, I had more to lose, I was more sensitive, too, and more prone to suffering than these utterly dull, stupid fellows" (p.250) A deluded, self-pitying and grandiose character who has no sympathy or thought for anyone but himself. As such,The Drinker is an honest and truthful insight into a man suffering from the grips of alcoholism and, in my amature psychologist mode, some kind of narcissistic personality disorder. It has been said that Erwin is loosly based on Fallada himself. If so, Fallada has been brutually honest and frank and laid bare a character who, in all honesty, I felt no sympathy for and cared for even less. The story is told from Erwin's perspective so we only ever hear his voice and his views on what is happening. Erwin very rarely shows empathy or sympathy for those around him or regret for any wrong doings against others. The blame for his woes and ills are often laid at the feet of others, and, more often than not, his wife. Erwin would have very little understanding of what self responsibility means.Alcoholism, indeed many addictions, can be extremely selfish, unforgiving and uncaring for those who happen to be around. Fallada portrays this wonderfully in the character of Erwin (himself?). That said, I found him to be an incredibly frustrating character who wound me up no end. As a result, I would agree with the previous reviewer who said that the heart breaking descent of Erwin felt 'banal'. Unfortunately, it did. However, I would like to believe that this was as a result of Fallada's writing and that it may have been intentional with alcoholism being the destructive, delusional, grandiose, and self pitying metaphor for the character that is Erwin Sommer.

Review by

Loved this book, although the realism of the tortuous logic of the addict gave me drinking dreams after 22 years of sobriety. It is truly a journey to hell, but the first person narrative is gripping enough that the reader willingly descends with the main character. The characters in the asylum reminded me a little of e.e. cummings' The Enormous Room. (That's a really good thing.) I'm on to the next Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone. Bound to be a joy ride :-)

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