November 17, 2011

What to drink while reading Hans Fallada


Two lit-bloggers, Caroline  of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life have concocted one of the biggest cross-blog celebrations we have ever seen. Planned for months, the two bloggers have involved dozens of bloggers in their inaugural German Literature Month and the month they chose just so happens to be November.

Since these two noble bloggers have chosen a subject very dear to our hearts we decided to join in the fun. And by join in I mean that we plan on pairing our books with German drink.

Of course I have not always been a drunkard. Indeed it is not very long since I first took to drink. Formerly I was repelled by alcohol; I might take a glass of beer, but wine tasted sour to me, and the smell of schnaps made me ill. But then the time came when things began to go wrong with me. My business affairs did not proceed as they should, and in my dealings with people I met with all kinds of setbacks. I always have been a sensitive man, needing the sympathy and encouragement of those around me, though of course I did not show this and liked to appear rather sure and self-possessed. Worst of all, the feeling gradually grew on me that even my wife was turning away from me. At first the signs were almost unnoticeable, little things that anyone else would have overlooked. For instance, at a birthday party in our house, she forgot to offer me cake. I never eat cake, but hitherto, despite that, she had always offered it me.

It is important to start with such a rich quote, which happens to open Hans Fallada’s sublime black comedy The Drinker. By the way, how apropos is this list of German drinking books? So far we have Billiards at Half-past Nine, More Beer and The Drinker. The makings of a great night, only problem is this is not an ordinary drinker. This is no mere guzzler of weekend beer or quaffer of a post-work shot of schnaps. No, this is a man on a mission to set himself apart. This is a drinker who has defined himself as such. A Drinker with a capital “D.”

Hans Fallada’s tale of a middle-class German man’s decline into raving alcoholism is at once a work of hilarious slapstick and a terrifying indictment of the inherent violence of bureaucracy. It is a tale about a drunk pursuing his heart’s content before (because?) the emergence of fascism. He is of course thwarted. Efficiency is a drunk’s worst enemy, of course and he is going to meet his fill in due order.

So let’s set the stage for our drunken tale of sousing thwarted by bureaucracy. Our man’s carefully plotting wife has taken over his business and is running it better than he. Of course this is not a shock to him because she used to run it better than him before she turned it over to his ministrations. Fresh off of business failures and feeling emasculated and about as fiery as a sack of wet ash he wanders into a nice local bar ready to have a refreshing drink. Then something profound happens. Something that he he but not the reader, is prepared for.

“Give me something to drink, anything to quench a thirst,” I said.

Without looking up, the girl ran some beer into a glass, and I watched the froth drip over the edge. The girl turned off the tap, waited a moment till the froth had settled, and then let another spurt of beer run in, then, still without a word, she pushed the glass towards me across the tarnished zinc.

She resumed her whispering with the young bricklayer. So far she had not given me a glance.

I lifted the glass to my mouth and emptied it thoughtfully, gulp by gulp, without once setting it down. It tasted fresh, fizzy, slightly bitter, and it seemed to leave in my mouth a feeling of airy brightness that had not been there before.

“Give me another of the same,” I was about to say, but I changed my mind. I had seen a short squat bright glass before the young man, the kind called a noggin, in which schnaps is usually served.

“I’ll have a noggin of that,” I suddenly said. Why I did so, who had never drunk schnaps in my life, who had a deep aversion to the very smell of it, I really don’t know. At that very moment all my lifelong habits were changing, I was at the mercy of mysterious influences, and the strength to resist them had been taken from me. Now for the first time the girl looked at me. Slowly she lifted her rather coarse-grained eyelids and turned her bright knowing eyes on me.

“Schnaps?” she asked.

“Schnaps,” I said, the girl took down a bottle, and I wondered if a female had ever looked at me before in such a shamelessly knowing way. Her glance seemed to penetrate right to the root of my manhood, as if seeking to find out how much of a man I was; it seemed positively physical, something painfully, sweetly insolent, as if I were stripped naked before her eyes.

Oh my. What follows is an epic sort of folly, which leads up to an ultimate self-destructive choice involving the most wretched draught ever concocted in fiction, which we will not outline here. Truly, it is not a drink for “pairing” with anything.

What we will outline however, is what to drink when you’re preparing to undergo such an adventure as our good Drinker.

While I want to make reference to the Hofbräuhaus and its role in the creation of Nazi party, I instead have to go with a better beer. Weihenstephan lager is exactly the kind of beer our man would have pulled down in his first foray into drunkenness. While Weihenstephan is better known for their delicious and now widely distributed wheat beers, they produce one of the truly great German lagers.

It is the perfect kind of fizzy, eternally old (first produced in 1040 AD) and drinkable beer to open a night of hard drinking with. Mind you this is the sort of bout that will succeed in impressing a bartender in late 1930’s Germany, so starting off with a good base is very important. This crisp lager has just a touch of citrus, which is perfect for pairing with our next offering. What kind of schnaps do we set off on our binge into totally mind-crushing alcoholism with?

Berentzen doppel korn schnaps has been made the same way since 1798. It’s a strong liquor that will light a fire under any booze hound’s inner soul. This ain’t rotgut, because our guy was a middle class burgher in need of a fix. Truly, this is liquor for the ages. Whether fueling a walk-up stay-over at the bar itself or a night spent roaming your own street, raving and lost amongst familiar avenues, Berentzen doppel korn is the thing for you. We call it whiskey. They call it schnapps. The effects are exactly the same: a squalid cell in a sanitarium.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.