It is a curious long rambling idiosyncratic novel. I am not sure I would have made it through Hans Fallada’s 793 page novel, Wolf Among Wolves, if it hadn’t been for the isolation of the COVID pandemic.

The book is set in Germany in 1923 in the midst of the terrible inflation that afflicted the country in the post-war years. It was a time of desperation as the population struggled with hunger, unemployment, rising crime, political instability, and the perceived humiliation of defeat at the end of the war.

Fallada began writing Wolf Among Wolves on 27 July 1936 and finished it just eleven months later on 11 May 1937. It was published that year in the midst of the increasingly totalitarian restrictive and violent reign of the Nazis who had been in power for four years. The novel appeared just as the Nazi SS established the Buchenwald Concentration Camp near the city of Weimar, Germany in July 1937.

In many ways Wolf Among Wolves is a particularly appropriate book to read during a pandemic.

Fallada alludes to the impact of disease on his country, near the end of the book when he describes his main character Wolfgang Pagels leaving the farm where he has been working for three months. Fallada writes,

He turned the light out, locked up, put the key in his pocket and went through the pitch-dark night over to the Villa. It was influenza weather. The doctor had told him that people were dying like flies, young and old. Under-nourished too long, first the war, then this inflation… Poor devils. Will it really be any better with the new money? (p.773)

Fallada spends over 700 pages portraying how ordinary people make their way through times of uncertainty, confusion and pain with varying degrees of success. Some of his characters are crushed by circumstances, others assert their power in an attempt to control the awkward realities they face, a few find their way to a place of acceptance while continuing to live a life of decency, kindness and compassion.

Those who fall into the last category are guided by words spoken early in the book. The ambiguous character Oberleutenant Etzel von Studmann who survives but only with a shadow of a life is speaking to the Rittmeister Joachim von Prackwitz-Neulohe who will be crushed by events beyond his control. Studmann says,

You must simply wait. We learned that from the war. You worried and were afraid only when you were in reserve or lying quietly in the trenches; but once you got the order to advance, then you were alright and went ahead and everything was forgotten. You won’t miss the signal, Prackwitz. We learned in the trenches to wait quietly without brooding over it – why shouldn’t you do the same?”

“You’re right,” said the Rittmeister gratefully, “and I’ll remember it. It’s funny that we seem to have lost the art of waiting. I think it’s this idiotic dollar. Rush, hurry, quick, go and buy something, make haste, run.” 60, 61

Studmann ends the book a lonely isolated man. But he has articulated wisdom here that is caried always on the periphery of the narrative in the life of Wolfgang’s girlfriend, the poor and powerless Petra Ledig. She alone in the book “simply waits”. And when the time is right, the wisdom is there for her to find the best way forward.

This is the promise of Fallada’s book. We do have within us the wisdom and strength to navigate whatever strange unpredictable circumstances may be inflicted upon us. He describes Wolfgang Pagel, who through the course of the book grows to maturity, saying that,

There was a time when great burdens were loaded on him, but he endured. Endured only? No, he was made strong, he discovered something in himself which gave him a foothold, something indestructible. (p. 793)

This is a time of “great burdens” but we will “endure” and, as we endure, we will find within us “something indestructible”.

There is a light; but it is not “at the end of the tunnel”. The light is here, now, in every human heart. The most fundamental question for this day is to ask ourselves what helps us stay connected to the light in the midst of the dark.