Missing Persons, and Other Essays Essay - Critical Essays

Heinrich Boll

Missing Persons, and Other Essays

Fifteen books of fiction by the Nobel laureate, Heinrich Böll, are already available in English translation and are now joined by this volume of nonfiction prose. Contained in the volume are twenty-nine essays, reviews, speeches, and miscellaneous pieces which were selected by the translator in cooperation with the author from more than twenty years of essayistic writing on a wide variety of subjects. The selections are organized in three categories in the book: Essays, Reviews, and Miscellany. One could quarrel with this division since some of the items under Essays are as much literary reviews or more so than some of the reviews which digress from the work at hand to long essayistic passages on aesthetic, sociological, or political subjects. The Miscellany contains Böll’s Nobel lecture before the Swedish Academy, as well as two other addresses at awards festivities. This section, furthermore, contains Böll’s forwards to two books, his response to a questionnaire, and his personal reaction to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops.

The difficulties of categorizing are, however, insignificant, since the real value of the book lies in its breadth of selection and the variety of items enclosed.

The volume in many ways mirrors Böll’s entire literary work, in which it would be possible—and indeed critics have often done so—to point out weaknesses, banalities, and places where the author apparently loved his characters more than art and was willing to compromise the latter to ease the fate of the former. However, taken as a whole his work holds an impressive position in postwar European literature as evidenced by Böll’s selection for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972 as well as by the great popularity his work enjoys in both West and East Germany and in translations abroad.

The work at hand affords a valuable insight into the workshop and the mind of its author. It presents some of his thoughts, concerns, and priorities in a somewhat different mode than the fictional works and thus is not only interesting reading but also an important tool for the Böll scholar.

In spite of Böll’s large volume of literary production and the wide variety of themes and situations dealt with in his works, it is not difficult to point out some major recurrent themes in his opus. One of them is the war and its influence on the generations touched by it. In the essay “Trying to Close the Gap,” Böll states that all his novels attempt to close the gap “to all that is inexplicable” in recent German history. The complaint by critics and commentators that Böll is overly preoccupied with World War II is broached in this same essay and an attempt at refuting this criticism is made by asserting that every novel, except for the Utopian, even the so-called contemporary novel, is historical if for no other reason than that of the inevitable time lag between writing and publishing. In apparent self-defense Böll also points out that Tolstoy was even further removed in time from his material when writing War and Peace than contemporary authors dealing with World War II.

In the essay “’In Defense of Rubble Literature,’” Böll again deals with the same criticism leveled against him, and with the reproachful labeling of his literature as being one of “war, homecoming, and rubble.” Such labels are not incorrect, but reproaching postwar authors for writing about what they have seen is, in Böll’s opinion, reprehensible since “a sharp eye is one of a writer’s essential tools.” As an example of writers and readers who have played blind man’s buff, Böll discusses the French aristocracy, which was taken aback by the revolution because it had lived in idyllic seclusion and was supported in its notion of peacefulness by the authors of pastoral novels and plays. Another example presented by Böll is Adolf Hitler, who in his work Mein Kampf did not portray the world as it was but in “the distortion created by his inner self.” The effect of his distorted view of reality needs no elaboration.

On the other hand, Charles Dickens wrote about what he saw, and his books were read and caused a reappraisal and a changing of many of the reprehensible aspects of the society...

(The entire section is 1745 words.)