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Although both its artistry and its themes have drawn contradictory evaluations, The Clown artfully reveals the perceptions of the title character, Hans Schnier. Hans’s past-tense narration of three crucial hours creates the immediacy of stream of consciousness, punctuated with telephone conversations that trigger Hans’s opinionated memories of his childhood in World War II and his life as an outsider in the postwar period.

Returning to his Bonn apartment, drunken, failed, and penniless after an injury on stage, Hans, the scion of the “brown-coal Schniers,” who has separated himself from his wealthy family and their values, grieves that his companion, Marie Derkam, the Catholic daughter of an old socialist, has left him after seven years to marry Heribert Züpfner, a Catholic lay functionary. Hans telephones his family and Marie’s circle of Catholics to seek money and news of Marie. In conversations with the Catholic officials, Hans espouses the spiritual and sensual marriage in which the lovers “offer each other the sacrament” and rejects the validity of legal and ecclesiastical marriage if it lacks reciprocal grace. Denying the virtue of Hans’s relationship with Marie, the Catholics defend submission to “abstract principles of order” and reveal that Marie and Züpfner are honeymooning in Rome.

A call to Hans’s socially prominent mother, a nationalist racist who in 1945 urged a last stand of children against the “Jewish Yankee” but now directs the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences, points up the hypocrisy of many rehabilitated Nazis in postwar Germany—as do Hans’s recollections of Herbert Kalick, his Hitler Youth leader who has been decorated for popularizing democracy among the youth of postwar Germany. Hans cannot forget or forgive Kalick’s responsibility for the death of a little orphan boy. Nor can Hans forgive his mother’s sending her adolescent daughter, Henrietta, to death on antiaircraft patrol in the last days of the war.

Informed that Hans is in Bonn, his father, the industrialist whose fine looks and manner have made him a television spokesman for German economic renewal, visits the apartment and offers to support Hans if he will train with a “famous” mime recommended by a “famous” critic. Hans rejects his father’s philistinism and his reverence for “money in the abstract.” Although he remembers gratefully his father’s having saved two women from execution in 1945, Hans rebuffs the old capitalist who accommodates himself to whatever political and social authority is current.

In other telephone conversations and memories, Hans condemns a popular preacher, Somerwild, and through him the Church, for pseudointellectualism, sophistry, and worldly self-aggrandizement. His brother, Leo, a seminarian, resists breaking curfew to bring Hans companionship and money—further evidence of legalism’s inhibiting the Church’s mission of consolation and charity. In reverie Hans foresees a stultifying conventional middle-class life for Marie and Züpfner.

A call from his agent and meditations on his profession, especially his memory of having refused to play satires on the West German democracy in East Germany, reveal Hans to be an artist in the tradition of the German cabaret clown: an entertainer whose satire reveals society to itself. After the three hours’ traffic that passes in his mind, Hans, integrity intact but completely isolated from both groups and individuals, returns in cracked white face to the train station. There, still looking for a few coins and Marie, he sings a ballad of Catholic politics in Bonn with small hope that his performance may yet make church and state see itself. Yet if Marie, he says, sees him like this and remains with Züpfner, then she is dead and they are divorced. Institutional religion will have killed reciprocal love.

(This entire section contains 612 words.)

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The Clown is a first-person narrative which exposes the accommodations of postwar West German society to the success of the Economic Miracle, that astounding industrial recovery after the destruction of World War II. Members of the highest circles of society, with representatives from church and state as well as the military and industry, have conveniently forgotten the recent past in order to further their personal or institutional successes. They are conformists who no longer recognize their hypocritical existences—until reminded by a renegade clown. For his continued impudence, the clown must suffer without recourse. He lacks the unscrupulous behavior (often disguised as piety, generosity, and human concern) with which the others can so easily dispatch him.

Three months after his girlfriend, Marie Derkum, has left him, Hans Schnier falls during a drunken performance in Bochum and injures his knee. His career is faltering as he returns alone and destitute to his hometown of Bonn. From his apartment, he communicates with family, friends, and acquaintances by telephone, ostensibly to borrow money but also to rally support to reclaim “his” Marie. These calls are interspersed with his memories of past events. Thus, gradually, the chronology of the entire story unfolds. The novel’s action spans no more than four hours on a March evening.

First, Hans telephones his mother, an “incredibly stupid, and stingy” woman. A German nationalist and racist during the war, when she sent her only daughter Henrietta to fight (and die) on the home front, she is now on the executive committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences. Hans cannot bring himself to beg for money from this hypocrite, so he insults her with memories of her injustices during the Third Reich and hangs up.

During unsuccessful attempts to telephone his brother, Leo, in a seminary, Hans recalls his seduction of Marie six years before, their affair or “marriage,” her two miscarriages, and her leaving him in Hanover after meeting the Catholics Sommerwild and Zupfner. He is prompted to phone Fredebeul and then Kinkel, a liberal Catholic “thinker.” He realizes that he may gain some degree of satisfaction from insulting these opportunists, but such behavior will not help him regain Marie.

Just before his bath, Hans’s telephone rings. His agent, Zohnerer, advises him to forget his “childish” drinking, to train conscientiously for three months, and then to resume his career. Here, Hans repeats his dictum that, by age fifty, a clown has either made it to the palace or to the gutter; he must certainly realize that, at age twenty-seven, he is already not far from the gutter. Still, he cannot concentrate on his career. He weeps when thinking of Marie, Leo, Henrietta, and his father—people who have played significant roles in his past and are now effectively gone from his life.

In the pivotal thirteenth chapter (the structural and literal midpoint of the book), Prelate Sommerwild telephones Hans. Hans learns that Marie has married Zupfner and is now on her honeymoon, on the way to Rome, probably for an audience with the Pope. With Sommerwild’s official confirmation of the marriage ceremony, despair sets in.

Hans’s melancholy is interrupted by the doorbell. His father, Alfons Schnier, has come to hire an expert trainer and, thus, subsidize Hans’s career, but Hans insists that he does not require an expert, only money. Despite their mutual respect, his father cannot give money to someone who will simply spend it and not invest it. Both father and son respect each other and yearn for the contact of a warm and loving relationship. Because of their differing attitudes, however, they can find no common ground, and the father leaves.

Finally Hans’s brother, Leo, calls. Hans has pinned his greatest hopes on Leo, who has always been considerate and extremely generous with his limited funds. Unfortunately, Leo has little money and cannot come this evening. (He has a curfew in the seminary and will not break it.) In addition, Leo now seems to have joined the Catholic establishment that is trying to separate Hans from Marie. Disillusioned, Hans hangs up on his brother, thus forfeiting his last hope for outside help.

In desperation, Hans paints his face deathly white with cold cream; when dry, this mask begins to flake and crack, creating a deathly visage. He then takes his guitar and leaves for the train station, where he will sit on the steps, singing liturgical music and protest songs until Marie returns to the station from her Roman honeymoon. Her reaction, upon seeing Hans in misery, will determine his fate: She will either embrace him, and all will be well again; or she will ignore him, signaling his complete desolation. Since it is March and the middle of Mardi Gras, however, his garish appearance cannot be distinguished from those of the many costumed revelers. Is he to sit there throughout Lent as a sign of protest or penance? Will he be able to rise above his persecution as the religious season might imply, or will he commit suicide in recognition of his hopeless fate, as his death mask suggests?