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.
The Clown is a first-person narrative which exposes the accommodations of postwar West German society to the...
(The entire section is 1,465 words.)