In an interview given in 1976, Böll remarked: “There are authors whose immediate impulse to write is political. Mine was not.” Indeed, he asserted, perhaps denying the salutary effects of didactic literature, perhaps denying the effects of circumstances on character, “I am of the conviction that what comes to one from outside does not change one very much. . . . Everything history throws at one’s feet, war, peace, Nazis, communists, the bourgeois, is really secondary.” Nevertheless, sociopolitical criticism, even satire, plays a primary part in his writings—so much so that Böll-scholar Robert Conrad warns critics against denying that Böll’s work is “motivated by the challenge to gain aesthetic control over the experience of Nazi Germany, postwar guilt, and the inadequacies of West German democracy.” Moreover, at the end of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Böll’s narrator affirms, though ironically: “Art still has a social function.”
Böll’s art indeed has a social function. In the early war story Traveller, If You Come to Spa, Böll discredits classical education that encourages war by emphasizing the martial: A mutilated soldier evacuated to his old Gymnasium, now a field hospital, observes the schoolroom ornaments—statues of a hoplite, Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great—and a war memorial. Acquainted with the Night shows the inequities in the currency revaluation and the Economic Miracle: A middle-aged husband working full-time cannot earn a decent living for his family. Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1955; The Bread of Our Early Years, 1957), shows another side: An up-and-coming young employee, whose former poverty has made him acquisitive, at last rejects the capitalist system, its excess profits, and its callousness, which is manifested in his fiancé, the boss’s daughter. Haus ohne Hüter (1954; Tomorrow and Yesterday, 1957) shows poverty almost naturalistically determining the choices of one war widow, whereas another lives in inherited wealth not redistributed in the postwar democracy. The Clown castigates the cooperative establishment—the government, economic system, and Church—which lacks concern for the little people. Group Portrait with Lady criticizes the Communist Party for failure to live by its principles and Christian Democratic capitalism for its very tenets: profit, private ownership, self-interest, the exploitation of natural and human resources. The novel offers an alternative: direct antiexploitation action, rejection of excess profit taking, moderate work, and informal socialism. Böll’s last book, about corruption in the Bonn government, “the only state we have,” is certainly political.
Böll also said that he considered writing primarily a craft, but some critics have found his diction flat and his narration neither craftsmanlike nor inspired. Most, however, have recognized that Böll, like Günter Grass and other contemporaries, solved the problem of writing with a language that Nazi usage had made depraved and untruthful, by using elementary diction and syntax to reflect elemental or indifferent conditions, by playing ironically on Nazi perversions of the language, and by “bring[ing] something from a foreign terrain” into German by translating foreign literature. Böll has proven able to use diction and syntax to create many individual voices in his complex and sophisticated narrative structures.
In Böll’s style and structure, critic J. H. Reid has found a number of the “marks of modernism”: the disappearance of the “’omniscient,’ commenting narrator” and his assumed audience; the reduction of chronological plot; “a tendency to spatialize . . . through montage, leitmotifs, and the reduction of narrated time.” In Acquainted with the Night, for example, the husband and wife narrate alternate chapters, apparently as interior monologues with no communication between the two or with the reader. Though the narration of Tomorrow and Yesterday and Billiards at Half-Past Nine is in the third person, the narrator is rarely apparent; both novels are told from multiple viewpoints of unreliable characters, in two cases those of confused adolescents. In Billiards at Half-Past Nine, the account of three generations of a German middle-class family is refracted in the characters’ memories in the course of ten hours. One character’s daily billiard playing serves as a leitmotif; his random creation of geometric patterns by rolling the balls over the table symbolizes the apparently random structure of the novel. (Böll, of course, had to plan the structure carefully; he often did so with complex spatial color graphs.)
These practices create an autonomous aesthetic structure detached from literary traditions and, in many modern novels, an autonomous subjective world detached from the external world. In The Clown, for instance, the world is presented exclusively as Hans Schnier understands it. Yet, in The Clown, as in most of Böll’s works, the real world and real time are the objects of the narrator’s perceptions, and Böll’s social criticism seldom gets lost in the narrator’s psyche.
In his later works, Böll employs numerous postmodern (or premodern) techniques, as in Entfernung von der Truppe (1964; Absent Without Leave, 1965). Commentator Hans Magnus Enzenberger has enunciated the...
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