Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 9)
Böll, Heinrich 1917–
A West German novelist, short story writer, playwright, translator, and essayist, Böll, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, is one of the most prolific and widely read of postwar German authors. His works, which depict a middle-class world through stark realism and a sharp wit, reflect Böll's uncompromising humanism. His realism is often viewed as a reaction to the German tradition of complex, psychologically probing prose. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Events in Böll's novels are presented from the perspective of alienated characters through whose minds and eyes we view the German scene. Böll undoubtedly learned from the American successors of Joyce and of Gertrude Stein. Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner are influences, direct and indirect, on the form of his narratives. Böll eliminates the omniscient comment of the authorial voice and presents all situations and events through the sense impressions, memory, and reflections of his characters. At times he approaches the stream of consciousness.
Böll's earliest novels dealing with postwar Germany—Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953) and Haus ohne Hüter (1954)—present a world in which the determining force of events seems to be material and economic. In naturalistic fashion, environment and circumstances seem to determine human actions and fate. In specific terms, the material and social consequences of the lost war apparently mould human life in Böll's postwar Germany….
The structure of Haus ohne Hüter seems to reinforce the naturalistic view of human destiny as determined by socioeconomic circumstances. The novel consists largely of five alternating perspectives on a postwar German city. Two war widows and the only child of each provide four of these perspectives…. Each must come to grips with life deprived of its center, life without help, comfort, and completeness. This parallelism of perspectives of human deprivation in two widely different economic strata makes us suspect that the naturalistic interpretation may be less than adequate.
In one passage of the novel Böll makes the socioeconomic interpretation of the novel's events give way to a moral evaluation. The shift takes place literally and explicitly before the reader's eyes. Young Heinrich Briesach considers his mother's love life and the succession of "uncles" it imposes upon him. Why doesn't she get married, he wonders. (p. 11)
Haus ohne Hüter shows that the victimization of postwar Germans by historical circumstances—the war and its aftereffects—is much more than that. It is a victimization by evil, by human wickedness and folly. Nella becomes a war widow because her husband, Rai, was deliberately sacrificed to the offended vanity of his wartime commanding officer, Lieutenant Gäseler. Rai, Nella, and their child are victims, not of impersonal historical forces or social determinants, but of a villain's chicanery. Böll thus clearly presents a morally determined chain of cause and effect.
The unmasking of apparently social and economic causes as moral, psychic, and spiritual problems is essential to Böll's early novels. (In the later novels it is unnecessary, since the moral and spiritual basis of human behavior is explicitly shown from the beginning.) In Und sagte the marriage of the two persons through whose perspectives we experience early postwar Germany is apparently destroyed by the strains and stresses of overcrowded living conditions. On a deeper level, however, it is not the external situation that determines the fate of the marriage, but the husband's inner conflict between the drive for selfish freedom and the restrictive obligations that monogamous love and fatherhood impose. Self-indulgent eros and self-curtailing agape struggle in him for the possession of his soul. Essentially we witness not a social, but a Christian problem clothed in social and economic guise. The subtle interaction between the disguise and the underlying psychic and moral truth informs this novel with an inner tension that makes Und sagte, after Wo warst du, Adam?, Böll's artistically most successful work.
The conclusion of Wo warst du, Adam? (1951), the earliest of Böll's novels, takes place in the concluding stages of the Second World War. It can be taken as an apt point of departure for a closer consideration of the perspectives on postwar Germany given in Böll's three longest and latest novels, Haus ohne Hüter, Billard um halbzehn (1959), and Ansichten eines Clowns (1963).
At the end of Wo warst du, Adam? two perspectives converge upon a German town as the war is drawing to a close. The town lies in a no man's land between the American troops, who are not yet ready to enter, and the German army that, obedient to Hitler's command, refuses to give an inch. From the windows of the town's houses fly white flags of surrender.
One perspective is that of the German deserter Feinhals. The town is his home and he has decided that as far as he is concerned the war is over. Before descending, he gazes down upon his native place from an adjacent hill. Feinhals is a decent chap; he despises the Nazis and has always been defeatist about the war. He fell in love with a Jewish girl, Ilona (who, without his knowledge, has meanwhile been murdered in a concentration camp), and he looks forward to his homecoming and a modest career. Above all he plans to savor the joy of being alive.
The other perspective is that of the German army post located on another hill above the town. The post has orders to observe the town and bombard it in case of suspicious activity. There is "suspicious activity," since an American vehicle drives over from the American-occupied area and parks for a while in front of a certain house. The vehicle actually brings an American officer to his German sweetheart. The officer formerly in command of the observation post, knowing that the war was senseless and over in any case, but yet attempting to obey commands, spares the town and lets some shots fall in a swampy marsh nearby. Schniewind, however, new commander of the post, an ambitious and insecure careerist whose war decorations are of very recent date, resents the "traitorous" white flags and decides to punish the town. He shoots into it. One of the grenades kills Feinhals as he is about to enter his parental home.
This conclusion of Böll's war novel adumbrates his subsequent novels about postwar Germany in a number of ways. The opposition between Feinhals and Schniewind as representative characters of Germany anticipates the structural basis of the three novels: Haus ohne Hüter, Billard um halbzehn, and Ansichten eines Clowns. In these novels the descendants of Feinhals and Schniewind face each other as victims and victimizers both during and after the Nazi period. The Feinhals group of characters are decent, kind, and gentle. These characters are lovers of life, opponents of war, and haters of Nazism. Both during and after the Nazi era they are destined to be victims of the Schniewind type. The Schniewind characters are vain, ambitious careerists, profoundly insecure, and obsessed with the need to collect worldly honors—the craving for war decorations characterizes them. They are fanatics and bullies, petty, mean, and contemptible. Naturally, they are or were ardent supporters of Nazism and the war. Feinhals' descendants are simple, humble, and self-assured. Life and love are self-evident values for them. Schniewind's descendants are those who fear and hate life, twisted egotists in constant need of being reassured. The slightest opposition unnerves and infuriates them. In the display of love and friendship they see provocations to be punished. It is symptomatic and symbolic that the "suspicious activity" observed by the German post is a love tryst between two recent enemies, and that what particularly annoys Schniewind is the display of the white flags of peace.
Apart from the general dualism represented by the two camps (so reminiscent of Dostoevsky, whom Böll … [has] named as one of the most important influences on his development), particular details of structure link Böll's novels of postwar Germany (the exception of Und sagte always understood) to the pattern established by the end of Wo warst du, Adam? In all three novels the bloodstained inheritance of Nazism and war overshadows the postwar period. In that past, Nazis or militaristic supporters of the war committed the direct or indirect murder of good, innocent persons. In each case the murderers are inferior, vain, narrow, pretentious, obviously insecure, and thus easily provoked to anger like Schniewind in Wo warst du, Adam? Their victims are infinitely superior to them. They are cut off in the flower of their youth, and because of their innocence and capacity for enjoying life and love their death appears all the more horribly and tragically senseless, a wasteful sacrifice without meaning, a destruction of human values never to be recouped.
In all these cases there is a surviving witness to the murders, as the orderly, Bechtels, in Wo warst du, Adam?, who witnesses Schniewind's decision to bombard the town. In the later novels this witness-figure is at the same time a victim who managed to survive…. In postwar Germany, Böll's witness-figure lives in self-chosen seclusion and will have nothing to do with the accepted mores, fashions, and powers of the Bonn Republic. An inward petrifaction, an absence of all ambition and worldly interest, characterizes him. Most perspectives of Böll's novels are the perspectives of such shocked and hurt witness-figures, who carry the deep wound of what they saw into the postwar era. (pp. 11-16)
These witnesses and victims, surviving in postwar Germany, live curiously detached lives. They are so deeply hurt that they are not able to recover and overcome their traumatic loss. They have renounced all desire to participate in life. They keep, often outwardly and always inwardly, aloof from society and resemble relics from a bygone era. The tragedy of postwar Germany, as seen through Böll's perspectives, is this nonparticipation of her best children, who are too bruised to be of use. Nella, in Haus ohne Hüter, refuses to remarry and instead drifts in and out of meaningless affairs because she is resolved never again to offer the reassuring sight of a happy wife and mother to the country that murdered her husband. The appearance of domestic bliss would be an advertisement of forgiveness and forgetfulness to which she will not lend herself. (pp. 16-17)
Robert Fähmel, in Billard um halbzehn, leads a life of inhuman formality and rigid routine. To his young secretary, who cannot comprehend a life so lifeless and devoid of human spontaneity and warmth, he presents a disquieting enigma. He who has the talent to be a first-rate architect does not take up architecture after the war. He is content to serve as a humble consultant in statics. What he has witnessed under the Nazis has killed all creative ambition in him. His life now is only a shadow of what it might have been and a memory of the hurt received long ago. Like Nella, Robert Fähmel denies himself the act of re-creating. Nella will have no part in the re-creation of a happy family, and Robert Fähmel will not contribute his talent to the recreation of the ruined German cities….
Schrella, in his London exile, has similarly withdrawn into the routine of teaching German grammar in an English school. He refuses to find renewed attachment to his native city, and to life itself, when he pays a visit to the scenes of his past…. Like Nella and Fähmel, Schrella declines to make the gesture of reconciliation with normalcy, which, in his case, would be to return from exile. The remembrance of that which they witnessed remains the basic truth of these lives—a truth they will not change, cover up, and, least of all, forget.
An extreme form of exile from normal life is the insane asylum to which Robert Fähmel's mother was retired after she witnessed the deportation of the Jews and where she still finds herself sixteen years later. There cannot be a more telling detachment from the bustling and forgetful new normalcy of postwar Germany than life among the extreme deviants from normality. (p. 17)
In Wo warst du, Adam? the life of the victimized witness to Hitler's war is snuffed out physically on the threshold of the postwar world. The lives of Böll's subsequent witness-figures are cut off emotionally, arrested and frozen inwardly, before they enter the postwar era. It is their destiny to be permanently estranged from the life of their country.
The complementary side of this victimization of the best is the continuing triumph of the worst. Nothing has basically changed since the Nazi period. The confrontation of anti-Nazi victim with Nazi victimizer persists in the postwar years in essentially the same constellation as during the Nazi era…. It is symptomatic that Feinhals suffers his fate almost under the noses of the Americans. This spatial arrangement shows that the military victory of the Allies and the occupation of Germany will neither dislodge the Nazis from their positions of power in German society, nor aid and protect their victims…. In Haus ohne Hüter former Nazis, under old and new Christian labels, are the shapers of the cultural scene, and go on speaking of "elites." (pp. 18-19)
There are ironic touches: In Haus ohne Hüter Gäseler plans to publish the poems of the man he murdered. In Billard Schrella owes his release from the prison of the Federal Republic to his one-time Nazi torturer, Nettlinger, which does not prove the ex-Nazi's kindness, but rather shows his power and influence in the Bonn Republic. (p. 19)
This pessimistic view derives from the essentially Christian dualism underlying the structure of Böll's novels. In them, the anti-Nazis resemble the persecuted and despised followers of the Lord, martyrs and confessors of the truth. A small band of the forlorn few, they face the huge army of the wicked, who rule the world for Satan. Nazi Germany had waged the ancient war of evil against innocence with brutal frankness. Postwar Germany continues it subtly and hypocritically.
The opposition of the two camps reaches, in Böll's novels, far beyond Nazism and anti-Nazism. It is ultimately not a political, but a moral, spiritual, and religious dualism, which is founded on Christianity but has a Manichaean element in it. The Nazis' persecution of their victims is seen as a variant of the age-old battle between good and evil, light and darkness, holy grace and unholy power. (p. 20)
Böll's dualism receives its most explicit, allegorical formulation in Billard um halbzehn. In this novel Germany (and mankind) is divided into two groups: One group consists of those who have consumed the sacrament of the buffalo, which is the sacrament of violence, and they form the vast majority. The other group, a tiny minority, consists of those who follow the sacrament of the lamb of peace. The latter refuse to partake of the sacrament of violence and are, therefore, destined to be the victims of violence. They will, in each generation, be singled out for persecution by the followers of the buffalo. Nazism is a phase in the buffalo's timeless orgy of oppression. In the 1930's the Nazi bully Nettlinger led the other boys in terrorizing Schrella, who was of the lamb's brotherhood. In the 1950's the bellboy Hugo suffers the same kind of juvenile persecution, but now no Nazis are among the tormentors. Hugo, gifted with marvelous charm and grace, is by his very grace and gentleness fated to be in his generation what Schrella was in the last—the lamb that forever arouses the buffalo's urge to persecute and violate. We are reminded of Abel, who, favored with the grace of the Lord, aroused the murderous envy of Cain. The symbolism of lamb and shepherd used by Böll establishes immediate associations not only with Abel, the shepherd slain like a lamb, but also with Christ, who is lamb and shepherd, sacrifice and judge, in one. As we shall see, in Böll the lamb sometimes becomes shepherd; the victim may turn judge. In that ancient battle between buffalo and lamb, Cain and Abel, world and Christ, labels and watchwords change, but the essence remains the same. In this struggle the lambs, who are not of this world, must go under, while the buffalo wins and reinherits, again and again, the power and glory of this world. In the framework of Böll's dualism, the Nazi type, therefore, cannot be truly defeated, but after each apparent defeat continues to hold power and victimize the good.
As stated before, Böll produces the image of Germany through perspectives, through literal as well as figurative views. The physical or mental act of viewing a place, a scene, a person, has decisive structural and symbolic significance in Böll's works. The world of his novels is a focal area of converging perspectives. (pp. 21-2)
The act of seeing is structurally and symbolically decisive at the end of Und sagte. Having separated from his wife, the husband sees a woman in the street who moves and fascinates him with a strange intensity. Tense with excitement, he watches the stranger, follows her with his glances, and discovers that she is his wife. Seeing through the perspective of estrangement teaches him that the woman who touches his life's nerve, the woman destined for him, is his wife. He sees her now as if for the first time, and this view restores in him the sacredness of his marriage, against which he had rebelled. From a distractedness of the heart, which used poverty as a pretext, he had degraded marriage to the imitation of an illicit love affair conducted in hotel rooms. The visionary recognition of his wife shows him the sacrament as his inner truth. The husband's last words, "nach Hause" (homewards), with which the novel closes, point to a spiritual significance contained in the physical homecoming to wife and children.
The importance of view and vision in Böll's work becomes clear to us when we recall the thematic and structural significance of the witness-figure. A witness, we must remember, is one who sees and on the basis of his vision testifies to the truth. Böll's novels are told from the point of view of victims and witnesses. The view of victim and witness tends to become, in his later novels, the view of accuser and judge.
The view of the avenging judge forms the nucleus around which Billard um halbzehn is structured. Robert Fähmel executes Hitler's scorched-earth strategy literally with a vengeance. Ostensibly an instrument of the buffalo, he avenges the martyred lamb. He becomes a demolition expert in order to blow up prized buildings and monuments of his buffalo-worshipping nation. In the enemy's service, he explodes the enemy's pride.
Robert Fähmel's judgment on the objects of German national pride—monuments and precious buildings—is literally based upon the act of viewing. Perspective and action merge in this novel. Taking the view of the object and determining the Schussfeld is the condition for executing the moral judgment and verdict of condemnation. The accusing witness and judge's view carries the plot both literally and figuratively.
With each act of viewing Robert Fähmel delivers a judgment. As he gazes out on the lobby of the fashionable Hotel Prinz Heinrich his vision transforms the hotel guests into damned souls in hell; his look pronounces the Last Judgment. (pp. 22-3)
In Haus ohne Hüter we view Rai's murderer, Gäseler, through the witness, Albert, who relates the murder, and through Rai's widow, Nella, who is eager to avenge her husband. These two viewings of Gäseler form two bridge posts, as it were—one in the recollected past, the other in the immediate present—that connect two major strands of the plot like a bridge across time. Planning her revenge, Nella literally views Gäseler, as she sits next to him in his car. The man she sees now, however, is too trivial to serve as the objective of something so great and meaningful as vengeance. (pp. 23-4)
Robert Fähmel's mother yearned for an opportunity to kill those Nazi officials of her city who were responsible for so much suffering. Yet when the occasion does come and she views, with loaded pistol, the former Nazis preparing for their parade, she sees them as a group of aging, pathetic, and ridiculous philistines—museum pieces not worth a bullet.
These insights into the futility of vengeance, which occur near the end of Böll's novels, are never signs of Christian forgiveness. Böll, with his nearly Manichaean separation of good and evil characters, never presents contrition and regeneration in the villains, nor do his characters refrain from retribution because they feel that judgment belongs to God alone…. The Nazi villains turn out to be banal philistines and petty snobs who lack all access to the daemonic. They are merely bores, and boredom makes vengeance irrelevant. These Nazi murders are not in the least diabolical. They are small and laughable men who do not have the slightest inkling of the scope and the meaning of their actions. (p. 24)
In Böll's novels, however, a sharp distinction is made between vengeance on individuals and the struggle against Nazism or, more broadly speaking, the attitudes of which Nazism formed the most vicious manifestation. Viewing the personal enemy makes vengeance seem fatuous; viewing the scene of the enemy's actions or the works of his pride confirms the resolve to battle against him. (p. 25)
Robert Fähmel, as we have seen, dedicates his whole life to vengeance; but it is not a vengeance against individuals. He punishes human pride by leveling its objects. In Böll the deadly sin of pride appears in its specific modern form as snobbery. It is the bread of the unholy sacrament of violence. Snobbery invests the architectural monuments and landmarks of one's country with an aura of national superiority. Snobbery ranges in Böll from gluttonous ostentation to arrogant intellectualism. In all its varieties, however, it contains two principles: hierarchy and exclusiveness. The soldier's mania for collecting war medals and decorations—a leitmotiv in the stories and novels of Böll; the officer's insistence on having his rank respected and obeyed; the Nazi's racial arrogance; the gourmand's gorging himself while others have to starve; the gourmet's connoisseurship; the clique member's contempt of the uninitiated; and the intellectual's sneer at those educated in other ways than himself: all these are the variants of snobbery in Böll's work.
In Böll's perspectives snobbery always embraces cruelty. There is cruelty in the gloating emphasis with which Martin's grandmother, in Haus ohne Hüter, seated in an expensive restaurant, tears apart and devours her portion of lamb. She and all other diners in that plush restaurant consume their food as though proclaiming their triumphant power in the universe. The view of this frightens the boy Martin and sickens him…. Martin identifies with the lamb and, therefore, cannot eat it. Like the followers of the sacrament of the lamb in the later novel, Martin excludes himself from the sacrament of violence into which his anxiety-inspired vision transforms the restaurant. These bourgeois diners seem to be performing a cannibalistic ritual. Viewed by the outside, they have become a savage society which bestows status upon those who can kill, lacerate, and consume the greatest number of victims. The novel makes an implicit connection between the smug voracity of these gourmands and the murderous cruelty by which the Nazis realized their idea of social exclusiveness and superiority. In Böll the ultimate form of snobbery is murder. Murder drives exclusiveness, on which all snobbery is founded, to its logical conclusion.
A subtle form of snobbery is found to be the decisive flaw in Heinrich Fähmel's life, as he reviews it. He had possessed grace. He was talented, worked without effort, was distinguished by suppleness of body and mind. Frail of build, a spiritual type, he resembled a young rabbi. Heinrich Fähmel's Jewish appearance confirmed the impression that he was one of the chosen. For in Böll's works Jews are always among the elect, endowed with grace, but victimized and slain by the envious descendants of Cain. The racially Jewish girl, Ilona, in Wo warst du, Adam?, whose marvelous singing in the extermination camp affirms the Creator in the midst of hell, and Absalom Billig, in Haus ohne Hüter, whose brilliant caricatures of the Nazis earned him their special hatred and destined him to be the first Jewish victim in his city, both exemplify the role of the Jews as vanguard in the ranks of Abel. (pp. 25-7)
Heinrich Fähmel, however, had strayed from his nature. He compromised with the world. He betrayed himself by adopting the appearance of snobbery, which is the mark of Cain, the sign of the buffalo's sacrament. Heinrich Fähmel's snobbery was based upon his decision to get on in the world and adapt himself outwardly to the violent buffalo…. Taking his daily breakfast in the Café Kroner bestowed that aura of distinction upon Heinrich Fähmel. The Café Kroner routine symbolized his surrender to the world…. Heinrich Fähmel attempted to live in both worlds. His heart remained with the lambs; but his façade was established among the worshippers of the buffalo. He was ready to serve the powers that were and gave his share to his country's war effort. The formula worked. He succeeded famously among the respectable and violent. The first, and most gratifying, token of his success was his victory in the competition for building the new abbey of St. Anton's. He obtained the order to build it, and the abbey became one of those architectural landmarks of which educated Germans were proud.
The conflict, however, between his true nature, represented by his marriage and home life, and his social role, symbolized by the Café Kroner, was reflected in the radically opposed characters of his sons. Otto, adopting his father's outward adjustment as his own inner conviction, became a Nazi; faithful to his father's original nature, Robert joined the persecuted lambs as their "shepherd" and helper, and lived to annual his father's work.
In the end, Heinrich Fähmel comes, independently of Robert's judgment, to the same conclusion. Because it had been divided between personal truth and public falsehood, he judges his life as wanting, and condemns the public façade and the monument it has become as worth being defaced and spat upon. When he learns that it was his own son who had blown up the monument of his fame, the abbey of St. Anton's, he approves with relief. What his son had destroyed was a false idol, a monument to his and his country's disastrous egotism. As he brings his wife home from the insane asylum to which he had allowed the Nazis to consign her, he discontinues his breakfast ritual at the Café Kroner. His last act in the novel is to repeat symbolically the execution of his pride which his son had performed actually; he cuts into the birthday cake which had been presented to him in the shape of his famous abbey and joyfully proceeds to demolish it.
The Catholic author Böll chooses a Catholic monument to represent false values. Destroying his father's abbey, Robert Fähmel executes judgment over the self-betrayal of Catholicism. This is, indeed, a major theme of Böll's more recent novels. A significant shift in the role played by Catholicism, and Christianity in general, occurs in his work.
In the early Wo warst du, Adam? Catholicism plays an entirely positive role. It shames and inwardly overcomes the concentration camp commander. His victim, distinguished by grace, is Jewish by race but Catholic by faith, a combination that infuriates him. Upon his command, she sings Catholic hymns with an artless perfection that proclaims the grace within her and testifies to God and life eternal. The message reaches him as it refutes him, his ideology, and his whole way of life. Killing her and ordering all Jews massacred immediately, he admits his defeat and confirms her victory; for his rash action thwarts all his plans and shows that he has lost all control of himself. He has his pet project and possession, his choir of Jewish inmates, wiped out with the rest of the camp. That strange choir, art literally imprisoned, had served the gratification of the commander's snobbery. As owner of such an oddity in an extermination camp, he appeared as a connoisseur, a capricious and refined Nazi, one possessing the power to indulge strange whims. Issuing forth from the voice of the Jewish girl, Catholicism proves its triumph by driving him to destroy the object of his special pride.
Und sagte also presents Catholicism positively. The husband's final recognition of his monogamous love, his wish to return to his family and home, are consonant with the Catholic view of the sacredness and the sacramental character of marriage. Organized Christianity begins to play a negative role in Haus ohne Hüter. Although most of the good characters are churchgoing and genuinely pious, the villains in the novel are militant Christians. The leader of their circle, Schurbigel, attempted to infuse Christianity into Nazism and advocated joining the Storm Troopers in order to Christianize them from within. Here we come upon one reason why Christianity is connected with negative characters. These "Christians" opt for compromise with worldly ambition. They wish to join the violence of the world with one half of themselves, while keeping the other in the camp of Christ. Thereby they commit the kind of self-betrayal by which Heinrich Fähmel jeopardizes his grace.
The guilt of the militant Christians in Haus ohne Hüter, however, is even more fundamental. After the war and the defeat of Nazism, they use the prestige of Christian views to rehabilitate themselves and rise to dominant positions in the postwar world. They make of Christian culture and politics the fashionable cult of a clique, to which they can tie their careers. They sin against the Christian spirit of humility and nondiscrimination. Although calling themselves Christians, they exercise the arrogant exclusiveness that was the essence of Nazism.
In this novel one may even detect a subtle parable of the relationship between fallible churchmen and Christ. The poet Rai, bearer of true grace, is slain. Afterwards he is idolized by the churchlike coterie of intellectuals that is of one spirit with the force that slew him. Indeed, his murderer has become a part of the group. They abuse his name by exploiting it for the reputation it gets them. Promoting the poetry of an anti-Nazi, they can prove how anti-Nazi they themselves had been, whereas it was they—one of theirs—who slew him. (pp. 27-30)
The role of Catholicism in Billard is the reverse of what it was in Böll's earlier work. What we see of it now is not even ambiguous, as Christianity was in Haus ohne Hüter; it is entirely negative. In Billard Catholicism is clearly allied with the buffalo and condones the persecution of the lambs, in whom we must see symbolic representatives of the true Church. Yet even though the perspective and the plot of Billard do mete out severe judgment on the representatives of the Catholic Church, Catholics are as yet merely subsidiary fellow travelers of evil, and not its prime embodiment. In Böll's latest novel, Ansichten eines Clowns, however, militant and proselytizing spokesmen of intellectual Catholicism are the primary antagonists and persecutors of the hero-narrator of the novel. Catholicism has suffered a complete reversal of its original function in Böll's work; it has become the villain.
The only positive character in Ansichten eines Clowns, the clown-narrator himself, is an agnostic. But he, the nonbeliever, is a good man, while the proselytizing Catholics, his opponents, are hypocrites and snobs. (pp. 30-1)
The clown's Nazi mother and the Catholic intellectuals of postwar Germany represent and enact the same attitude. In the name of ideology, they destroy human life. Their ideological dedication is the means by which they are able to exercise their power and indulge their hostility toward the innocent, natural joy of life. The clown's mother is not only a Nazi fanatic, but an avaricious Spartan as well. She kept her children on a lean and joyless diet, and from principle denied them everything that might brighten and cheer their lives. Similarly, Böll's Catholics despise the unpretentious joy afforded by the clown's natural art, and resent the simple happiness of his relationship with Marie. Because they cannot bear the sight of such ingenuous and pure fulfillment, they are set upon destroying it. Cain's envy of Abel's grace remains for Böll, in this latest work, the archetypal model of persecution and murder, as it was in his previous works. (pp. 31-2)
It is the irony of this novel that the agnostic clown is, in a fundamental sense, more truly Catholic than the Catholic ideologues who despise him. For he, the infidel, holds the Catholic idea of the indissolubility of marriage, whereas they not only persuade his wife to desert him, but also ask him to acquiesce to her new marriage to another man. As in Und sagte, monogamous love is, this time explicitly, the symbol of true Catholic Christianity. It is a token and a representation of eternity in earthly life. The clown's relationship to Marie is not consecrated by the Church; officially it is not a marriage. However, in the clown's heart his love for Marie is his marriage to her and there cannot ever be any other woman for him. His physical and emotional union with her has the force of a sacrament. Böll seems to adopt the view of his clown in Brief an einen jungen Katholiken, where he says: "It is impossible for me to despise that which is erroneously called physical love; such love is the substance of a sacrament, and I pay to it the reverence that I give to unconsecrated bread because it is the substance of a sacrament." In deserting the clown and marrying one of the Catholic leaders, Marie transgresses against the Catholic idea, as interpreted by Böll. Canonical law, by sanctioning Marie's new marriage, contradicts the law of the heart. It consecreates a union that is betrayal of an existing love and therefore, according to the law of the heart, adultery. With this juxtaposition of religious essence and ritualistic legalism, of the true faith of the individual soul and the meretricious formality of the Church, Böll's clown approaches a position that is almost Protestant and is certainly romantic. The clown's position constitutes the extreme point of a development noticeable in Böll's work from its beginnings.
Böll cites the Protestant Kleist as his earliest and most profound literary experience. There is indeed something of Kleist's ideal of the marionette-figure, an ultimately romantic and Rousseauistic ideal, in Böll's heroes—especially in those who, like Ilona, Rai, Absalom Billig, Robert Fähmel, and the clown, are artists or have something artistic in them. They resemble the marionette-type characters of Kleist—Alkmene, the Marquise of O—, Käthchen, and Michael Kohlhaas (Robert Fähmel, the implacable avenger, bears a profound resemblance to the latter). Like these Kleist characters, they possess the unshakable self-assurance and inner certainty that is the mark of innocence. As in Kleist, the primary conflict in Böll's work is that between innocence and worldly crookedness, between the purity of the simple, natural soul and the envious arrogance of the twisted careerist. But, whereas in Kleist innocence and justice win the battle in the end and force the world to acknowledge them, the contemporary author makes a distinction between the obvious physical victory that goes to the wicked and false, and an intangible, ill-definable, spiritual or moral victory that the just obtain for themselves.
Even in Ansichten eines Clowns—in a way, Böll's most pessimistic novel—a kind of victory is wrested from bleak defeat. For the clown is able to resist, and will continue to judge and to accuse. He will not be unfaithful to the memory of his sister's senseless sacrifice and he will not forgive her Nazi murderers; he refuses to betray the sacrament of love; and he will not surrender the art that is his nature. His triple loyalty makes him the figure who remembers in a world that wants only to forget. It also makes him a beggar, because the world will not support so uncomfortable a reminder. It is precisely as a beggar, however, that the clown fulfills his role, which is to be the fool in the traditional sense of the term—the jesting conscience of his society, the living contradiction of its pretended wisdom, the living refutation of its pretended happiness. (pp. 33-4)
Walter Herbert Sokel, "Perspective Dualism in the Novels of Böll," in The Contemporary Novel in German, edited by Robert R. Heitner (copyright © 1967 by the University of Texas Press), University of Texas Press, 1967, pp. 9-35.
Heinrich Böll often lets his better nature get the worst of him. Many of the elements in his early work now seem rather sentimental: the lonely figure of the Landser, the ordinary soldier, a mere pawn overwhelmed by events on the front and stumbling uncomprehendingly and without protest toward an absurd, useless, and inevitable death; the omnipresent railway stations through which people pass on their way to the front or on their return to obliterated homes without ever meeting each other …; the consistent use of flashback techniques which evoke a wistful nostalgia for an orderly, though already hypocritical, world before the war; internal monologues by the main characters, consecutive but rarely converging, thus heightening our awareness that the essential human condition is solitary introspection, not solidarity; and everywhere the orphans and victimized children. Joining with these better impulses is a fine sense of the ridiculous: the music-loving concentration camp commander, Obersturmführer Filskeit, who grants a stay of execution to those prisoners who can enrich the camp choir, and provisionally ignores the principles of his own prize-winning monograph on "the relationship between race and choir." Böll's comment on Dickens' sense of humor seems a perfect self-definition: "Dickens' eye was always a little moist, and the Latin word for moisture is Humor."
Back in the 1950's, when Böll's first novels and tales appeared in English some five years or so after their publication in German, his apparent sentimentality constituted a good measure of his attraction…. His melody was pure; his mode understatement; his style apparently sparse and factual. He was attractive too because he was a Catholic who, despite the war, did not seem to believe in the Apocalypse: he was compassionate rather than visionary. He was perhaps overly fond of his own characters and, implicitly, a bit self-indulgent; he had not yet shaken off that Rhineland sweetness which was later to annoy him so.
Heinrich Böll has a keen sense of the symbolic power of emblematic epigraphs and quotations. Und sagte kein einziges Wort, his 1953 novel attacking religious hypocrisy, has a title which communicates the essence of his Christian vision: "He never said a mumblin' word," sings a Negro. The title is simply a German translation of the refrain from the spiritual (Richard Graves has insensitively given the English version the unfortunate title Acquainted with the Night). "They nailed Him to the Cross, and He never said a word." Christ is the victim, He is overwhelmed by hostile forces, He does not protest His fate, He cannot even understand it—the cry "Lamma, Lamma, Sabachthani" implies a metaphysic beyond the concept of Christ found in the simple spiritual. For the Böll of the novels and stories of the early 1950's, the victims, whether they be foot soldiers or civilians, are Christ; and the executioners are the powerful of the earth, the officers, the industrialists, the Pharisees. As with Dostoevsky, one can often measure in Böll the saintliness of a character by the extent of his silences. The hangmen are articulate; Christ "never said a mumblin' word." (pp. 185-87)
"One must pray in order to console God," the Jewess Ilona in Adam, Where Art Thou? had told the taciturn foot soldier Feinhals. One of Böll's most attractive qualities as a Catholic novelist is that he finds Christ more often than not among the non-Christians and the unbelievers. It is Ilona who auditions for the concentration camp choir with the All Saints Litany and who instead of appealing to the music-loving commandant with her angelic voice arouses in him such a sexual paroxysm of raging impotence and guilt that he shoots her. Pilate has done his job again. (pp. 188-89)
Among the most important currents in Böll's work, and one which links it to so much Catholic imaginative writing of our time, is his relentless caricaturing of the Pharisees. Truly, God needs consoling when faced with some of the faithful in Acquainted with the Night. Mrs. Franke, a powerful force in diocesan intrigues, pronounces the word "money" with a tenderness which appalls, using just the intonation with which others might pronounce "life, love, death, or God."… In contrast, Böll presents us with two of his most touching characters, Fred and Kate, who would doubtless be castigated as sinners by a Mrs. Franke. Fred, whose father was an ex-priest, has left Kate out of self-hatred and now sleeps in the railway station, drinking heavily but sending what little money he has to his impoverished wife. They meet as guilt-ridden "lovers" in a sordid hotel room: "It is terrible to love and to be married."
As a social document, Acquainted with the Night might be read as a protest against poverty amid prosperity, or even as a treatise on the consequences of the postwar housing shortage. But it is, above all, a religious novel. Fred and Kate are among those who are crucified in silence. It is she who hears the Negro singing his plaintive spiritual. When Kate finally summons up enough nerve to go to a confessional, she sees the priest watching the clock and in anger protests against "the clergy who lived in great houses and had faces like advertisements for complexion cream." Through Fred's eyes we see the hypocrisy of the postwar religious revival. Even a druggists' convention requires ecclesiastical collaboration. Amid signs proclaiming "Trust your Druggist" and balloons advertising toothpaste (one company actually drops tubes of dentifrice on the crowd) march the clergy; the bishop himself, apparently falling into an instinctive goosestep, heads the procession. But despite the venality, or perhaps because of it, the Host remains pristine, and Fred cannot resist kneeling and crossing himself: "For a moment I had the feeling of being a hypocrite until it came to my mind that God was not to blame for the inadequacies of His servants and that it was no hypocrisy to kneel before Him."
Unlike so many Catholic novelists of our time (Bernanos, Langgässer, Graham Greene), Böll is refreshingly free from dualism. For him, the way to God does not necessarily lead first to Satan. Nor, however, does it lead to conventional orthodoxy. Fred Bogner is a true Christian; he sees through cant and understands the true mystical impulse. (pp. 189-90)
Böll remains true to this satiric pattern in his savage attack on the "Group of Progressive Catholics" [in The Clown] who seem, in the eyes of the clown, "to be crocheting themselves loincloths out of Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure and Pope Leo XIII, loincloths which of course failed to cover their nakedness, for … there was no one there who wasn't earning at least fifteen hundred marks a month." (p. 192)
[Another] emblematic quotation I have chosen to evoke an essential aspect of Böll's novelistic vision serves as epigraph, and contributes the title, to one of his earliest efforts, Adam, Where Art Thou? It is taken from the 1940 Tag- und Nachtbücher of Theodore Haecker, and reads in full as follows: "A world catastrophe can be of great service. It can also serve as an alibi before God. 'Adam, where wert thou?' 'I was in the world war.'" For Germans of Böll's generation, the war was the central existential event, separating the few who retained their integrity from the many who gave in to "bad faith" (in the Sartrian sense)…. It would appear that in his works with a war setting, Böll often takes at face value Haecker's ironic remark on catastrophe serving as an alibi before God, but that were he to apply this epigraph to his most recent works, Billiards at Half-Past Nine and The Clown, he would emphasize the irony.
Böll quotes as a second epigraph to Adam, Where Art Thou? Saint-Exupéry's locus classicus that war is a disease exactly like typhoid. Yet Böll, curiously enough, does not take very seriously, at least in his earlier works, his role as diagnostician. He neither describes the causes of infection nor offers prescriptions for a cure or a preventive. Though most of the Landser we meet in The Train Was on Time (1949) and Adam, Where Art Thou? are Catholics by birth, Böll never burdens his war novels with … recondite religious symbolism…. Retrospectively, however, we can feel that the image of the crucifixion conveyed in the words of the Negro spiritual would apply to his vision of the war:
A crowd of infantry men and pioneers who seemed very tired were squatting near a barn and many of them lay on the ground smoking. Then they came to a town and on leaving it the man in the lookout heard shots for the first time. A heavy battery was firing from the right of the road. Huge barrels pointed steeply into the air, black against the dark blue sky. Blood-red fire spurted from the muzzles and cast a soft red reflection on the wall of a barn. The man ducked: he had never heard any shooting before and now he was frightened. He suffered from ulcers—very serious ulcers.
In this passage the author seems objective and neutral, writing in accordance with the famous neue Sachlichkeit. The colors are exploited mainly for chromatic contrast (black, then dark blue, then blood-red to soft red), but they also mirror human emotions, although this is never made explicit by any direct links between characters and colors. (One might say that the progression of colors corresponds with the soldier's reactions to gunfire, which run from apathy to fear to apprehensive resignation.) The plastic contours offer yet another contrast: the squatting men, the angular projections of the steeply pointing barrels, the blurred outlines of a color reflected on the wall of a barn. Despite the appearance of objectivity, this passage from Adam, Where Art Thou? represents what I consider the sentimentality of Böll's war narratives. He tells us simply enough that the lookout had never heard shots before, that he ducked and was frightened. This description nonetheless creates a bond of sympathy between reader and character, a bond heightened by the revelation, still factual in tone, that the lookout had ulcers, very serious ulcers. From the crowd of soldiers squatting and smoking, a detail which leaves us emotionally indifferent, we move to the individual, a nervous worrier who is inexperienced, frightened, and tormented with ulcers. Here is another victim about to be crucified by the hostile forces of "heavy batteries," "huge barrels," and "blood-red fire." The lookout somehow seems terribly small; he does not protest, he only worries.
The plot of Adam, Where Art Thou? is typical of those found in Böll's novels through Billiards at Half-Past Nine, in that fragments of different lives are narrated sequentially, brought together in momentary convergence, then dispersed again: solitude is the human predicament. Despite the large cast of characters in a very short book, the plot is basically simple, alternating between portraits and descriptions of soldiers en situation. Böll's double postulation of caricature and sentimental compassion is everywhere apparent…. Too often, it seems to me, Böll structures his plot to evoke the maximum of pathos: the battle casualty, Captain Bauer, whose wife after many miscarriages got cancer, mysteriously whispers "Bjeljogorsche" every fifty seconds, recalling Kurtz's repetition of "the horror …"…. (pp. 192-95)
Better than any of his earlier creations, [Billiards at Half-Past Nine and The Clown] communicate what is noblest and most original in Böll's Catholic vision.
The central event in Billiards is the eightieth birthday celebration of Heinrich Faehmel, the patriarch of a family now in its third generation in Bonn. Such an event is always a time for memories and self-appraisal, and this novel exists in the present through dialogue and in many fragments of the past through a complex network of internal monologues and leitmotifs owing more to Virginia Woolf and to le nouveau roman than to Faulkner or Joyce. The point of view in the novel is constantly shifting, often without real justification, and since the fête brings together all living members of this once large family, as well as coincidentally some outsiders who once played important roles in their lives, almost everyone is given extensive internal monologues. One of the failings of this perhaps too complicated book is that these many monologues are not sufficiently individualized for the reader to grasp that the point of view (there are no real transitions) has once again changed. Be that as it may, what Böll clearly intends is for this family and its acquaintances to represent Germany and for the constant summoning up of the past to afford an opportunity for meamoning up of the past to afford an opportunity for measuring several generations of German spiritual and political history. The verdict is, of course, "weighed and found wanting." (pp. 195-96)
For the readers of Böll's Irisches Tagebuch (1957), the vision is the familiar one of a pre-industrial world where poverty is still sacred, where man has been alienated neither from his soil nor from his God. But unlike Bernanos and Evelyn Waugh, who clung romantically to their storybook notion of the Middle Ages, Böll recognizes that beautiful as the life represented by the Abbey [designed by the character Faehmel from Billiards at Half-Past Nine] may be, it offers mere escape into the past, not an excuse for abdication of religious and social responsibility. (p. 197)
Hans Schnier, the narrator-hero of The Clown, is Böll's finest creation. He too is a seeker of truth, an unmasker of hypocrisy, and in his strange, half-mad way, a modern saint. Böll has worked on translations of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Franny & Zooey, and Holden Caulfield and the clown are spiritual brothers. For Hans Schnier, sincere irreverence is a form of sanctity; the orthodox are uniformly "Christian worms," as he calls the head of the Christian Education Society. His reversal of values is clearly shown in his credo: "I believe that the living are dead, and that the dead live, not the way Protestants and Catholics believe it." (p. 202)
What is a clown? A clown is the messenger of the visionary games of children, the purest form of representational theatre. Hans himself likes only childrens' movies, is as frank and uninhibited as a child, and is always playing his part ("A child, too, never takes time off as a child"). To be a clown is to respond to a vocatus, and it is small wonder that Hans' affection for Pope John is explained with touching irreverence: "There was something of a wise old clown about him too, and after all the figure of Harlequin had originated in Bergamo." Above all, the clown, in his act, mirrors the fall of man…. Most of the novel consists of reminiscences of past persecution and of sarcastic telephone appeals for help to those Catholics Schnier most despises. As in most of Böll's works there is in The Clown a regular pattern of alternating nostalgia and savage caricature as Schnier struggles toward attainment of his own self-definition: "Neither a Catholic, nor a Protestant, but a Clown." As all his supposed friends desert him, or at best try to force him to take up his conventional career as a public entertainer again, Schnier turns inward toward a most peculiar form of prayer…. (p. 204)
Carefully putting on a heavy layer of makeup until the grease cracks, "showing fissures like the face of an excavated statue," he steps back from the mirror and "looks more deeply into [himself] and at the same time further away." He picks up his guitar (Marie and his agent had thought the guitar undignified) and walks toward the central station. It is Carnival time and on the station steps a group of "matadors" and "Spanish donnas" are waiting for a taxi. The clown puts his hat down beside him and begins to sing:
Catholic politics in Bonn
Are no concern of poor Pope John.
Let them holler, let them go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo.
A stranger drops a nickel into the hat, and the clown goes on singing. His song is in a perverse way a prayer in praise of simplicity. Hans Schnier has become a prophetic singer like the Negro street balladeer in Acquainted with the Night. Somehow at Carnival time ("there is no better hiding place for a professional than among amateurs") people are more genuine than in their "real," but totally hollow, day-to-day lives. A faceless, disguised stranger has responded to the song with the ancient Christian gesture of spontaneous charity. For a brief moment the hypocrisy of a world where one must pray to console God yields to the vision of possible harmony contained in the cacophonic hymn of a nonbeliever. Once again, Böll's epigraph to a novel (this time from Romans XV:21) conveys the essence of his own song: "To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand." (pp. 204-05)
Albert Sonnenfeld, "'They That Have Not Heard Shall Understand': A Study of Heinrich Böll," in The Shapeless God: Essays on Modern Fiction, edited by Harry J. Mooney, Jr. and Thomas F. Staley (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1968 by University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968, pp. 185-205.
["The Bread of Those Early Years," a] brief and moving novella,… seems strangely remote in time now that the memory of horror has faded into nostalgia. But it is a powerful reminder of what Böll brought to postwar German writing—luminous decency and lucid prose. Priceless gifts in "those early years," when the language itself had to be brought back to life.
"The Bread of Those Early Years" probes the many faces of hunger, the faces of men and women starving for lack of love, faith, hope—and bread. Much of its stunning impact derives from Böll's hard-earned awareness that while man doesn't live by bread alone, he doesn't live without bread. Whatever its symbolic significance, bread is a real-life, non-metaphorical necessity. Böll, for one, has never allowed himself to lose sight of this fact, just as he knows that hunger, once it invades the soul, will turn malignant….
Böll has always, I think, been most impressive in his shorter fiction, and "The Bread of Those Early Years" is a poignant tribute to his skill and vision. (p. 7)
Ernst Pawel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 23, 1977.
The narrative of [The Bread of Those Early Years], as it haltingly unfolds …, is thin and tenuous, little more than a set of circumstances awaiting definition by its shaping force: the processes of memory—the "bread" of those early years—and its rising in the present. Walter Fendrich, appropriately a washing-machine repairman in a Germany newly embarked on the good life by the mass production of its principal icons, is 23 years old, too young to have served in the war. On this Monday he is informed by his father that a home-town girl, Hedwig, known to him by sight from their childhood, is coming to the (unnamed) city where he lives and works. Upon seeing her, this stranger, he is seized by a madness, as close in nature to fury as to love: she is the "train" he might otherwise have missed, which will carry him to a fated but unknown destination. Later that day he breaks off relations with his fiancée, the daughter and bookkeeper of the washing-machine manufacturer with whom he served his apprenticeship. That is virtually all there is of narrative.
The rest is memory, the intrusion of fragments of the past as they entangle the present moment and wrench it into strange unpredictable shapes. War itself is never more than alluded to, as if it were an event inadmissible to the mind, though its ghosts hover everywhere. As in Billiards [at Half-Past Nine], where fascism is never directly mentioned and is referred to only by the apocalyptic name "Host of the Beast," so here there is only oblique reference—a space on the wall of a boyhood schoolroom where Hitler's portrait once hung…. We, the onlookers, are tensely aware of the recent war; the shadowy sense of it is Fendrich's. Even the ruins of the city do not conjure up war in his mind; they are there as the mind's landscape, the natural habitat for his obsessions.
Bread—the fact and idea of bread, bread as food and symbol—haunts him, is of overriding importance, is his sex, politics, morals, the language he speaks, imagines and dreams in; the counter by means of which he tries to understand and transact his business with an insufferable world. Bread is the language of his feeling….
Present facts and mere appearances notwithstanding, the determining reality of [Fendrich's] life, compressed into image and metaphor, is locked in the smothering past—of the apprentice boy having scratched together some money and bought a 3-pound loaf of fresh-baked bread on the black market squatting "somewhere among the ruins" and secreted now in his lair breaking open the loaf and gobbling it "with my dirty hands, tearing off pieces and stuffing them into my mouth … sometimes it was still steaming, all warm inside, and for a few moments I had the sensation of holding a living creature in my hands, of tearing it to pieces…." He hates the word "reasonable," a key word in the surrounding ethos, for he knows what it signifies by concealing in a world where "nothing is reasonable, and the price of bread is always a shade too high." Something soul-deep which he cannot understand or articulate is wrong: looking upon the face of the girl he adores, "for one insane moment" he feels an "urge to destroy" it; looking at his own face in the mirror he is "filled with rage and disgust" and shatters the image with a hammer. (p. 213)
The ruins of his city seem classical, timeless, they are simply there as if they had always been there, a permanent cityscape; they are presented as just that, ruins, like the Roman ruins in Billiards, which turn out to be fake, a tourist attraction based on sentimental appeal. But these are bombed-out ruins of course, spectral reminders of war that will eventually be demolished and replaced by the inevitable high-rise apartment complexes. Nor are they simply static; they are an emblem connecting recent past and ongoing future, monuments of moral history. Once, not long before, these ruins enclosed lives; now they are no more than raw materials awaiting plunder by enterprising businessmen. The plunder is called salvage—whatever bits and pieces which can be ripped out and turned to profitable account. The entrepreneur is his boss, his fiancée's father; together he and she have cheated the old man by selling scrap metal on the side—not Fendrich's first venture in free enterprise, as earlier, while still an apprentice, he had stolen hot plates to buy … bread and cigarettes…. An apprentice trying to salvage a washing machine falls to his death; it is left to Fendrich to carry the body to the hearse. A bystander asks, "Was he your brother?" "Yes, he was my brother," he replies.
That sentiment, or act of solidarity, is the other side of the coin: class hatred is the closest approach he makes to the articulation of a powerful, coherent, sustained emotion. The emotion isn't rooted in politics, much less ideology; it is deep, visceral, grounded in bread, in his beginnings and growth, the ore of his life, past, memories, experience. Böll's narrative method is scrupulously "objective," and the rhetoric and gestures of emotion are carefully suppressed…. Feeling itself is ambiguous; except for class hatred which, originating in an animal sense of deprivation—of ravenous hunger, a great wracking emptiness—and swelling into a void of the spirit, now expands to a kind of moral criticism of the social order. (pp. 213-14)
In the longest, most fully developed scene in a novel composed of fragments, images, aborted and buried scenes, Fendrich sits in a café with his fiancée for their final talk. Why? she asks. Does the girl have money? That she could understand, the universal motive underlying all act and feeling. Confusedly he tries to explain, and reminding her of meager rations doled out by her father comes close to saying bread is love: "And bread, the bread that you, that your father, never gave me … I believe … that if in those days you had just once given me a loaf of bread, I couldn't possibly be sitting here talking to you like this." Her sense of justice outraged, she points out that the wages her father paid exceeded the standard rate; and has he forgotten the ration-free soup served daily? Somehow Fendrich cannot feel gratitude for such largesse; and, not surprisingly, converts his rage into bread. In his high moment, when at last he breaks out of his silence, he speaks for all the workers: "Read the names again—out loud, reverently, like you'd read a litany—call them out, and after each name say: 'Forgive us'—then add up all the names, multiply the number by a thousand loaves of bread—and that result again by a thousand: then you'll have the number of curses heaped on your father's bank account. The unit is bread, the bread of those early years…."…
Hatred and rage drive speech; love, or whatever it is that he feels, silences him. Apart from his moment of lyricism, the speech is largely interior, unless the imagery of memory is a kind of mute eloquence. What Böll intends he impressively achieves: an expressionist portrait,… a portrait in grays, browns, blacks and blood—a portrait weighted with heavy moral overtones of a society from which anything might erupt. The atmosphere is unrelievedly bleak and obscurely ominous, a "miracle" that feels more like an awful curse. Fendrich is a Mass-going Roman Catholic, a penitent in need of absolution; a recurring element with the gravity of a motif, and so orchestrated. A novel, small in scope but carefully wrought, dense and fraught in its atmospherics, heavily laden, the minor work of an imposing novelist, and in its deepest currents a preparation for the more massive work which was to follow and which, one hopes, is yet to come. (p. 214)
Saul Maloff, "The Ghosts of War, the Wolf Within," in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), February 19, 1977, pp. 213-14.
Walter Fendrich, a washing-machine maintenance man, is the first-person hero of [The Bread of Those Early Years]; twenty-three, Catholic, a virgin, and engaged to his employer's daughter, Ulla Wickweber. The story takes place in Cologne on a Monday in March during the early 1950s. Walter's father, a schoolteacher in a small town, has asked him to find a room for the daughter of a colleague who is coming to the city to train as a teacher. The moment Walter sees Hedwig he falls in love with her, both sexually and onto logically. In a semi-mystical flash he realizes that she represents an alternative way of life—less tough and less materialist than life with Ulla. By the end of the day and after various vicissitudes, including Walter's farewell interview with Ulla, Walter and Hedwig are ready to fulfil their destiny by going to bed together—without the blessing of the Church, although Hedwig is also a practising Catholic. Why they cannot wait to get it is never quite explained, but their hurry is made to seem somehow existential.
Böll has always been anti-clerical and anti-establishment: not a very startling position for a German Catholic, even in 1955 when this book first appeared, and it is obvious that the sexual act the novel leads up to but does not include is a rite in what J. P. Stern … called "selfconscious Roman (or rather Rhenish) Catholicism, a weird spirituality". The Bread of Those Early Years is a textbook example of Böll's work. An examination candidate having to answer a question of his themes, Weltanschauung and symbolism would not need to read much else. First, there is the typical petty bourgeois milieu with built-in alienation. Then want: Walter is doing well in the early years of the post-war economic recovery; but flashbacks reveal a childhood and early youth of deprivation—he was always hungry and the thought of bread obsessed him until bread eventually became an addiction. Now he cannot pass a baker's shop without going in to buy some. But bread is not just the counter-symbol to want, it is also a sacrament: there is a symbolic scene when Walter offers Hedwig a roll and watches her break it. In fact, there is so much bread about that one is inclined to agree with Ulla when she says: "Please don't say the word 'bread' again."
Ulla and her family stand for the acquisitive society in the black market years just after the war when the strong and wily exploited the weak. In later works Böll's target shifts towards the consumer society; here the Wirtschaftswunder is only just beginning: in both cases society is selfish and materialist. The weak are not only exploited but killed. The landscape of Walter's memory is littered with corpses, especially young corpses—another favourite theme of Böll's….
Ulla and her father are the only two "bad" characters; or more accurately "least good", because Böll sees some goodness in everyone. Goodness is what interests him and it comes in various packages and strengths: Ulla's brother is a decent, loyal, well-meaning fellow; Walter's landlady—called Frau Brotig, which would, if it were a word, mean "bready"—is generous, warm, and speaks gently to her child; his distant cousin Clara is a nun (Böll always puts in a nun when he can), another selfless giver of bread; his father is a low-key saint; and Hedwig represents Böll's ewig Weibliche, later to turn into Katharina Blum and the Lady in the Group Portrait: a streak of Raskolnikov's Sonya in her, but more mysterious, much more attractive, and much keener on sex, so long as it is suffused with spirituality…. Walter himself is the holy fool whom critics have spotted in other works of Böll's.
Professor Stern was sorry that Böll won his Nobel Prize for literature rather than for his "immense decency". His moral stance, he said, was impeccable but unoriginal, and artistically he was unadventurous, even "quietist". True, but the same accusation—of being a guter Mensch aber schlechter Musikant—could equally well be levelled at Solzhenitsyn: perhaps it is something to do with the Nobel Prize. Böll may turn out to be one of the overrated writers of the century. Still, he is not despicable and far from unreadable: his bread goes down easily, even though in this particular work he adopts a hushed religious tone throughout…. [Böll] is wonderful at creating atmosphere and describing smells, sounds, and, of course, tastes, as well as sights. His metaphors are unexpected and illuminating, and he can draw out the lacrimae rerum better than almost anyone. Too well perhaps, but his books are getting steadily dryer, and this early one is a reminder of how far the process has gone.
Gabriele Annan, "On the Breadline," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 25, 1977, p. 201.
The Bread of Those Early Years dates from 1955; but even without the retrospective glow of a Nobel prize it would be an impressive work. It is a piece of bravura rhetoric….
This is a small book in every sense; but in its way nearly perfect. With a fine economy Böll suggests a great deal more than he actually says, both about the narrator's life, and about the society in which he moves. In this sense it is a genuine socialist novel: generating an individual out of his history and environment, and simultaneously demonstrating that individual's power and freedom to change, to reject the determinations of society. The only limiting factor is Böll's use of 'falling-in-love' as the occasion for change, introducing a somewhat arbitrary and external factor which weakens the coherence of the novel (the girl herself is an almost wholly passive figure). But overall, the work is both attractive and intelligent…. (p. 24)
Nick Totten, in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 5, 1977.
In the early years after 1945, there was one comfort to be had by anyone watching for Germany to recover. Whereas much of what was written after 1918 had been heady stuff—gruesome evocations of Armageddon, fervid ecstasies about the New Man who was expected to arise from the holocaust, extremes of hope and despair—the mood of writers like Brecht and Böll after the Second World War was more sober, more likely to allow a cool look at what materials could be dug out of the rubble to build a humane tradition. Böll gave his ruminative attention to the minutiae of the present moment. The detail of everyday life fascinated him, though not in a naturalistic or antiquarian spirit. As he says in Missing Persons, this collection of essays and reviews written during the past quarter of a century, he has a reverence for the past, for his family's past, and for everything that exists now but will soon never exist again. Of his mother he writes, "I want the one hair of the head that has fallen to the ground".
It becomes increasingly clear that the biblical care for the fall of a sparrow is the origin of Böll's painstaking descriptions of such processes as the working of a coin-operated telephone. Nothing human or for that matter nonhuman is alien to him. Like Brecht, he takes reality as a Messingkauf, in the spirit of a rag-and-bone merchant, finding unexpected valuables. It has to be admitted, though, that novels written in such a mood of total acceptance can have their longueurs. Böll's half-serious proposal to make a travel-film showing nothing but the hands and faces of Soviet citizens queuing up to see Lenin's tomb shows his concern for people rather than politics, but the result could, at any great length, be a bore, and an element of boredom is present, for me at any rate, in the slow pace and repetitiveness of some of Böll's writing.
The fact that so much of this book is devoted to Russia (together with another holy mother country, Ireland) and so little of it to Germany, is revealing. Unlike Brecht, Böll is close, in the extent of his compassion, to being an Alyosha Karamazov. But a German Alyosha of Böll's generation has had to confront experiences more testing than any that Dostoevsky imagined. Alyosha was not conscripted as Böll was into the armies that spread hatred all over Europe, he never had to recover from the realization that his gun had been defending the creators of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen. That is Böll's invisible worm—really invisible, he never alludes to it; but there is no ignoring it.
Unlike most of his generation, he has not tried, understandable though it would have been, to blot all that from memory. Like the boy visited by a country doctor in Kafka's short story, the wound in his side will not heal. But though like Kafka he can perhaps see the wound as a rose, he does not romanticize. From out of his patient, sometimes whimsical account of Germany's rapid rise to unheard-of-luxury, traffic jams and pollution, there is an occasional outburst, alien to Alyosha, of a mood like that ascribed by Böll to his friend Solzhenitsyn, a kind of "divine bitterness"….
The image we had of Böll in the early post-war years was … misleading. For all his sobriety there was something of the "all or nothing" mood of the post-1918 generation in him. Even his compassion could work equivocally….
At the root of [his] inconsistencies there may well be something of that ambiguous relationship with Russia which Germans have felt for centuries. Not that Böll's deep compassion for the Russian people is felt simply because he is aware of what they suffered during the German invasion of 1941–45. Germans have often felt themselves drawn towards Russia, whether as missionaries or as a bulwark for the West, or to represent to the West their affinity with Slavs. Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Brecht have all gone further than any French or English writer in that Drang nach Osten, in one or another of its forms. What looks most Slav in Böll is his desire for consensus, communion, something more than brotherhood as the Enlightenment understood it—a passion amounting almost to adoration, such as Böll reveals in his project for filming Moscow queues, and such as Alyosha would have understood….
Böll's radical liberalism is better understood with all that in mind. Yet it is not merely a question of understanding. The passion in him, the reverence he feels for those Moscow shoe-shiners, the reverence for the one hair of the head is not so easily felt by the rationalist or the debater. Such unity as a parliamentary state can gain through mutual toleration sometimes looks pale against the heartfelt unity of a family millions strong.
Ronald Gray, "A Passion for Consensus," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 10, 1978, p. 167.