Böll, Heinrich 1917–
Böll is a West German novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and translator. A convincing realist and committed radical Christian moralist, Böll joined the famous Gruppe 47 in 1950 and shared their commitment that German literature and language had to be purged and renewed after the war. War and postwar alienation became the principal theme of his work. His economic and stylistically simple prose style—itself a conscious rejection of the complex rules of classical German prose—has often reminded critics of Hemingway. The novel with which today's American readers are most familiar is Group Portrait with Lady. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Heinrich Böll … became the most productive author of the postwar era. The central theme of his early work is the senselessness and absurdity of the war, and the chaos which he himself experienced for six years as a soldier on the eastern front. He first published short stories, which had as their content practically without exception episodes from the war and the time immediately following. The first collection of these short stories, Traveller, If You Come to Spa (1950), expressed perfectly the mood of the generation of returning soldiers. Even today Böll names the short story as his favorite genre though he has won world-wide recognition as a novelist.
His first novel, Adam, Where Art Thou? (1951), depicts in nine sections the experiences of the soldier Feinhals during the last months of the war. In the center of the novel is his encounter with the Jewish teacher Ilona, whom he loves but cannot rescue from execution. He meets death in the moment of his return home at the close of the war. The characters in the novel are shoved about by the horrible forces of the war which they face devoid of understanding. Their passivity is the child of hopelessness. Böll's heroes are mostly simple, average men, not active heroes who take a firm stand against their fate. They are good, but weak and are not able to make their way through this world of violence, cruelty, and deception.
In his next novel, Acquainted with the Night (Und sagte kein einziges Wort, 1953), Böll portrays the effects of the war on the life of a small family. The marriage of Käte and Fred Bogner breaks up under the pressures of insufficient living space and the absence of love for others. Here Böll uses for the first time a narrative technique which he intensifies in later works. The action of the novel takes place during one weekend—later Böll often concentrates the action into one day or even into a few hours. Numerous flashbacks occurring during this narrow span of time portray a past which turns out to be the second and unquestionably the more important level of the narrative. Husband and wife describe their experiences in alternate chapters, thus two different perspectives are presented. Here, by giving up the one-sided perspective of the narrator, Böll attempts to strengthen the objectivity of his portrayal.
The Unguarded House (1954) describes the situation of two boys whose father died in the war, and who are helplessly now handed over to the "immoral" adult world. Visible for the first time in this novel is Böll's strong criticism of those who, guilty in the war, nevertheless survived, and now continue in the postwar era to rise once again to respected positions…. In [Billiards at Half Past Nine (1959)] Böll blatantly contrasts the two opposing human prototypes which are characteristic of his work: the buffaloes and the lambs. The former are the powerful, the wealthy, the ruthless, the hypocrites; the latter are the weak, the poor, the helpless, who painfully endure the conditions of present-day Germany. They have not come to terms with the guilt of the Nazi era, but merely look on despairingly as those guilty of all the evils of the Third Reich again seize power in the new state of the postwar era.
Böll's social criticism is substantially stronger in his novel The Clown (1963). The novel's hero experienced the war as a child and the recollection of events is told from a child's point of view. The transformation of his National Socialist mother into a convinced democrat, that of a fanatical leader of the Hitler Youth into a distinguished representative of Catholicism, and the opportune fusion of politics and the Catholic Church set the hero in opposition to his bourgeois family. He takes up the profession of a clown. In this way Böll demonstrates the complete isolation of his hero from a society which only laughs at him and brushes off his critical reproaches as jokes. Again the focus is on Böll's central themes: the National Socialist past of the new authorities, and the political influence of the Catholic Church on the development of postwar Germany. Once more matters revolve around Böll's typical hero: weak, vulnerable, sensitive, and incapable of repressing his memories or of adjusting to the changed circumstances.
Böll is often criticized for the monotony of his themes. This can, however, be explained by the intensity of his commitment to his helpless contemporaries, lost in the confusion of the economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder). The critical picture of today's society, which Böll portrays in … End of a Mission (1966), is often presented in his numerous short stories in an even more ironic and satirical tone than in the novels. Nevertheless, Böll's weakness lies in his polarization of rich and poor which often appears overly simplified. He portrays the poor as fundamentally better, nobler, and worthier of imitation than the rich. Furthermore, his criticism is too seldom directed at the actual institutions and phenomena which he is attacking—the church, the Bonn Republic, Neofascism—but rather at their representatives. Nevertheless, the high moral rank of his commitment remains undisputed.
Böll's language makes his books easily readable. They have been translated into all major languages and because of the author's critical stance towards West Germany are also widely read in Russia and East Germany. (pp. 385-87)
Diether H. Haenicke, in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971.
More than most of his critics are willing to acknowledge, Böll has consistently and consciously located his writings in the German literary tradition. From Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa (1950) to the "Epilog to Stifters Nachsommer" (1970), many of his titles and tales contain unmistakable allusions to familiar works, and the pattern of expectations aroused by our recognition lends additional dimensions of meaning to the modern work.
Böll's new novella [Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie fuhren kann] contains an implicit reference to Schiller's classic tale "Der Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre." In both cases a simple and decent person is thrust by circumstances into the role of criminal; each initially attempts to resist the role but eventually gives way to the pressures of society and fulfills the role by committing an act of violence. (p. 310)
No contemporary German novelist has portrayed women more fully, centrally and sympathetically than Böll. Katharina Blum is a younger sister of those women … who represent, as Böll has remarked, a fascinating synthesis of Eva, Mary and Magdalene. Katharina's character, combining a keen sense of sexual modesty with an energetic decisiveness, is exposed through a series of protocols, which Böll employs—here as in Ende einer Dienstfahrt and Gruppenbild mit Dame—in order to produce another ironic chapter in the panorama of contemporary German society that he has been constructing for twenty-five years. (p. 311)
Theodore Ziolkowski, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1975.
Not enough, I think, has been said in praise of Heinrich Böll's craftsmanship. It may seem dull or even wrong-headed to praise a recipient of the Nobel prize in literature as a good writer, but more and more the award seems to be conferred for moral, rather than strictly literary reasons—as though it were a kind of spiritual beauty contest to be won on the basis of the high-minded sentiments expressed in the work of this novelist or that poet. (p. 26)
[The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum] exemplifies Böll's best qualities to a remarkable degree, reassuring us that, like the good craftsman he is, he works at one consistently high level, no matter what the length or shape he has chosen.
The shape, in this case, is fundamentally that of a thriller…. There is, of course, a weighty moral question—one besides murder—at the heart of this. It lies in the precarious balance that exists in a free society between the rights of the individual to his privacy, and that of the press to provide information for the public. What is impressive is how well Heinrich Böll manages to contain and present the question within the limits of this short novel—one in the thriller format. Here the craftsman takes over and helps the Nobel laureate over the rough spots, giving us a kind of fact-by-fact, interrogation-by-interrogation exposition, almost in the style of Report to the Commissioner. But it is all directed toward the larger question of the rights of the press versus the rights of the individual. It projects the problem, giving it substance and reality, as no mere discussion-in-dialogue could ever do. (p. 27)
Bruce Cook, "Brief but Not Slight," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 26, 1975, pp. 26-7.
Few writers can convey as well as Böll the compelling dialectic necessity behind a banal and pedestrian life, the quiet, inexorable confluences of time and motion that comprise empty experience. Unfortunately, ["The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum," a] vapid, amoebic, and self-indulgent panegyric about the destruction of the dignity of private illusions by the hegemony of public truths substitutes extraneous detail and novelistic vagary for the subtle insight and understanding that characterizes Böll's better work. (p. cxiv)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 3 (Summer, 1975).
Heinrich Böll is that interesting rarity among contemporary novelists, a writer who applies the lens of fiction to matters of morality in its widest sense. In The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, he considers the universal characteristics of popular journalism and how readily, given the right opportunity to exploit, its methods, inherently amoral, can become immoral. (p. 843)
It is a depressing tale Böll tells with finesse, brevity, and a shrewd appreciation of the complexities of human responses. Most important, though, it is told with a redeeming irony that leads the reader to fruitful speculation on a number of topics, not least, the value of truth in a world that prefers prejudice and illusion. (p. 844)
Rene Kuhn Bryant, "The Value of Truth," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), August 1, 1975, pp. 843-44.