Heinrich Böll Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 2) - Essay

Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Böll, Heinrich 1917–

A West German novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and translator, Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. His best-known works include Billiards at Half Past Nine, The Clown, and Absent Without Leave. His latest novel is Group Portrait With Lady. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Heinrich Böll has not published a novel since 1964. Now he has once again contributed to the genre with Gruppenbild mit Dame [Group Portrait With Lady], a book loosely structured around one central figure and containing the intertwined life stories of many characters within a chronicle of Germany during World War II and the Wirtschaftswunder.

Still asserting himself as a man guided by strong moral principles, convictions and commitment to humanitarian values, Böll criticizes middle class society and its ills with stark realism, satiric wit and a certain playful mischievousness. In places the novel reads like other of his works. Familiar themes, places and figures reappear. Middle class people—well fed, smug and opportunistic—populate the scene. Beside them labor the poor, who try to give sense to their lives. Humble as they are, they succeed in this better than do the well-to-do….

The reader must know a considerable amount of German history and life in order to appreciate fully Böll's stabs at German society. If he does, he will find Böll's latest book both interesting and amusing.

Anna Otten, in Books Abroad, Summer, 1972, pp. 474-75.

[What] defines [Böll's] altogether unique position in the worlds and antiworlds of letters is a set of coordinates as paradoxical as his success. He is Germany's best as well as best-selling author, a rare enough combination made rarer yet by the unanimity of critical acclaim and the unstinting admiration of his peers; among writers—mirabile dictu, writers being what they are—Heinrich Böll has no enemies. He is, moreover, equally popular East and West of what in less unsettled times used to be called the Iron Curtain, a stubborn Christian hailed by all leading Marxist critics, as widely read in Poland as in Sweden and, though not one whit less subversive than Solzhenitsyn or perhaps for that reason, the top-selling contemporary foreign author in the Soviet Union.

The secret of this universal appeal is simple beyond understanding—integrity and a dash of genius; the utter, uncompromising integrity of the man coming through his work. He is both profound and eminently readable, a rare feat in the past and now all but outlawed….

[He] has covered vast distances, mostly uphill; just how far he has come is brilliantly shown in his latest, longest, and decidedly most important book to date, the "Group Portrait With Lady."… It also conveys a powerful sense of what Böll, at 55, may yet go on to accomplish.

His mature vision is as complex as truth itself in any of its aspects; his merit is to have spelled it out in terms that make it accessible to people everywhere. Having taken on as his theme nothing less than the struggle between good and evil, he has been labeled a pessimist because in life as he sees it the triumph of good is rare indeed and short-lived at best; evil always strikes back, undiminished. The fight against it is never-ending, and like Camus, his agnostic brother in the spirit, he may be a pessimist in knowing that, however hopeless, it must be fought. But unlike Camus, he believes that the fight makes sense.

Ernst Pawel, "The Guest Word: Böll—Integrity and a Dash of Genius," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972, pp. 47, 41.

[Böll's numerous novels, plays, stories, and essays mark] him as one of the most prolific, and most popular, postwar German writers, a writer whose principal theme was not only the war itself and its aftermath, but the havoc it wreaked on the people of Germany—what might be described as a "working-through," not merely a remembering, of the horrendous Nazi experience. And for "this teeming production," as the Swedish Academy referred to it, Heinrich Theodor Böll, now fifty-four, the son of a Catholic carpenter, was … awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature….

[With his widely acclaimed new novel, Group Portrait With Lady,]… readers in this country will find … the longest of his books (the typescript runs more than six hundred pages), the most elaborately devised, the most inventive in its use of language, and the largest in scope…. What they are likely to recognize is a sweeping, richly woven work—highly conscious of its own form, although artless in its narrative; moral by its implications, yet not in the least dogmatic—a work that seriously challenges the established order of things but does so through a remarkable cast of characters who are neither intellectual nor "liberal," neither revolutionary nor nonconformist in any of the contemporary meanings of those words….

Those who know Heinrich Böll know that when he announced his intention to share his prize with writers currently in jail, he was not making a gesture. We can be sure that, as in the past, he will help all the writers he possibly can. As the President of International P.E.N. he has already traveled to many countries on behalf of writers—seeking their rights and their freedom…. [We] can think of Heinrich Böll's prize as a prize for all writers—I am sure this truly self-effacing man will not mind—and, in that sense, it is a prize for all of us.

Robert Sussman Stewart, "Group Portrait with Heinrich Böll," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday, November 11, 1972; used with permission), November 11, 1972, pp. 66-7.

Böll is one of the very few postwar German novelists who have created what can properly be called an oeuvre, if we take oeuvre to mean a unified fictional world informed by a consistent moral vision. Faulkner's chronicles of Yoknapatawpha County, no less than Alexander Solzhenitsyn's accounts of the labyrinthine mazes of Soviet prison camps and cancer wards, constitute an oeuvre in this sense, while the novels of many other writers, who may be equally or more prolific, never amount to more than a series of individual works. Böll has not only added to the literary map of Germany a province that is unmistakably his own; he has also established himself as the leading fictional historian of Germany at mid-century. To this extent his oeuvre provides a fitting complement, both spatially and temporally, to that of the two earlier German-language novelists who won the Nobel Prize, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse….

Böll's fictional era, beginning roughly where Steppenwolf and Doctor Faustus end, extends down to the present. Like Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks, Böll has made one significant excursion into an earlier period: Billiards at Half-Past Nine (Billard um halb zehn, 1959) traces the roots of present-day Germany back to the turn of the century. Otherwise his fictional world embraces the Germany of the Hitler years, the postwar depression, and the subsequent Wirtschaftswunder….

Böll has marked off for his fictional realm that industrialized wasteland of the lower Rhine beyond the Main River that an appalled Bavarian in Böll's latest novel calls "Northmainia"—a geography of the soul that extends no further north, south or west of Cologne than you can travel in forty minutes by train and where Böll's Kölsch is readily understood….

It is this humane society that Böll has set out to render in the oeuvre he has been creating for over twenty-five years in some forty volumes of novels, stories, plays and essays. This is not the occasion for detailed analyses of Böll's individual works. So let me simply suggest that the nature of his fictional world, this "Northmainian" society at mid-century, can best be characterized in its totality as "pastoral."…

Böll's figures do not, of course, flee into the backwoods like their American counterparts. There are few forests in the bleak terrains of Northmainia, and in any case nature descriptions are conspicuously absent from Böll's narratives. In fact, Böll has written only one work that has the conventional form of the pastoral—his "Irish Journal" (Irisches Tagebuch, 1957), in which the journey to a simpler society provides the author with contrasts that harshly illuminate the social situation back in Germany. Yet it can be argued that all his works, despite their generally urban settings, are pastorals. For in all of them Böll and his figures are searching for a way out of the alienation of contemporary Germany back into a realm where true human community is possible, where people are still united by common values of decency and by the bonds of solidarity.

In his "Frankfurt Lectures" Böll called his attempts to depict a binding human society "an aesthetics of the humane." Symptomatically, his oeuvre focuses on men and women united by the simple and "humane" things of life—love, religion, even food. It is no accident, for instance, that the sharing of bread occurs so frequently, assuming an almost sacramental meaning—from the early story The Bread of the Early Years (Das Brot der frühen Jahre, 1955), whose young hero can never get enough fresh bread to satisfy his hunger, right down to Böll's latest novel, whose heroine ritually consumes two crisp rolls for breakfast every morning. Characteristically, Böll finds the pastoral solidarity that he admires primarily among the little people whom he called the "lambs" of this world. Their very defenselessness compels them to unite in opposition to the powers of church, government, and industry—those faceless powers referred to simply as "they"—that threaten to corrupt them.

Few writers today have written as well as Böll about women and children. If the children in his stories and novels are the figures who bear most directly the burden of society's crimes—war, poverty, benign neglect—it is the women who must often preserve the humane values that are disappearing from a prosperous and increasingly superficial society. Love between men and women—not sex—lies at the heart of virtually all of Böll's works, beginning with the earliest stories, the novella The Train Was on Time (Der Zug war pünktlich, 1949) and the novel Adam, Where Art Thou? (Wo warst du, Adam?, 1951)….

If Böll's women are the custodians of humane values, his men are usually quixotic outsiders who have the integrity to stand up against the anonymous power of "them." One of Böll's earliest stories was called "The Black Sheep" ("Die schwarzen Schafe," 1951), a title that heralds the outsider in his works—from Hans Schnier in The Clown (Ansichten eines Clowns, 1963), who earns his living by criticizing society in his pantomime acts, to the hero of Absent without Leave (Entfernung von der Truppe, 1964), who concludes his autobiographical report by encouraging all his readers to "desert"—that is, to drop out of conventional society. A parallel theme is announced in the early tale in which a young veteran, whose job it is to count the traffic across a certain bridge, refuses to include his sweetheart in what he considers this dehumanization by statistics. Increasingly, Böll's works have emphasized resistance to established authority….

Even though Böll needs "very little reality," he cannot do without telephones. The innumerable and often seemingly endless phone conversations that punctuate his works often convey the most important information….

The high point is reached in The Clown, where the entire story is told in the course of several phone calls the hero makes one evening from his apartment in Bonn. It has often been noted that the telephone in Böll's world is a symbol of alienation. We can accept that and suggest, at the same time, that the telephone also embodies the preeminence of the human word as the essential mode of social communication. For the telephone, excluding facial expression and gesture and making no appeal to the written document, reduces communication to the pure spoken word.

Böll's reliance on spoken discourse, of which the inner monologue, the first person narrator and the telephone are symptoms, has another implication for his fiction. It enables him to express the extent to which the past is contained in the present. Because of his reliance on the spoken word Böll rarely tells a story in smooth chronological sequence from start to finish…. Böll shares Kierkegaard's conviction that "It is not worth remembering that past which cannot become a present."…

At a time when [Böll] has been increasingly criticized in Germany for the content of his works, he is no doubt doubly pleased to have the international confirmation of the Nobel Prize. At the same time, the reputation of the Prize as a literary award is enhanced by the selection of a writer whose oeuvre displays such reverence as Böll's for the word as the repository of humane values and the foundation of all true human community.

Theodore Ziolkowski, "The Inner Veracity of Form," in Books Abroad, Winter, 1973, pp. 17-24.