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Heinrich (Theodor) Böll 1917–
(Also transliterated as Boell) West German novelist, short story writer, dramatist, translator, and essayist.
Böll, the 1972 Nobel laureate, is one of the most prolific and widely read writers of post-World War II Germany. His work, which does not excuse Germany's actions in the war, is primarily about how ordinary people were affected by the reign of the Nazis. Böll's obvious anger at the events of the war years is not directed exclusively at the Third Reich; he also condemns the Catholic church's tolerance of the Nazi regime and the governing powers before and after Hitler. Wilhelm Johannes Schwartz has written that Böll's "predominant attitude to the war is disgust and vexation…. He tells only of its boredom, of filth and vermin, senselessness, and futile waste of time."
Born in Cologne and raised by devout but liberal Catholic parents, Böll's humanism was formed early in life. While in his teens, he avoided peer pressure and refused to join the Hilter Youth. In 1939, Böll was drafted into the German infantry and served during the entire war. He was wounded four times in noncombat incidents. As the German army became decimated Böll masqueraded as an Allied soldier. When his true identity was discovered, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, Böll returned to Cologne and published his first short story in 1947.
Böll's early work reflects his experiences as a soldier. In Der Zug war pünktlich (1949; The Train Was on Time) and Wo warst du, Adam? (1951; Adam, Where Art Thou?), Böll focuses on the horror and absurdity of war. The Train Was on Time is a haunting story of a soldier who foresees his own death while waiting to be transported to the eastern front. Most critics consider this novel Böll's finest work. Postwar Germany is the setting of Böll's novels of the 1950s. Und sagte kein einziges Work (1953; Acquainted with the Night) is a tragic story of a family man's difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. This novel received much critical attention and established Böll as a master storyteller. Haus ohne Hüter (1954; Tomorrow and Yesterday) is the story of daily survival in a war torn city as seen through the eyes of two fatherless boys.
Böll's novels written during the 1960s and 1970s examine Germany's problems in constructing a new identity out of its Nazi past. As with his earlier work, Böll presents this theme on an individual level. In Ansichten eines Clowns (1963; The Clown), an alienated entertainer exposes the hypocrisy of affluent Germans, including his own family and the Church, who altered their political and moral stance for opportunistic reasons. Gruppenbild mit Dame (1971; Group Portrait with Lady) is structured as an evaluation of a woman through a series of monologues with people she encounters throughout her life. His recent novel, Fursorgliche Belagerung (1982; The Safety Net), is about political unrest and terrorism in the present-day.
Critics praise Böll for his ability to convey realistically the terror and effects of war in simple, concise prose. Some critics consider Böll's work a conscious protest against the stylistic complexity of classical German literature and compare his work to that of Ernest Hemingway, whom Böll himself has cited as an influence. His portrayal of the absurdity of life and the struggle for survival, and his skillful use of satire are best exemplified in his two short story collections, Wanderer, kommst du nach spa (1950; Traveller, If You Come to the Spa) and 18 Stories (1966).
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, Rev. ed.)
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Heinrich Böll's "Acquainted with the Night" is the first nonpolitical German novel I have seen since the war, and a fine book it is. Brief, unpretentious, technically conventional, it is worth reading because it is written out of the part of life that matters. American fiction more and more retreats into the suburbs. Geographically that may be all right, but spiritually it is slow death. Böll, on the other hand, has the courage and the talent to tackle his subject where it is most living.
A man and a woman who are no longer young and who already have more children than they can afford find that they are going to have yet another child. They live in a single room in a bombed-out German city; for some time the husband has come home only occasionally because he cannot abide being penned up in so little space with the children. Sometimes he beats them. He sees the problem of their lives together as poverty, but his wife knows better. She realizes that, though more money would certainly be a help, her husband is not the kind of man who is ever going to solve their problems economically; indeed, she sees that their problem is not primarily economic. What her husband needs is acceptance—acceptance of himself as a man who has wasted such opportunities as have come his way and as a man who is going to find no sudden magic solution to his problems; acceptance of their love and the children it has brought forth as the best thing they are going to have in this world; acceptance of responsibility for his own actions and for the family.
The book is an account of how a man is recalled to life. (p. 315)
The German background is arresting in at least two ways. For one thing, the scene is a Catholic city and the characters are Catholics, the wife devout, the husband (though he makes his living by operating a switchboard in an ecclesiastical establishment) anti-clerical but by no means outside the Church. Yet a feeling of religious insufficiency pervades the book; though the Church still has a connection with the people, it is faulty and not very much comes through to help them. For another thing, it would be easy for Böll to find the cause of the difficulties of his characters in the war and its aftermath, but he carefully distinguishes between those of their troubles that result from the war and those that result from their own mistakes. A fine sense of responsibility, a real moral awareness, underlies the book. If Heinrich Böll speaks for any considerable part of the new Germany, here is news more encouraging than any account of Bonn prosperity. (pp. 315-16)
Paul Pickrel, in a review of "Acquainted with the Night," in The Yale Review (© 1954 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIV, No. 2, Winter, 1955, pp. 315-16.
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With some of Ernest Hemingway's simplicity and clarity, Heinrich Böll writes several vignettes about a segment of the German army as it disintegrates in World War II under the Russian advance into Hungary. His stories at times separate into dry and toneless fragments, but often they come together magnetized in some fierce, ironic little catastrophe. A young, frightened corporal at a partially evacuated German hospital goes out into the garden with a Red Cross flag to meet the Russian tanks; he trips on a buried dud bomb, which explodes, kills him, and alarms the Russians into demolishing the defenseless hospital. An efficient engineering officer, by encouraging his men with friendship rather than with fear, gets a bridge rebuilt two days ahead of schedule, just in time to blow it up as the Russians arrive.
Such ironic catastrophes have been the substance of many war stories; they are preserved from staleness here by Mr. Böll's pure honesty and his wry casualness….
[In Adam, Where Art Thou?] Mr. Böll's effectiveness is uneven because he does not share Mr. Hemingway's brilliant singleness of tone or attack. A later novel, not about the war, was published here … as Acquainted with the Night—an unusual, compassionate story about a man and a woman with worlds of misery on their shoulders—a story which was firmly unified by an implicit religious point of view. Its English title suggests the suffering of Christ, and in German its title was an equivalent of "And He never said a mumbling word." This later work tells of a kind of dumb mortal patience that could renew the face of the earth.
Adam, Where Art Thou? does not probe so deeply. Mr. Böll at best attempts to unify its scenes with a vision of senselessness; but that is a vision of nothing. Pieces at the edge of a crumbling mosaic, these sketches do not offer an intuition of a total pattern, because the author keeps his several characterizations and flashbacks rigidly personal and local. His characters here are ordinary, most of them mediocre. They do not think about any large meanings, and they represent no national conscience—thus is Mr. Böll true to his craft. One character is a Catholic Jewish girl who says, "We must pray in order to console God." But the Heinrich Böll of this earlier group of stories gives no further intimations of a positive vision.
Edwin Kennebeck, "Ironic Sketches," in Commonweal (copyright © 1956 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 63, No. 14, January 6, 1956, p. 360.
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Heinrich Böll's "The Train Was on Time" may be a little disappointing to those who have read his fine novels "Acquainted with the Night" and "Adam, Where Art Thou?," but the apparent technical regression in this book represents no falling off in his considerable powers. He has suffered what so often happens in this country to foreign authors; the success (in his case largely critical) of his later books has led to the publication of an earlier one. Like many inexperienced writers, Böll resorted to allegory in "The Train Was on Time" and tied his gift for realistic writing to a highly generalized picture. His hero is not only a man going to the Eastern Front; he is the Eastern Front fighter. His journey back from a home leave is a journey into the night, away from love and hope toward what he knows is an empty void of despair. Böll expresses this by giving his man a premonition that he is going to be killed; with the clairvoyance of an exhausted man, he even knows the time and the place. The mechanics of this tryst do not convince the reader, but the sentiment does. Böll's soldier is afraid of the East, its spaces, and its confusions, as a poor swimmer is afraid of the sea, knowing that if he gets far enough from the shore he will quite certainly drown. As the eastbound train rolls on—the story is simply an account of the soldier's journey and of incidents during it—the clings to every association, every little thing that will continue to give life meaning. But the void engulfs him, and he at last goes under into absolute meaninglessness. There are some beautifully written passages, such as the one in which men in a sidetracked train watch the endless trains of S.S. troops being rushed past to be thrown into the already lost battle at Cherkassy, and another in which the soldier tries to give a casual encounter with a prostitute some emotional reality. Yet the reviewer finds himself in the awkward position of recommending a book for its brilliant promise when that promise has already been fulfilled; as it is, it is an extremely interesting but unsure exploration. (pp. 113-14)
Anthony West, "Paths of Glory," in The New Yorker (© 1956 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXII, No. 17, June 16, 1956, pp. 113-16.∗
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[The Train was on Time] is not about a man's "whole life" passing before his eyes in his last hours. A person in genuine danger is more likely to be aware of immediate sensations and needs than of general recollections, and though the soldier Andreas does think back into his past, he does so mainly in terms of simple pleasures that he does not expect to enjoy again, or in terms of the irony of his situation—"life goes on" even though he is probably going to die. To some degree he shares the feeling of the man in Myshkin's story in The Idiot, whose worst thought is that, though he is to be executed, the thousands looking at him are to stay alive; and he shares the perplexity of anyone who, thinking he might not see the end of a certain day, stares with puzzlement and outrage if he sees somebody playing a game, or laughing, or buying food for the next day….
Heinrich Böll cannot be said to "write as a German," unlike, for instance, Hans Werner Richter in They Fell from God's Hands or Albrecht Goes in The Burnt Offering, who give the impression of writing "on behalf of"—something, somebody. Böll writes about Germans suffering because of the war, but, in this novel as in his Adam, Where Art Thou? and Acquainted with the Night, he does not have to be judged by such unsuitable and disturbing criteria as threaten to interfere with one's judgment of those other writers. Although The Train was on Time appeared in Germany earlier (1949) than the other two novels of Böll that have been published in this country, it is at least as good. Like the other two, it is a work of fiction that is not apology or excuse or explanation; it is only art. By the paradox of art, it makes the best testimonial.
Edwin Kennebeck, "The Premonition," in Commonweal (copyright © 1956 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 14, June 29, 1956, p. 329.
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Heinrich Böll writes about people living in the present. The last twenty years in European history have been prodigal with raw material for the realistic novelist. Many an author has been under the inward compulsion of writing it all out of his system; often compellingly, though at other times one has the impression that the process of creation may have been more useful to the writer than to the reader. For Böll the war was an experience of horror and waste on an immense scale. What came before 1939 belongs to a past before the deluge, and plays only a small part in his imaginative world. After the war comes the peace; Böll recalls the chaos and starvation amid the ruined towns, the advent of the currency-reform, bringing neon lights and shop-windows for all, and hot sausages and coffee too, if one can spare a mark or so, and the new generation which is growing up with no conscious memory of the war and takes for granted the ubiquitousness of cream cakes and Volkswagen. But for Böll the present has been conditioned by the trauma of the years 1939–45.
The first two novels deal directly with war experiences. Der Zug war pünktlich (1949) is set in the year 1943, and recounts the brief days in a soldier's life from the time when he boards a special train in the Ruhr in order to be transported back to the Eastern front. The crowded train, the tediousness of the slow but inexorable journey over the north German plain into Poland, the men playing cards and sharing their bread, sausage and schnaps, while their faces grow grey with grime and rough with stubble, are recorded with a realism which is already impressive. But once the train has been left, this short novel falls to pieces. There is an encounter with a young prostitute in a town near the front, where the hero's sensuality is arrested and sublimated into chaste love, and a few hours later in the early morning he meets a violent end. These latter incidents are less convincing than what has gone before. In the longer second novel, Wo warst du, Adam (1950), the experience of war and death is again central. The title is taken from a phrase of Theodor Haccker to the effect that involvement in the war is no alibi before God. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is quoted; 'La guerre est une maladie, Comme le typhus.' ['War is a disease like typhoid.'] The fate of a group of officers and men who are retreating to Germany from Rumania is narrated in a series of nine pictures. There is more substance and variety of incident and character here than in Der Zug war pünktlich. This novel is effective because of its realistic detail and the sense of pity for suffering humanity, though its formal structure is perhaps too episodic. By comparison with Böll's subsequent writing, the characters and situations are perhaps too black and white; but the stark sincerity is impressive.
Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa … (1950) is a volume of short stories which depict war and its aftermath, for the most part with a grim pathos and indignation. In these tales, which are companion pieces to the two war books, Böll's sympathies are, as always, with the underdog: the black marketeer who is wanted by the police, the schoolboy whose hopelessness at mathematics brings down upon him the continuous nagging of his teacher, or the man who fails to laugh under a dictatorship which compels everyone to be happy. The effects of war and deprivation, especially on children, arouse Böll to grim satire…. In most of these stories, as in the two war novels, it seems as if the author is grappling primarily with the immensity of immediate experiences, where the sheer force of the material moulds the manner of its expression. It is a type of writing which may owe something to Hemingway and has something in common with the sketches and stories of Wolfgang Borchert. But Böll, in contrast to Borchert, has survived to discipline his power and to stand at a further distance from his emotions. Already in a tale like Über die Brücke this development is taking place. A clerk has to make the same train journey every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Each day, at the first house beyond the bridge over the river, there is a thin, unfriendly looking housewife cleaning her windows. It is always the same sequence of windows. But there are other windows, and these she presumably cleans on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. So obsessed does he become with this observation that the clerk has a day off on compassionate grouds in order to confirm his hypothesis about the woman's window-cleaning habits. Ten years later the war is over, the town is in ruins, the railway bridge is almost collapsing—but there is still a woman cleaning at the first house beyond the bridge. It is no longer the same woman, though: her daughter, who in the old days played with her dolls on the doorstep, is now wielding the window-leather; she too has a face like stale salad. The jumping-off ground for this story is not a unique, tragic experience, but a trivial, everyday domestic chore. Böll's sharp eye has picked upon the operation of window-cleaning, observed it with alarming accuracy, and with exuberant fertility of imagination has built his story around it. Wars may come and go, but windows continue to be cleaned in the same ceremonious way. The monotony of external routine is a mask to conceal the chaotic emotional reality below, which struggles with the sheer emptiness of a meaningless existence.
The clerk's obsession with window-cleaning in Über die Brücke is fairly easily overcome; not so the craving of Tante Milla in Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit (1952)…. The narrator of this tale reluctantly recounts deplorable incidents from his family life in an urbane, non-committal manner that might be a parody of Thomas Mann's Der Erwählte or Die Betrogene, if this were chronologically possible. For Tante Milla the chief hardship caused by the war years was the impossibility of keeping up the traditional Christmas celebrations. Her devoted husband, 'dieser herzensgute Mensch', a prosperous fruit-importer and wholesale greengrocer, was in a position to spare her all contact with uglier reality. But with the return of the full paraphernalia of family Christmas in 1946, complete with an angel that says 'peace' as a doll says 'Mama', Tante Milla's obsession breaks out in an uncontrollable manner. Every day has to be Christmas Day, in February and June as well as in winter; the family must be assembled for half an hour every evening to sing carols and perform the rest of the ritual. The masquerade is kept up, though it turns one son into a Communist and the other into a monk, and causes the daughter, after she has developed a passion for 'existentialist dancing', to emigrate. Böll's satire is directed against the spirit of 'Restauration' as he sees it in post-war Western Germany, the desire to return to the good old days and to evade commitment to memories of the 1930s and 1940s. The narrator's affectation of disengagement from all that is going on around him heightens the irony; middle-class appearances have to be kept up, come what may. The virtuosity of the tale is seen in the repetition of the pantomime of Christmas; the variations indicate the increasing tempo of the degeneration taking place behind the mask, and as in Ravel's Bolero the obsessive tune knows no end. Few people, after reading this tale, I suggest, will be able to sing O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, with the same gusto as before. (pp. 264-67)
The jump from reality to fantasy is illustrated clearly in Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit, where the more complex obsession with Christmas replaces the window-cleaning operation of Über die Brücke. For Böll external realism is not enough, fantasy serves the purpose of penetrating beyond the family portrait to the depths beneath. In Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit, as indeed elsewhere, he approaches the surrealist manner; here he merges the photograph on the sitting-room mantelpiece with the clinical X-ray. This sense of the instability of the outside world is reflected in a considerable amount of post-war German writing; apart from Elisabeth Langgässer's writing, one might mention the war novels of two contemporaries of Heinrich Böll: Gerd Gaiser's Eine Stimme hebt au and Die sterbende Jagd, and Werner Warsinsky's Kimmerische Fahrt. It is a manner already adumbrated in Kafka's early Beschreibung eines Kampfes…. That reality merges into fantasy is a statement with psychological and aesthetic implications. The conception of reality as a task or duty leads to a consideration of the novelist as moralist. Böll's two novels of family life illustrate this aspect of his writing: Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953) and Haus ohne Hüter (1954). All his fiction is firmly fixed in its social background, and different works satirize or expose various evils of contemporary society, with something of the programmatic approach of Diderot in the drame bourgeois or Brecht in his epic theatre; a comparison with Dickens might also be made. Böll's early novels and short stories show the isolation of the little man who is exposed to the sufferings and evils brought about by war and the post-war situation. Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit is the first delineation of the family as a unity; after this satirical sketch follow the two substantial novels of family life which indicate a further maturing of his art and the exploration of fresh fields of experience, together with a firmer fixing of moral responsibility in the individual. The specific social problem of Und sagte kein einziges Wort is the threat to family life of unsatisfactory living conditions; a man and his wife have been living with their three children for eight years in a single room, exposed to the petty persecution of unfriendly and selfish, respectable and church-going landlords and to the constant noise of the city centre (one thinks of the quarter around Cologne main station, as it was a few years ago). It is the wife who suffers in silence, contends with the grim chores (the bomb-damaged walls shower dust and dirt continuously), struggles to bring up the children and to manage the neuroses of her husband. He is a telephone operator who drinks too much and finds conditions in the one-room home so depressing that he prefers to sleep elsewhere and leave his wife to cope as best she can…. The husband has never made any serious attempt to conform with conventional respectability. Behind the bustling efficiency and commercial ambitiousness of German economic recovery he sees emptiness and horror. The bruise of war still preys on his mind, and further back than that, his mother's death when he was seven; it is from this that his neurotic interest in funerals and death dates. This preoccupation with physical aspects of death is paralleled by comparable obsessions in Ernst Kreuder's Die Unauffindbaren or Hans Henny Jahnn's Fluss ohne Ufer. For the husband in Böll's novel life can have no meaning unless the sting of death is removed. 'Do you believe in the resurrection of the dead?' he asks a priest.
Haus ohne Hüter is less clear-cut than Und sagte kein einziges Wort, and as a novel is more interesting for its detail and its individual scenes than as a continuous whole. Much of this novel is seen from the point of view of a couple of eleven-year-old boys who have never known their fathers. Each child recognizes that there is something lacking about his mother; Martin has wealth around him (the family have an interest in a jam factory), but his mother's emotional life has become arrested in a Hollywood daydream, while his grandmother's overriding trait is greed for rich food. Martin is, however, more fortunate than his school friend Heinrich, whose mother, a pathetic figure, is dependent on a succession of 'uncles' to support her and her two children. In this novel Böll ingeniously varies the scenes from urban life which he describes, from the synthetic glitter of prosperity to the shabbiness of the lives of ordinary people…. The main purpose of the novel, to describe the problems confronting two boys approaching puberty, is a difficult and delicate undertaking, and the author has made his task more complicated by introducing a large cast of subsidiary figures with their own spheres of interest in the action. Haus ohne Hüter is a complex work, containing many fistfulls of reality, but it is less unified and coherent as a whole than Böll's other novels.
Heinrich Böll attacks smugness and hypocrisy in whatever form he finds it. Although a Catholic, he exposes place-seeking in the hierarchy in Und sagte kein einziges Wort and prefers to send his characters to the priest who is a failure in his office; there may well be echoes of Graham Greene or Bruce Marshall here. His sympathies are with the oppressed, and the short story, Die Waage der Baleks (from the volume So ward Abend und Morgen, 1955), makes his attitude to the old-time feudal aristocracy abundantly clear…. Intellectual pretentiousness is seen as another aspect of philistine smugness, an escape from immediate social duty. (pp. 267-70)
Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1955) [The Bread of Our Early Years], an 'Erzählung', is Böll's first extended love-story. Walter, a twenty-three-year-old mechanic who specializes in repairs to washing machines, falls in love with a young woman whom he has been asked to meet at the station on her arrival at the city. His actions during this fateful Monday are interspersed flashbacks which explain his present mood in terms of earlier deprivations. As a schoolboy and in the early days of his apprenticeship he was constantly hungry, with an obsession for bread which embittered him and caused him to steal. Since then his life has been centred upon work for the sake of money and what money can buy. Falling in love is shown as having a purifying effect, enabling him to make a new moral valuation of himself and others. There is some use of colour symbolism: Iphigenie's lips and Scharnhorst's collar, on two pictures remembered from schooldays, corned beef or the wrong girl's raincoat are red; Hedwig wears a green raincoat, and when Walter wants to buy her flowers, he would like to have green roses, not red ones. The author's attempt to show the hero's love as a unique experience is perhaps less successful than his vivid portrayal of the adolescent's craving for food. The story is, however, undoubtedly original and powerful. (p. 271)
Within less than ten years Heinrich Böll has produced a body of writing which can already be assessed as an achievement, not merely as something that holds out promise. His imagination is fertile and wide in scope. It seems as if almost any aspect of contemporary urban civilization which he encounters is capable of starting off an inventive sequence of fictional situations. He can make his reader see and feel the detail and background of his stories, and can create strong conflicts and tender human situations. Sharp satire with social and moral criticism shades off into light, sparkling comedy. His style is colloquial, assured in its familiarity with the language of mechanized living. There is no doubt about the strength and originality of his writing. (p. 272)
H. M. Waidson, "The Novels and Stories of Heinrich Böll," in German Life & Letters, n.s. Vol. XII, No. 4, July, 1959, pp. 264-72.
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Even a cursory glance at a West-German literary magazine will reveal a bewildering number of new writers, most of them unknown to the American public. Among the few who have found an international audience is Heinrich Böll…. [He] was a member of the Group 47, together with Hans Werner Richter, Paul Schallück, Günther Eich and Alfred Andersch. In the United States, four of Böll's novels have been published so far, and there also exist several college textbooks, containing something like ten of his short stories in German.
The critics have been often bewildered by this new voice. Estimates of Böll as an artist tend to be contradictory. A few commentators classified him as a new representative of that old school of the Twenties and Thirties, "Die neue Sachlichkeit." Some attacked him for being devoid of philosophical depth, for being hypnotized by the gloom of post-war Germany or for being anti-religious, while others were convinced he was a German Hemingway. Since all of this is far off the mark, let us have a short look at the world of Böll.
Perhaps it is typical that Böll called his first published work: Der Zug war pünklich…. Over three quarters of the action take place on a train. And the reader leafing through Böll's best-known collection of short stories, Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa …, will discover quite a number of stories which either begin and end at the railroad station, or contain scenes taking place there and on the train itself. We can follow this through to his last works dealing with post-war Germany. In Und sagte kein einziges Wort …, Bogner, the hero, wastes much of his time at the desolate station. In both Haus ohne Hüter …—the author's most brilliant achievement so far—and in the monologuish novella Das Brot der fruhen Jahre …, Boll returns to this locale which might be called the atmosphere and symbol of his universe.
In the dusty, overcrowded waiting rooms of these stations, the characters sit and wait, condemned to inactivity yet never relaxed because timetables know no pity. A railroad station stands outside ordinary life; it forms a world of its own: a world of waiting, of frustrated meetings, of hasty good-byes—played against a background of busy loneliness and noisy melancholy. We meet people by accident, exchange meaningless words, spend a few hours with them and leave, without involvement.
If I wanted to press the point, I could rephrase this description in theological terms but I do not think it will be necessary. Trains take us away just as destiny sometimes leads us into another country, another profession, another relationship. (pp. 125-26)
In Böll's very special world certain places, originally endowed with a character of their own, have been transformed into vestibules of doom or salvation. Hospitals, offices, schoolrooms reveal the same alienation as railroad stations, and the title story of Wanderer probably furnishes the best example. It unfolds in an emergency hospital, away from the front proper. War, as rendered by Böll, is the war of muddy ditches where time hangs heavy like the wintry sky of Russia; of forsaken hospitals in Hungary; of isolated patrols killed by stray bullets in a war that was senseless, criminal and lost from the start. Or we enter bombed towns where an untouched icebox still holds guard over the collapsed fourth floor of an apartment house. Böll has caught the poetry of the backwash of the war, of the wasteland that was Germany after 1945.
He possesses a special gift for extracting the essence of that slightly surrealist post-war landscape in which neon-lit ice cream parlors have sprouted on the ground floors of half-ruined Victorian mansions, and where children speculate whether that strange, unfinished structure is a genuine ruin or the beginning of a new house. Böll also seems to feel at home with the people living in the wastelands…. The philosophy of indifferent despair, as expressed by the protagonist of "Geschäft ist Geschäft," would fit many leading characters of his fiction…. (pp. 126-27)
With this, we hold the key to Böll's heroes. They are unheroic heroes. They are taken along through life as if by a train. The protagonist of Böll's first novella, Der Zug, knows that the train will deposit him at a forgotten Polish village where he is going to die. It also becomes apparent, that here, as in nearly all his later fiction, the war-experience has forever conditioned Böll's characters. Thin-skinned, intelligent Cpl. Feinhals of Wo warst du, Adam,…, animalistic Stobski in "Abenteuer eines Brotbeutels," the mutilated, the demented soldiers of Wanderer, rootless Bogner in Und sagte, Albert and Nella in Haus: less heroic heroes have rarely been made the protagonists of fiction. Just as an aside: Böll's later works usually take place after World War II, in the new miraculous prosperity. Yet the heroes remain victims. They still battle for their lives, trying to obliterate the memory of someone killed for a cause they hated, struggling to get a hold on themselves after years of blood, filth, boredom and false patriotism; they fight for their daily bread by repairing washing machines, supervised by a boss whom they despise as much as Böll's soldiers despise the lieutenants who forever quote Hitler.
What about the female characters? Let us look at Käte Bogner in Und sagte, battling against vermin, dirt and a separation from her beloved husband; or at the Polish girl in Der Zug who cannot hate the German Feinhals. The women, too, are always victims, and even more so are the children. I can not mention them all, the ethereal Russian girl selling "Chuchen" to our crippled hero; the eleven-year old boy in "Lohengrin's Tod," stealing coal so the younger ones will not starve; the two boys in Haus, a novel centered around children used to "Onkel-Ehen," and many others.
Throughout Böll's fiction, we also meet The Others: those who rule, possess, dictate. They show up in many guises—Böll is endowed with enough imagination to give variety to his fictional creatures. They appear as the exact counterpoint to our victimized heroes. Yet in constructing scenes of confrontation between the two, or, rather, in conjuring up these encounters in a stream of consciousness, Böll often ends the following way: the anger, the long-withheld fury of our protagonists suddenly evaporates; its place is taken by a "bleierne Gleich-gültigkeit" ["leaden indifference"]…. And thus Bogner, Feinhals, Nella, Albert and others have a different battle on their hands—that against boredom. (pp. 127-28)
Ennui as a vital problem—we may have encountered this in Jean-Paul Sartre, in Graham Greene, in numerous Anglo-Saxon writers, but as far as I could ascertain it sounds a new note in twentieth-century German fiction. Railroads, of course, are breeding stations of boredom; likewise, the war in which Böll's protagonists were involved against their will, has conditioned them to live in boredom, a state of mind in which the real self is not "engagé." In Und sagte, the ennui and its accompanying dilemma are the core of Fred Bogner's dilemma. Only on the last pages of the novel, when Bogner is able to face a return to Käte, to the narrow one-room apartment, Bogner's life—and with it Böll's prose—takes on a new freshness, a new vitality.
That the tone of the narrative should change when its protagonists experience what could be called a conversion, is logical: after all, we have watched them continuously from very close. In all his narratives, Böll has moved his camera from close-up to close-up. He conveys his main incidents through inner monologues. A close intimacy between reader and character is established. It almost appears as though we had acquired a real friend. One could say: Böll gives us close-ups of compassion. And here enters a marvellous duplication. Just as we seem to have become a friend of Käte Bogner while participating in her daily struggle against loneliness and dirt, so Böll's protagonists sometimes meet strangers and, imperceptibly, there is born between them understanding and sympathy. In the world of Heinrich Böll it is only this compassion, this consoling alliance of two desolate souls which makes existence bearable. Occasionally, the birth of this sympathy is not gradual but sudden, almost like a revelation, and it may be tied to those unearthly figures which wander through Böll's universe like messengers from another world.
For the French critic Henri Plard, these figures are really angels; he has traced them with considerable care throughout Böll's work. However this may be, it leads into another center of the author's world: his reverent yet ambiguous treatment of religion. Numerous attacks on Böll have concentrated on his alleged cynicism; his defenders, on the other hand, have tended to gloss over his satirical passages. A large number of Böll's protagonists accept the Catholic faith as a matter of course. But they also are angered by the clandestine pettiness of ecclesiastical organization and administration. With more amused anger than devotion, Fred Bogner watches the traditional church procession marching through the ruins of Köln. The irony reaches a high point when the banners, displaying the first lines of famous hymns, are exchanged for those featuring the slogans of the Association of German Druggists which convenes at the same moment.
Undoubtedly, those three chapters of Und sagte, in which the religious and the aggressively commercial are interwoven, contain that spirit of macabre raillery which is apt to antagonize the orthodox. Yet the very same novel also reveals the opposite…. Like many a believer before him, Böll lashes out against the tyranny of domineering busybodies like Frau Franke, who hides an indecent worship of money behind her activities on behalf of churchly causes. We must also keep in mind that quite a few of Böll's heroes have hardly survived the war and the lean, chaotic years afterwards. Even though they may have been devout at the beginning, the war experience has shaken them to their depth, particularly since they realized that faith alone does not always furnish protection against despair, loneliness and alcoholism. Böll's ambivalence of acceptance and rejection emerges perhaps most clearly in his first extended work of nonfiction, the Irisches Tagebuch …, in which he proclaims—this time not through fictional characters—his love for the faithful in heart, for the honestly devout and meek, as well as his disdain of vainglorious churchly affectation.
The truth is, Böll denounces affectation, hypocrisy, meddle-someness and over-efficiency in every field of life. His collection, entitled Dr. Murkes Gesammeltes Schweigen [Dr. Murke's Collected Silences], in which he continues the satirical tradition of such earlier writers as Meyrink, Sternheim, Erich Kästner, is the best proof. But before turning to this aspect, I should like to emphasize the increasing assurance with which Böll uses his narrative tools, especially the "inner monologue," a technique which Schnitzler before him handled with such mastery. But to mention this, is to lay bare the difference: Böll's figures seem determined to make friends with us, while Schnitzler manages the difficult exploit of simultaneously illuminating his characters from within, and keeping us at a distance…. Furthermore, the direction of incidents, the musings of the characters necessitate the intimate method, so that what is called content and what is called style have become interlaced in such a way as to be the cause and the effect of one another.
And now to the coda, the unexpected satyr play: side by side with Böll's wasteland, there exist his grotesque stories, his satirical phantasies. (pp. 128-30)
We called the satyr play "unexpected": this is only true if we are content with a surface examination. What Böll ridicules is the "Betriebsamkeit," the universe of the successful from which his hero-victims are forever excluded. It is against these overbearing, extroverts that his outsiders have to fight their battles…. Yet just as we know from the old cliché that clowns are really depressives, so the opposite is true, and the clown, or, rather the satirist Böll, could be spotted in "Mein trauriges Gesicht" (Wanderer), an early work. Böll's satires, despite their bite and their sparkle, are built on a substructure of pathos. Where they fail is in their basic attitude. In his dislike of the new prosperity with its "nouveau riches," of the pseudo-intellectual bureaucrats in the radio organizations, Böll seems to hint that they are typical only of post-war West Germany. He seems blind to the achievements of that segment of West-Germany which has read and honored him. His caricatures seem to aim not in the wrong direction but too much in one direction. Whatever he abhors, so it could be shown easily, grows just as abundantly on Madison Avenue and in Hollywood. It is, however, too early to come to a definite appraisal of Böll's satirical—as well as other—prose works, and it appears to me that his Irisches Tagebuch [Irish Journal] marks a definite change and a definite breaking away from his earlier pattern. (p. 131)
Richard Plant, "The World of Heinrich Böll," in The German Quarterly (copyright © 1960 by the American Association of Teachers of German), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, March, 1960, pp. 125-31.
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The background to Heinrich Böll's fine novel [Billiards at Half Past Nine] is one of the most mysterious places in the world, the Catholic Rhineland. He writes with piercing clarity of the chemical smoke blowing over willows and black barges, autobahnen through the beet fields, Romanesque churches, Roman tombs. (p. 887)
Robert Faehmel, a successful quantity surveyor, had been involved in resistance in 1935 when he was a schoolboy. Through his friend Schrella he joined a strange pacifist sect, known as the Lambs, whose oath was 'never to taste the Buffalo Sacrament'. With Schrella he was beaten up, fled into exile, but returned to join the army and to marry Schrella's sister. A captain in the Engineers in 1945, he blew up the Abbey which his father Heinrich had built; in 1958 his son, Joseph, also an architect, is restoring the Abbey. The action takes place during one day, on which Heinrich is celebrating his 80th birthday, and on which Schrella returns from exile to find out which of his contemporaries have or have not 'tasted the Buffalo Sacrament', that is, have been living out the ancient German dream of war and power. It is significant that Böll does not present the issue as between Nazism and anti-Nazism; the Kaiser and Hindenburg are as much the demons of history as Hitler (who is never mentioned by name) and the Nazis were simply a special case, partaking of the Sacrament more thoroughly than their predecessors. Böll sees modern politics as repeating the ancient patterns, and salvation as lying only in a few, like the Faehmels and the Schrellas, who have remained pure in heart.
I find this quietist solution repellent, but his diagnosis is imaginatively impressive and his technique magnificent. There is a continuous narrative of the day's events, interspersed with flashbacks; the past is recreated in the interior monologue of each character in turn. The structure is thematic: a number of motifs—Holy Lamb, wild boar, Roman children's graves, ball-games, Uhlans, Hölderlin, the river—are woven through the monologues, and the story is given dramatic force and a tight and satisfying musical shape. In these respects Böll seems to owe a good deal to Joyce, and to have made brilliant use of what he has learned. But in his descriptive passages, which are the best things in the book, he is a worthy successor to Thomas Mann. There is a particularly rich and solid set-piece, where Heinrich hears that he has won the architectural competition. On a second reading I found the ending rather falsely contrived, both as a narrative and as structure. Schrella's homecoming and confrontation of his persecutor is beautifully presented, but his last conversation with Robert about politics does not convince: Böll seems to be sliding here into journalism.
I haven't read enough of Böll's work to be able to say how great a writer he is, but I am sure that [Billiards at Half Past Nine] is one of the most exciting and masterly novels to appear since Camus' La Peste. (pp. 887-88)
Matthew Hodgart, "Ancient Dreams," in New Statesman (© 1961 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXI, No. 1577, June 2, 1961, pp. 887-88.∗
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Heinrich Böll's novel [Billiards at Half Past Nine] left me feeling that either he is too clever by half or I am not clever enough: either way, I had the utmost difficulty in understanding it. The place is a small Rhineland town, the time a single day in September, 1958, and the main character is Robert Faehmal, a quantity surveyor, who had briefly engaged in anti-Nazi activities in boyhood and then been forced to conform. In the background is a large and inevitably symbolic Benedictine abbey, which Robert's architect father had designed before the 1914 war and which he himself as an army officer had been responsible for destroying in 1945; it is now being rebuilt by the youngest generation. There is more to the novel than this, but Herr Böll's devotion to the most dated techniques of experimental fiction means that much of the story is lost in obscurity. His use of flashbacks is so overdone that any sense of coherent chronology vanishes, while the multiple interior monologues produce a dense confusion of their own. There are more obscure novels in the world, certainly—Finnegans Wake for one—but most of them, I suspect, have rather more to offer.
Bernard Bergonzi, "Wessex Gothic," in The Spectator (© 1961 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 6937, June 9, 1961, p. 846.
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While there are more sophisticated writers at work in Germany, some of whom are of great promise, Heinrich Böll has no peer as a storyteller. Equally free from the chilly academism of his younger colleagues and the blindness to historical reality so obvious in the novels of the older generation, his is straightforward and unsparingly honest in his scrutiny of character and situation. He is a disciple of Hemingway rather than of Mann or Kafka, and it is not surprising that his sturdy realism occasionally earns him a laurel twig on the other side of the Iron Curtain….
["Billiards at Half Past Nine"] differs in scope and setting from his previous works, and should win over readers to whom the typical Böll milieu, with its slightly proletarian aura, does not readily appeal. With an ambition few critics would have credited to him, Böll writes about three generations of an upper-middle-class family and the fate of Germany as experienced by them. The result is not a sequel to "Buddenbrooks," to be sure; but it is an excellent book, and certainly the author's best.
Böll's virtues are all here, though served up with an artistry that calls into question the seeming simplicity of his previous work. He describes the events of a single day in 1958, and by a skilful technique of omission and concentration he manages to cram into it, with an almost showy ease, Germany's victories and defeats since 1907. Some of the leitmotifs sag a little under the symbolic weight they are made to bear, and it takes an alert reader to catch all the allusions and the significance that invests even the minor details. But the outline of the plot is clear enough, and once it is established in the reader's mind, all the episodes find their place. (p. 39)
[One] does not know what most to admire: Böll's sure touch at characterization or his handling of epic materials in a novel of ordinary length. The Kaiser's Germany, the great wars, the lean and fat years—he shows how the Germans lived them. It is a harsh and candid picture, full of guilt, brutality, and suffering. Evil shadows from the past loom over the present, while vicious Nazis turn pious democrats.
Yet in this chronicle of false hopes, real frustrations, and unresolved bitterness there are redemptive acts of great moral power, like the shot Robert's mad mother aims at a Nazi. No matter that she only scratches him, or that the few good people are feckless and a bit silly. Heinrich Böll knows how suspect successful saints are, and he communicates his conviction in this memorable new novel. (p. 40)
Joseph P. Bauke, "Obeisance to Empty Forms," in Saturday Review (© 1962 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLV, No. 29, July 28, 1962, pp. 39-40.
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It is wrong-headed to read The Clown as a simple condemnation of German national character, or to find in its wistful hero that mythical figure so dear to our own uneasy sense of virtue—the Good German Intellectual castigating his vicious and hypocritical countrymen. Vice and hypocrisy are the subjects of the book, satiric castigation is its mode, and the twilight of the Nazi era sounds a sinister ground-bass in the memory of the narrator-protagonist, but neither ex-Nazis nor neo-Nazis are conspicuous in the contemporary Rhineland of the clown Hans Schnier. Drinking excessively and in a decline because his Catholic mistress has left him to marry a prominent Catholic layman, he telephones the entire range of his acquaintance in Bonn—ostensibly to borrow money and to locate Marie, but actually to operate as a kind of scourge of villainy, to force his interlocutors to come to an awareness of their true selves and thus to measure those selves against the clear moral imperatives which, the novel implies, only a clown can fully perceive.
A clean record in the bad old days is no guarantee of moral purity, although two of the least savory figures in Böll's gallery were passionate followers of the Führer. The execrable Herbert Kalick, one-time Hitler Youth leader who had menaced the child Hans in the closing days of the war, has become a sentimental democrat, fond of talking about "Jewish spirituality," but the truly appalling thing is that his conversion is perfectly sincere: he is, as Schnier observes, "a born conformist." And Schnier's unspeakable mother, a fervent Blut und Boden patriot in the old days, is now active in the "Executive Committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences." But other characters, with less compromised political pasts, come under as severe attack from the clown, to whom the facile doctrine of collective guilt is quite meaningless…. Individual guilt, his experience with the virtuous pillars of society would suggest, is quite sufficient to make recourse to abstractions unnecessary.
Catholics, along with capitalists, come in for a major share of abuse, but the book is, paradoxically, profoundly Catholic in its values…. And if Böll's anti-capitalism remains unequivocal, a few succinct anecdotes show that he has even less faith in Communist society. In 1795 Schiller observed that the "modern" writer, with his self-conscious awareness of the gulf between the ideal and the actual, inevitably would tend to embrace one of three literary modes—the satiric, the elegiac, or the idyllic. His formulation has proved a prophetic one, at least in German letters, and The Clown may best be approached, it seems to me, as a traditional satire, a work in which man's aspiration toward a prosperous and generous society is placed against the reality of human meanness, in which the spirit of Christianity is contrasted with the murderous letter evoked by its official representatives, such as the men who have persuaded Marie to leave him.
Many features of this work identify it as belonging to the satiric mode. The most obvious feature is the protagonist's fondness for epigrammatic aperçus—"An artist always carries death with him, like a good priest his breviary," or "Rich people have far more given to them than poor people, and what they do have to buy they generally get cheaper." But other, more profoundly central traits of the satirist's art are also present (one might note the discussion of some of these traits in such studies as Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism or Alvin Kernan's The Cankered Muse). There is, to begin with, the very range and inclusiveness of the protagonist's attack—wherever he looks he sees venality and hypocrisy; society offers no compensatory vision at all. There is, further, the motif of the violation of the earth: Schnier's capitalist family has made its fortune in connection with the mining interests of the Ruhr. There is also that reflexive movement which might be labeled "the infection of the satirist," in which the scourge of villainy himself ends by partaking of something of the lunacy and corruption of the world he exposes. And Böll, in choosing a clown as his hero, has taken up yet once more our century's distinctive satiric persons (we need only think of Chaplin, or Picasso, or Stravinsky). (pp. 17-18)
At times [Böll's] protagonist displays an innocence, a soft-headedness, and a sweetness rather suggestive of Holden Caulfield. And the novel betrays a certain confusion between the manner of realistic fiction and the non-realistic, extravagantly hyperbolic manner of traditional satire. In these respects it fails to sustain its tone as consistently as some of Böll's shorter satires—the brilliant and biting "Christmas Every Day," for example, or a few of the other stories … collected in Doktor Murkes Gesammeltes Schweigen. But these are mild reservations about a book which is as impressive in its intensity of feeling as in its smooth mastery of tone. (p. 18)
If one is determined to place this admirable book in a narrowly contemporary context, it seems to me that critical head-shakings about the spiritual condition of modern Germany are scarcely indicated. A vigorous culture produces its own criticism of itself, and the nature of that criticism is inevitably instructive. Böll's astringent satire in The Clown, so different from the tragic and nihilistic satire of Brecht's 1930 Mahagonny, reflects a society once more in full contact with its historical traditions—traditions which have included, at least since Horace and Juvenal, the capacity for delivering healthy blasts against the ubiquitous vices of mankind. (pp. 18-19)
Frank J. Warnke, "Saeva Indignatio on the Rhine," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1965 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 152, No. 12, March 20, 1965, pp. 17-19).
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Disturbing, queer things these—two unconnected novellas in one thin volume ["Absent Without Leave"]—tales told in the first person by German males who, like the author, were of military age during World War II. The reader must bring to each his own understanding of Germans and the war, for the principal materials used by Heinrich Böll are blanks and holes.
He uses the qualities of nothingness as a modern sculptor does, which sounds like a rotten idea, but he makes it work like a dream. Take the second of the tales. "Enter and Exit." It begins with the first day of the war, and ends with the day of the narrator's return to peace. There is not one word about what happened between those two days. Hey presto! Do what you will with the missing six years.
"Enter and Exit" is easy reading. The two days are odd but natural. The other novella, which has the same title as the whole book, is a royal pain, a mannered, pretentious, patronizing, junky sort of "Notes From the Underground." It seemed a sophomoric piece of work to me. I couldn't imagine the narrator, even though he did his best to tell me wry, funny, warm stories about himself in the war. He was apparently a yardbird, a foul-up, a Schweik, a coward and a fool in the Nazi scheme of things, but he didn't amuse me much.
What burned me up especially was his explicit refusal to tell me this or that, things that would be interesting to know. "The pastor's words at her graveside were so embarrassing," he said of his mother's funeral, "that I prefer not to repeat them." He refused to say what she looked like, too. On his relationship with his wife he said, "It is neither my purpose nor within the scope of my capabilities even to try and describe, let alone explain, the power of love," and so much for that.
The suspicion might be too easily aroused that his work is antimilitarist or even pro-disarmament or anti-armament. "Oh no," he said a little farther on, "I am concerned with something much more exalted,… with love and innocence." I thanked heaven that he had at last told me something mildly useful, but then he booted that by asking, "Who can describe innocence? Not me. Who can describe the happiness and ecstasies of love? Not me." He refused to try.
So I threw the book across the room. And then I understood: The narrator was being so absurd and evasive, his story was so full of holes because there were so many things he dared not let himself remember. What were they? Who knows? Each reader has to guess. (pp. 4, 54)
I approve. Does anybody really need to go over the nauseatingly familiar details of World War II yet again? Why not call the era "X," or do what Böll has done, which is to leave a blank, and then go on to the more profound business, as Böll does, of what the effects of "X" or blank were on various human souls?…
He recommends desertion to the young of today, with this warning: "But watch out when they start shooting! There are some idiots who aim to hit!" In other words, the alternative to dishonor is frequently death. And, from the way the narrator fails to tell his story, the young of today can also learn that the results of service in a bad cause, voluntary or involuntary, can be holes in the memory and a half-dead soul.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., "The Unsaid Says Much," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 12, 1965, pp. 4, 54.
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Böll is remarkably popular among older German readers: his fiction combines a sharply localized, vivid sort of reporting with that mixture of involvement and spectatorial reserve with which the experiences of the past twenty-five years are viewed by many Germans who have remained emotionally entangled in their aftermath. He is himself—now at 48—not quite one of the "younger" Germans, who view the Nazi decade with far less immediate concern than their elders, and who are anxious to judge the present from a detached, cosmopolitan point of view. To these more independent younger readers Böll has sometimes seemed provincial in attitude and old-fashioned in his technique; they have not, of course, been indifferent to the integrity and seriousness of Böll's moral position, but they have been troubled by his reluctance—or perhaps his inability—to bring the radical resources of modern fiction to bear upon intellectual and emotional issues that cannot be fully explored in the conventional designs of his novels. (p. 37)
Absent Without Leave and Enter and Exit … are once again characteristic variations on Böll's central theme of isolation and moral indifference. The first relates the experiences of a student—half Jewish, half Christian—in the Nazi labor service and later the German army: his detachment (in order "to make a man of him") to latrine duty, his marriage to the sister of a fellow soldier, his arrest for going AWOL, and the return to his unit. He scarcely sees his wife again, she is killed in an air attack. All of this is twenty-seven years later recalled by the disillusioned survivor of the war, a man still, so to speak, absent without leave, the bitter citizen of a prosperous Germany, whose "aim in life has been to become unfit for duty."
These deliberately sparse and banal events are little more than convenient occasions for Böll's attempt at illuminating the interplay of past and present; confused days are remembered by a narrator who is radical in his cynicism, intensely in doubt as to the intellectual perspectives of the reader whom he specifically addresses, and above all, curiously mocking of his own narrative method. Böll here transcends the straightforward realism of his earlier fiction in favor of a deliberate effort at structural complexity. He adds, in any case, a dimension of rather obvious satire on literary fashions to his customary savage social criticism: he offers the story in the bare outlines of a coloring book, which the reader himself may complete or vary. "Like a miserly uncle or a thrifty aunt, I take for granted the possession of a paintbox or a set of crayons. Those who have nothing but a pencil, a ballpoint, or the remains of some ink, are free to try it in monochrome."
Miscellaneous excerpts from the newspapers of the 22nd of September, 1938—the day on which Neville Chamberlain arrived in Bad Godesberg to settle the Sudeten crisis—are interpolated for whatever use the reader may want to make of them…. The narrator is willing to satisfy the reader's expectations of literary gamesmanship. "I hope these flashes back and forth will not upset the reader. By grade 7, if not before, the nearest child knows that this is called changing the narrational level. It is the same thing as change of shift in a factory, except that in my case these changes mark the places where I have to sharpen my pencil before supplying more strokes and dots."
The effect of these elaborate eccentricities is sometimes galvanizing but more often heavy-handed; instead of intensifying the impact of a bizarre history, instead of clarifying the puzzling interconnections between memory and actuality, Böll's self-conscious technique may merely irritate and deflate. If he attempts to provide a sort of musical coherence—gestures, movements, images, quotations, scraps of popular songs and the like echo throughout the story—these elements of continuity remain obvious rhetorical devices and seldom come to life. Böll's passionate desire to illuminate an obscure and pretentious world and to clarify our perception is unmistakable; yet there is a quality of abstraction in his story-telling, a mechanical and pseudo-highbrow allusiveness, and a stubborn recourse to inane stereotypes of speech and behavior. (pp. 37-8)
The second of these stories, Enter and Exit, describes, again in almost a monotone, remembered events in the career of a young German soldier, first at the outbreak of the Second World War and then after its end. It is a series of sharply and ironically focussed scenes that evoke the absurdity and inhumanity of life in the army, and in the physical and moral rubble of his native Cologne. What Böll calls forth in both of these topical and allegorical tales is not so much our compassion for the victims of a system, nor our dismay at the prevalence of evil; as a pragmatic moralist he attacks greed, stupidity, pretentiousness and arrogance—the traditional targets of satire—and insofar as they are curable, reminds us of the rational resources that might, with varying degrees of success, be marshalled against them.
The strength and weakness of Böll's art are, even in these minor works, obvious enough: the senselessness of war and the corruptibility of man are its moving themes; the gap between moral pretensions and the pursuit of a pointless existence is hauntingly explored with the fervor of a born storyteller who may at times seem in danger of being swayed by his own compassion into melodrama and sentimentality.
Böll has been compared to Camus: they have a moving emotional integrity in common, and a profound awareness of the need of individual moral commitment in a society of increasingly abstract relationships. Camus is altogether the more impressive analyst of the private dilemma, Böll perhaps the more specific (and satirical) recorder of public attitudes and of a collective experience desperately determined by an inheritance that is probably easier for the younger Germans totally to disavow, than for their parents to transcend. (p. 38)
Victor Lange, "Worlds of Desolation," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1965 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 153, No. 22, November 27, 1965, pp. 36-8.
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Heinrich Böll belongs to a generation of German writers whose lives are inextricably linked with the historical, social, moral and spiritual collapse of their country. Their individual destinies fused with her political fate. Whether older or younger, they have all grown up in the turmoil of Nazidom, becoming conscious of the world and of themselves either during the war, under the steaming political pressures of a war machine running wild, or in the depressurized aridity during the post-war years, surrounded by a landscape of total defeat, of ruined cities, ruined lives and guilt-complexes. Romantics they may have been; realists they all had to become. This is, perhaps, the main reason why, regardless of form and substance, their primary interests lay from the outset in politics, or rather in the consequences of the political act as reflected in the lives and minds of human beings, however far they may have been from the political center. Thus it would be safe to assume that, excluding their Eastern European counterparts, theirs is the most politically-minded generation in Europe today. Here, however, the similarities end. For while, for instance, Günther Grass or Uwe Johnson, experimenting with style, form, and subject matter are, willy-nilly, forced to struggle not only with the complexities of their age but also with their respective experiments, Böll developed an artistic approach that is nearer in style, tone, and mood to a Fontane or a Thomas Mann than to his own contemporaries. I am tempted to add, although I am aware of the dangers of oversimplification, that the main difference between Böll and Grass lies in the fact that while Grass sees politics as affected by life, Böll sees life as affected by politics. He proceeds, without fireworks yet with an imposing self-assurance rooted in his philosophy and craftsmanship, to show us the whole sometimes amusing, sometimes frightening panorama of contemporary German society; we are at the very source of his powers. (p. 572)
Yet the past—the war and Nazism—concerns Böll only to the extent that it is, inevitably, the background of the present. Unlike Grass, he is not, in [18 Stories] at any rate, preoccupied with the responsibilities and guilt-complexes of the nation and the individuals. In his frame of reference, the immediate past of the country does not signify the point of absolute zero, but rather one of the coincidentia oppositorum, where in the blinding light of the Stalin-candles, phenomena, social as well as moral and psychological, showed their very essence with utmost clarity. Thus, in the proper perspective of historical continuity, the present becomes suddenly and stunningly alive, teeming with the people of the Wirtschaftswunder. It is, then, against the twilight world of the economic miracle, where there are no great tensions and what is at stake is not life itself but perhaps only a new Mercedes 220, that Böll's irony and satire is directed. For it is "like a bad dream" but nevertheless it is true that a man, despite his initial reluctance, may and can be induced by his wife to bribe "the chairman of a committee which places contracts for large housing projects" so as to earn an additional "20,000 marks"; it is like a bad dream, but nevertheless it is also true that the chairman of the committee is perfectly willing, in fact expects, to be bribed for as little as 2,600 marks not only with the connivance but with the active help of his wife. What makes Böll's story so menacingly real is, of course, not its theme—it is as ancient as literature itself—but its atmosphere; the well-furnished comfortable apartment, the French cognac and the eighteenth-century crucifix, the pleasantries exchanged during, and the cigars after, dinner, the tacit acceptance of complicity, the self-evident naturalness of a late-night telephone conversation that results in an even better deal and, consequently, in a small rise in the sum of the bribe. In short, the smoothness of the operation reflects its everyday character. And yet, by the end, it becomes suddenly clear that the moment of a common transaction is, in fact, a turning point in the life of the narrator. His uneasy reluctance to go along with the instructions of his efficient wife (which, incidentally, did not prevent him from learning quickly the "rules of the game") turns into a disquieting foreboding: the deal is on but his marriage may not survive it…. Without fire and brimstone, without moralizing or passing judgment, Böll introduces a new equilibrium between the crass immorality of society and the yet unborn but already stirring awareness of a human being. Man perhaps can be saved, if he is willing to save himself or, rather, to understand what is beyond understanding. It all depends on our choice.
Some of Böll's characters seem to be perfectly aware of the dilemma; they react to it in a variety of ways. The man whose job is "to throw away" spends his mornings separating "the circulars from the letters" in "the basement of a respected establishment" which is "entirely devoted to destruction," to the throwing away, that is, of an immense amount of wasted human effort; and although it took him "years to invent my profession, to endow it with mathematical plausibility," he is bound to realize that "the mere throwing away of mail as such has almost ceased to interest me," and instead he now devotes his energies "to calculations concerning wrapping paper and the process of wrapping," for "this is virgin territory where nothing has been done, here one can strive to spare humanity those unprofitable efforts under the burden of which it is groaning," only to arrive at the conclusion that "the wrapping is worth more than the content." What is it that the hero of that delightful satire, who decided "to keep away from morality altogether" because his "field of speculation is one of pure economics," is struggling with? The wastes of society or the frustrations of the individual? Undoubtedly both. Yet, deemed not only a "mental case" but, what is worse, "anti-social" on his "punch-card," he has solved the dilemma, at least for himself. Hiding behind the mask "of an educated businessman" he is now able to defend himself and his world from being "thrown away," thus symbolizing the futility of the society—any society—where morality and economics are kept apart.
From the indirect solution to the direct one; from the man who "throws away" to the man who "collects" tape-recorded silences in order to defend his integrity and dignity, Böll's probing into the depths of our contemporary triumphs and humiliations continues uninterrupted. For Murke, the young, intelligent, though perhaps a bit arrogant, hero of that devastating, bitter and clever satiric tour de force, "Murke's Collected Silences," it is glaringly obvious that the impact of his particular "vegeance" on hypocrisy and on the sham-values of society is limited and, in a way, ineffectual; yet it is, nonetheless, completely satisfying. From morning to evening, in the building of the radio station where Murke is working as a member of the cultural department, friendships are born, pomposity is deflated, the name of God is replaced by the more neutral-sounding 'Higher Being' twenty-seven times on a tape-recorded lecture and, as if only by chance, Murke gets his revenge together with some newly-acquired silences. He can now go home, sit back and listen to them. But is the coincidence between his triumph and the world's humiliation wholly coincidental?
Hardly. A Catholic whose belief is anchored not so much in the tenets of the faith as in what C. S. Lewis calls "a dogmatic belief in objective values," Böll views the trials and tribulations of his characters with love, understanding and compassion yet without sentimentality and illusion. Accordingly, his understanding of human motives does not necessarily mean their acceptance or justification, but is invariably based on the metaphysical reality of fundamental value-categories. Primarily, his interests lie in the emergence and evolution of a human consciousness that will eventually include in itself a greater and more encompassing reality; a reality permeated with truth. Unlike Graham Greene's "heroic" Catholicism that perennially struggles with the bonds of faith only to prove their boundlessness, Böll's religion is a quiet and warm-hearted affair, transcending his politics and transforming his bitterness. It enables him to see beyond the relativity of the human condition.
Maybe the time has come when we can—without being called fossilized reactionaries—recognize the merits of writers who are not committed, unflinchingly, to experimenting but only to conveying the landscape and meaning of everyday life, as they perceive it. Heinrich Böll belongs to them—with commendable success, one must add without hesitation. (pp. 573-75)
Tamas Aczel, in a review of "Eighteen Stories," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review, The Massachusetts Review, Inc.; © 1967), Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 571-75.
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The novel as interrogation has turned out to be more than experiment; it is as natural a product of war, the fixed trial, as it is of personal guilt and self-defence. Psychoanalysis, sociology, case-histories and the huge bureaucracy of files and records train the novelist for the techniques of inquisition and tempt him away from the private graces on which we contrive, as best we can, to live. Not only are we now watched by Big Brother in what Heinrich Böll (in his new novel for which he will get the Nobel Prize this year) calls 'the achievement-oriented society': this society has produced innumerable Little Brothers who have us taped as well. This is awkward news for novelists who cling to their old omniscience: but Böll has seen a satirical and romantic compromise in interrogating the interrogators. [Group Portrait with Lady] is an exhaustive series of plain interviews with the groups of people who knew Leni, his 'heroine' or, rather, 'subject' at discernible stages of her life—which still goes on. With a half-bow to the computing of social, medical and other sciences he poses as a fact-fetishist and calls himself the Au (rather than Author) throughout; and to the objection that emotional states are not easily computed he reduces them to those that produce T and W, L and B (tears and weeping, laughter and bliss). Suffering and pain will also occur to Leni and others, but the encyclopaedia settles that neatly: 'S or P is felt by a person with a severity proportionate to his quality of life and to the sensitivity of his nature.' (p. 694)
But Group Portrait with Lady is not straight satire. Herr Böll's interrogation enables him to cut deeply where he chooses into German lives of many kinds from the Thirties, the rise of Nazism, the war, the devastation and the boom, without lecturing us on history. And he has done this as a revaluer. We see all kinds of Germans shifting their ground and their fates as success or disaster catches them. The interrogation method, carried on with tact, irony, impartiality touched by indulgence, stirs each man and woman to a self-justifying account of the desperate moments of their lives. One gets an intimate picture of the war as it demoralises everyday life. It is brilliant that we see Leni's wartime life as a worker in a place, close to a cemetery, where she is making wreaths for the growing population of the killed; and that the daylight raids in the last year give her a chance to get away from supervision into the fields with her lover for an hour or two. Herr Böll's sharp eye for everything that is human in folly, chicanery or the tragic anarchy of defeat that followed, enables him to escape the lumbering quality of panoramic writing. That eye is always on the accident of being human. He is never stuck in set descriptions, but is following his own mind. The Au is not a tape-recorder; he disarmingly elicits the detail he wants to know; if he is inclined to enjoy his own dilatory manner and to lose us in some of his family histories, he does show us people confronting or dodging the awkward facts. His virtue lies in his silences and his humanity; his only serious fault is occasional jauntiness.
Herr Böll's method succeeds completely with the groups and particularly with the women who have been close to Leni; but the portrait of Leni herself suffers from a vital defect. The more we hear about her, the less we see of her. A little more is lost with every new piece of hearsay. She is so thoroughly known factually that she is static. And she is romanticised, if not sentimentalised. It is astonishing to know so much about her and yet not to see her except now and then. (One reason for this is that we do not hear her speak: the omniscient novelist would have given her a voice or would have made her silences expressive. Indeed, he would have obeyed his rule of self-effacement, whereas Herr Böll who adores her, overwhelms her with every kind of tentative speculation.) We are also under the strain of seeing her as both symbol and a woman with her own oddities. She has a strong sensual appetite for food, a scatological curiosity—she has picked up near-mystical notions about excrement from a half-Jewish nun hidden in her convent. She has shy but determined notions about sex in the heather; she thinks of love as 'the laying on of hands'; is a bit of a pianist; has a passion for enlarged scientific drawings of all organs of the human body. These convince neighbours that she must be a prostitute. She has given years to a large and still uncompleted drawing of the cross-section of one layer of the retina, to be called 'Part of the Retina of the Left Eye of the Virgin Mary alias Rahel'. Rahel was the Jewish-Celtic nun for whom Leni had had a probably erotic passion as a girl.
Yet at school the robust Leni was voted 'the most German girl of the year'…. In the end we see her living with a Turkish worker who is a Mohammedan and already has a wife and children, and vilified by her neighbours, who have the local German hatred of imported foreign labour. She is perfectly happy even though her son is a drop-out who refuses to be anything but a dedicated garbage-collector. According to the psychiatrist's report the youth is suffering from a state called d.u.a. (deliberate under-achievement), though he can speak and write Russian and has read widely. From the achievement society's point of view he is one more victim of 'moral antiprocess'; he has been in prison for forging cheques, but that was a personal aggression against his cousins who had adroitly got hold of the property of his mother's family. Not that she cared at all. She is the shadow of Herr Böll's message. Herr Böll's strong convictions are not concealed by his mocking and hearty Rhenish manner. This sometimes runs to a coarse morbidity which is dangerously close to hospital jokeyness. I would do without Klementina, the wavering intellectual nun who at the end of the novel abandons the habit and goes to live with Au and consoles him, after he had corrupted her with a packet of Virginia cigarettes and a kiss. And the episode in which roses are made to bloom miraculously in the wrong season in a convent garden and allegedly from the ashes of Rahel—an unsuspected hot water spring is the cause—is like one of those naughty miracle jokes so often spun out by knowing Irish priests. But these incidents are the errors of a grave writer who is usually sound in farce and comedy…. Böll's comedy depends on a gift for turning points of accurate observation into critical fantasy. And he has one quality indispensable to the interrogatory novelist; the ear for the clichés in which ordinary people hide their secrets and the rulers and moneymakers their policies. He is listening to people turning excuses into articles of faith. No doubt Leni is the heroine because she says so little. The Au makes a list of her few known phrases. What did she say to her son when he forged the cheque? What to her young, absurdly formal Turkish lover? How did she escape the unmeaning phrase? Not quite the Virgin Mary, not remorseful enough to be a Magdalene, brighter than Martha—what is she? We shall never be quite sure. (pp. 694-95)
V. S. Pritchett, "Grand Inquisitor," in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 85, No. 2199, May 11, 1973, pp. 694-95.
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When the war ended in 1945 and the writers returned from the POW camps to the bombed-out cities, they found their homes unfit for habitation and their language not ready for literary use. The corrupting idiom of the Nazi propagandists and the bureaucratic jargon of the government had poisoned the German vocabulary with the taint of death. (p. 28)
Böll's single sentence seems to sum up the problem fairly well: "It was a difficult and hard beginning to write in 1945, considering the depravity and untruthfulness of the German language at that time."… Böll and his contemporaries had to overcome these problems and restore the literary quality of their mother tongue. (p. 29)
The linguistic problems were further complicated by the death of German literary tradition. The new writers knew that the image of man which the older generation and its predecessors had inherited could not be revived. They knew that the tradition extending from Goethe to Expressionism was destroyed. Nineteen forty-five was their Stunde Null, the point from which the marking of time was started anew. The war had produced a leveling of the cities and the Nazi spirit produced a Kahlschlag, a clearing across the terrain of German literature. (pp. 29-30)
Two ways seemed open to authors in the late 1940s: a return to the ABCs of vocabulary and syntax, to the power of primitive expression or a conscious playing on the perverted meaning of words. One of the finest examples of the first method is Günter Eich's poem "Inventory," written about life in a POW camp. In the poem the simplicity of language is used to parallel the elemental human conditions in the camp and to reduce language to a rudimentary level to avoid unwanted connotations….
The opening paragraph of Böll's satirical story "Mein teures Bein" [My Expensive Leg] exemplifies his use of this method…. (p. 30)
The elemental, repetitive vocabulary and syntax are effectively appropriate for the narrator protesting the unimaginative, one-dimensional, indifferent attitude of a bureaucrat to the problems of a war amputee in a reviving postwar economy. This exchange of dialogue is also paradigmatic of the beginning of many of Böll's early stories contained in the collection Wanderer kommst du Nach Spa….
The second method of playing on the perverted meaning of words left behind by the Nazis … is also employed by Böll in the years 1947–1950 to create some of the contemporary classics of short German fiction. His "Wanderer kommst du nach Spa …" … effectively debunks the humanistic standards of value furthered by the classical Gymnasium. The wounded narrator, as he is carried, mutilated, back to his high school—now a field hospital—evaluates the school's representations of Western tradition—reproductions of Medea; The Boy With the Thorn in His Foot; the Parthenon frieze; statues of Zeus and Hermes; a Greek hoplite; busts of Caesar, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius; pictures of the Great Elector and Frederick the Great—by juxtaposing them to the war memorial with the great gilded Iron cross and the stone laurel wreath. Böll demonstrates by this comparison how the weight of educational tradition, because of its latent martial content, has led to war, not humanism. The semidelirious narrator, not yet aware of his loss of both arms and right leg, remains unconvinced that he is in his old school; to him the familiar motifs are "no proof" for "it is the same in all schools." (p. 31)
As important as the concept of Stunde Null is for understanding postwar German literature, it is not a perfectly accurate description of the postwar literary situation; for it is psychologically impossible for a generation of writers to forget the literature they had read in their youth and studied in school. Despite the desire on the part of younger West German writers to remove their work from the continuum of prewar literature, they were not able to do so. In East Germany, writers were not affected by this phenomenon, but consciously adhered to the traditions of prewar Socialist literature and Socialist Realism. In the West the attempt to start a national literature from scratch, to ignore literary tradition, naturally failed; Böll, in fact, did not always try to write as if there were no literary antecedents.
There are several examples of Böll's use of literary tradition, especially in his later work, but even in 1950 an example can be found. The story "Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We …" follows the structure of Schiller's elegiac poem "Der Spaziergang." In mock irony of Schiller's narrator strolling leisurely up a mountain and contemplating the state of civilization, Böll's narrator is carried up a series of stairs as he dwells on the horror of his personal situation. Where Schiller manifests a classical optimism, averring faith in Western man, Böll calls into question a mechanized modern society, expressing fear and suspicion of the state of the world. (pp. 32-3)
Among the foreign influences which Böll absorbed after the war was the traditional form of the American short story developed by Bret Harte and O'Henry and made familiar again in the Germany of the 1940s in Hemingway's terse style. This form—characterized by a quick tempo, a plunge in medias res, a lack of denouement (of the twenty-five stories in Wanderer, nineteen conclude with an unfinished sentence), use of contemporary subject matter, little consciousness of events anterior to the present time of the story, no anticipation of the future, concentration on a single event which becomes the focal point of the story, a lack of moralism, and a design appropriate for a public with little time to read—penetrated German literature quickly after 1945 due to the catastrophe of the war, the powerful American influence in Europe, the prevailing uncertainty of the times, the changing circumstances inherent in the construction of a new nation (a factor which also contributed to its popularity in the United States), and the twelve years of cultural isolation and deprivation which gave Germans a taste for things new and a desire to leap headlong into the mainstream of modern literature. Although foreign influences of all kinds imploded in West Germany after the war, the borrowed form of the story rapidly became a completely German genre by its concentration entirely on German subject matter in a distinctly German idiom.
Prior to Böll, Wolfgang Borchert had experimented with the new form, using it with traces of Expressionism to relate the horror of war and its attendant suffering. It was with conscious effort that Böll continued Borchert's experiment with colloquial dialogue and emulated Hemingway's device of expressing inner reality through external objects. One of the most important stories in Wanderer, "Der Mann mit den Messern" [The Man with the Knives, 1948], clearly illustrates this technique…. The narrator of the story is a day laborer who cleans bricks at the rate of three-fourths of a loaf of bread for every seventy-five bricks, and who, in the course of the story, exchanges a deadly way of life for a merely dangerous job. The final sentence sums up the narrator's position: "But I only understood it an hour later that I now had a real profession, a profession, where I only had to stand for a while and dream. Twelve to twenty seconds. I was the man at whom knives are thrown…." His inner fear, despair, and indifference are conquered. Life has a new meaning for him. It is true the change does not alter the nature of fear in his life; he does not live in perfect safety and security, but he does live with meaning: fear has become incorporated into his work; he is now paid for it, and it becomes at least the means of exchange for goods. The forty marks a night he now shares with his partner means he no longer has to labor most of the day for a part of a loaf of bread. He even has a sense of security in the skill of his friend, a feeling he did not know while at the mercy of an indifferent world. He also experiences hope and trust as they are expressed in the smile of his knife-throwing comrade. To be sure, there is still danger in his existence, but it now has a purpose.
In addition to their indebtedness to Borchert and Hemingway, Böll's stories in Wanderer show a marked affinity with the works of Albert Camus. His tales parallel Camus's existential concern for human suffering and have, as often as do the Frenchman's, an outsider as hero, i.e., a protagonist who is not reconciled with the world, who is a metaphysical rebel (though often nonintellectual by nature), who does not accept the unjust order of things. (pp. 33-5)
But there is one major point in regard to which their existential concerns differ, Whereas Camus's contemplation of the human condition leads him to reject the existence of God and to see meaning only in the heroic acceptance of man's absurd situation in the universe, Böll discovers the divine reaffirmed in the waywardness of life. Whereas Camus' reasons from the suffering of man that if God existed He would be responsible for man's plight, and that since an unjust God contradicts the meaning of God, God cannot exist, Böll never seriously considers the question of God's responsibility. (p. 36)
In the stories written after 1950 the occupations of Böll's heroes become even more unusual than those of the protagonists of the collection Children Are Civilians Too. One character earns his living as an interviewer for a research institute gathering statistics on such questions as "How do you imagine God?": "Der Zwerg und die Puppe" [The Dwarf and the Doll, 1951]. A professional laugher finds life so serious that a natural laugh never escapes his lips: "Der Lacher" [The Laugher, 1952]. A linguist spends his life mastering an esoteric island language which the natives themselves no longer speak and which has produced no literature: "Im Lande der Rujuks" [In the Land of the Rujuks, 1953]…. Another hero specializes in the scientific sorting and throwing away of junk mail: "Der Wegwerfer" [The Thrower-away, 1957].
All of these eccentric occupations occur in the satires written in the 1950s, Böll's most productive period for the short story…. In the satires, Böll replaces the outrage and indignation of the early works with bitter laughter and warns through humor of even more threatening dangers to the human spirit—dangers which have become less tangible, less obvious than the war, and now lurk behind the facade of a prosperous society. Böll's satires mock social pretentiousness, religious and artistic snobbishness, self-satisfied smugness, and criticize greed, social waste, perversion of culture for profit, and the pathological urge of the Germans to forget the Nazi past. They also reveal a society without conscience, obsessed with senseless productivity, whose only gods are money and success. The popularity of these satires is due in part to their applicability to the whole of Western culture.
Besides the characters who expose the contradictions of their milieu and those persons who, like the thrower-away, cleverly exploit the irrationalities of society for their own interest and financial advantage, Böll has created another type of character, who by his very existence condemns Western society even more completely—the dropout who refuses to work at all. These characters are usually men who have never recovered from the war, who are not physically injured, but who are, nevertheless, dead to the postwar spirit of competition and progress. They are sometimes lazy but always lethargic; they lack energy and ambition, exude an aura of malaise and indifference. They are "those who," as Böll says, "came back from the war … not angry, not sad, just tired and hungry."… They are passive and quiet people, beyond indignation and rage. (pp. 45-6)
These lethargic heroes also form the nucleus of a prototypical character who, in varying guises, manifests himself in most of Böll's work. This person, whom Klaus Jeziorkowski calls (taking the phrase from Böll's "The Thrower-away") the "happy asocial individual," is independent of the social system, its pressures and associations, and totally free to develop according to his or her own inner nature. The passivity of these characters, however, seldom demonstrates outright laziness, but often signifies a protest against the nonhumanist values of a profit society. (p. 47)
Although some of Böll's short stories after 1960 go over material treated in the collection Wanderer kommst du nach Spa … as do the 1961 and 1962 stories "Als der Kreig ausbrach" [When the War Started] and "Als der Kreig zu Ende War" [When the War Ended], still the 1960s represent in Böll's work a period of postmodernist, formal experimentation. In his search for new literary forms, Böll was part of a worldwide movement to find new literary ways to express old realities. Böll experimented with mythological themes, tried the epilogue as a story form, and in the work "Warum ich kurze Prosa wie Jakob Maria Hermes and Heinrich Knecht schreibe" [The Seventh Trunk, 1965] attempted to explain in narrative style the craft of writing fiction, i.e., chose a theme more appropriate for an essay to handle in the guise of a story. (p. 80)
"The Seventh Trunk" can be read as a model of Böll's artistic theory which tenders that every work of art will contain some element defying explanation, analysis, and understanding. The essence of art is, then, as Böll maintains in the essay "Kunst und Religion," a "secret."…
The story, however, reveals more of Böll's art by symbolic implication than by prescriptive theory. Hermes, the name of the first author, is also the name of the god of invention, imagination, and fantasy. He is the proper god of Böll's work, more so than Apollo, the god of beauty and the sublime. Furthermore, the full name Jakob Maria Hermes evokes the name of the author Johann Peter Hebel, a writer whose calendar stories Böll much admires and whose work reveals an economy of means and a tolerant love of humanity parallel to Böll's. The pseudonym Heinrich Knecht indicates the other side of Böll's artistic ideal. A Knecht is someone who serves, i.e., the name Heinrich Knecht indicates the social function of literature, suggests that literature must relate to society, must be engagé and corresponds to Böll's statement: "For me commitment (Engagement) is a prerequisite; it is the foundation, and what I build on this foundation is that which I understand as art." The name Heinrich Knecht also evokes the writer Heinrich von Kleist who, along with Hebel, represents the other major influence on his work. In the reference to Hermes and Knecht, Böll acknowledges in his cryptic fashion that art must have the fantasy and invention of a Hermes, the craftsmanship of a Hebel and a Kleist, and the commitment of a Knecht. (p. 81)
As an artist Böll has never received universal critical acceptance, not even from those who find his stories some of the best written in the middle decades of this century. That sentimentalism and idealism dominate his work and that he cannot always adequately execute his intentions are the charges most often heard. Minor weaknesses in Böll's work, however, seem not to affect his popularity with a discriminating public. Already he stands in the company of two of his favorite writers: Dostoevski and Tolstoi. Like them, he has produced eminently readable work imbued with moral power. (pp. 196-97)
Robert C. Conard, in his Heinrich Böll (copyright © 1981 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1981, 228 p.
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For a novel about terrorism, "The Safety Net" is remarkably deficient in suspense, of both the ordinary thriller sort and of any more complex kind, an imperiled progress toward wisdom, let's say. This is due in part to Böll's decision to keep the terrorists at the far edges of the story, so that we only know about them through the reports and musings of others.
But more responsible, I think, is Böll's wider intention, which is not only to examine the effects of terrorism on German life, but also to issue another J'accuse against the soullessness of present German life. To this end, he incorporates a half-dozen or more subplots, including a love affair between Tolm's daughter Sabine and one of the policemen guarding the family and an episode about a priest who leaves the church for a woman.
These subplots are presumably meant to provide a richer texture, a more varied perspective. They're intended, too, I think, to establish connections between ordinary, decent life, erotic and otherwise, and the extremism, social and political, that menaces it. But the connections are tenuous and, what's worse, arbitrary….
One of the difficulties in Böll's fiction has always been his attempts to mingle or fuse orders of reality, to make the quotidian yield overarching truth. Another is his distribution of themes and points of view among so large a number of characters. The few novels in which he does allow a single consciousness to provide a focus are, I think, his best: "The Train Was on Time," "The Clown" and, especially, "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum." Much of his best writing is to be found in his short stories, almost all of which are told in the first person; many of them are sharp, swift, even elegant. Stories such as "The Man With the Knives" or "Children Are Civilians Too" have none of the ponderousness, the murk and fuzz, the strained symbolism that mar nearly all Böll's self-consciously "major" novels.
In books like "The Safety Net," Böll tries to do too much. One of his literary heroes is Tolstoy, whose scope and grandeur are a dangerous lure for any writer. Like Tolstoy, Böll believes strongly in committed literature, "useful" writing, and this helps account for his frequent moralizing tone and his scattering of ideas among too many characters and through as many aspects of social reality as he thinks will profit from being exposed.
This committedness also helps account for Böll's reputation, which is surely based less on purely literary strengths than on an earnest humanitarianism. His Catholicism, for instance, which is present as subject or coloration in nearly all his novels, is at bottom a type of Christian humanism that is opposed to the institutionalized authority and moral teachings of the church. Although Böll is more sophisticated and more "literary," the American writer he seems to me most to resemble, if only in his dogged quest for justice (and his occasionally deaf ear) is James T. Farrell. (p. 21)
Yet Böll's literary powers fall far short of those of an innovative writer like Grass or the late Arno Schmidt, whose "Evening Edged in Gold" is probably the most important novel published in any language in recent decades, with the possible exception of the Austrian Thomas Bernhard's "Correction."
For tugging against Böll's prédilection d'artiste is his obsessive dedication to a more humane society. The two urgencies aren't necessarily contradictory, but in Böll's case their clash has resulted for the most part in damaged art, something "The Safety Net" unhappily exemplifies. Still, Böll is a good man, a servant of values who deserves our respect. In an essay on Tolstoy he once wrote: "May every author be read word for word, may every author be allowed his tedious passages, his stubborness." While to grant Böll this isn't likely to make us enthusiasts of his writing, it doesn't seem to be too much to ask. (p. 22)
Richard Gilman, "A Novel of Terrorism in Germany," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 31, 1982, pp. 3, 21-2.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707
The Safety Net is pervaded by a profound nostalgia, although it is Böll's great virtue here that he does not sentimentalize the past; he suggests only that we cannot dispense with it as the revolutionaries and the technological profiteers, in their complementary ways, would have us do: The aging Tolm and Käthe, his wife of thirty-five years, are deeply attached to their own origins, but their flashbacks to childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood do not soften the remembered contours of physical hardship, frustration, local jealousies, Church-induced hypocrisies and guilt. The past was far from utopian, and it of course included the twelve most ghastly years of German history, but it did sustain a humanly necessary sense of community—among neighbors, co-religionists, members of the extended family, and between generations.
By contrast, the essential trait of contemporary Germany as Böll conceives it is divisiveness. We are made keenly aware of the powerful momentum of class distinctions beyond the traditional and perhaps once cohesive society in which they originated. There is also a sense of vehement ideological divisions within the society unlike anything we have known in 20th-century America, including the turbulent 1960s. The terrorists are the most extreme manifestation of a general drive toward the denial of connection. Kinship and love must be allowed to mean nothing; Tolm can readily and realistically imagine his own grandson raised without feeling as a kind of human bomb directed to the destruction of his grandfather. That bizarrely duplicated name Holger is said at one point to mean "island dweller with spear," and it is, presumably, to such a state of hostile isolation that the new order of terrorism would reduce every human being. The terrorists are, to borrow a phrase Leslie Fiedler once used for a rather different generation of rebellious youth, the "new mutants" who threaten the end of all traditional bonds and emotions…. (p. 32)
The other great strength of The Safety Net is that its unsentimental nostalgia is accompanied by a persuasive novelistic representation of the old-fashioned virtue of love. We see it exercised in several different ways among the two generations of Tolms, from the quiet love of the old couple to passion in the young, to parental and even filial love. The working out of this persistence of love amidst divisiveness in the denouement is somewhat problematic because rather too much is made to happen in the space of 48 hours and thirty or so pages, including a suicide, the apprehension and violent death of a principal terrorist, the reappearance of the missing grandson, the return (separately from the preceding event) of the prodigal daughter-in-law, and a dramatic act of arson. All this is managed with enough technical skill to rivet one's attention, but not without straining one's belief. In any case, what is most important about the final movement of the novel is the reconstitution in Rolf's two-room cottage of a community and of a family, his small haven, with its rough artisan's simplicity, becoming a kind of return to the warmth of the past for the main characters.
In the end, the tight meshes of the safety net cannot be pulled away; they are needed because the threat is still there—if not the specific threat that has been hovering ominously over the Tolms from the beginning of the novel, then some similar threat from another direction. But life, Böll wants to say, has to be more than the sensation of the net's reticulations, more than an endless naked shivering before telescopic lenses and electronic ears. There has to be some sustaining sense, even within the net, of a human community worth saving. Despite the flaws of the conclusion, Böll has managed through the characters etched in these monologues to evoke something of the ground of fellow feeling out of which community arises. The result is a novel that not only catches the scariness of living in a society lethally divided against itself but also provides a small intimation of how the perennial seeds of hope continue to grow in our climate of disaster. (p. 33)
Robert Alter, "The Shadow of Terrorism," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 9, March 3, 1982, pp. 31-3.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
Though full of psychological insight, not to mention a noble and lofty sympathy for the human plight in general, "The Safety Net" moves its burden of circumstance minimally, and then by strange twitches of hearsay. Most novels give the impression of a tour too guided, the reader too purposefully led through a series of Potemkin villages and compressed encounters on the narrow trail the plot has laid out. The reader of "The Safety Net," on the other hand, is repeatedly and prolongedly situated in spots where the action is not occurring, though rumors of it can be faintly heard, and glimpses had as if from behind a broad post in the grandstand. There is something wrong with time and space in this book; though ostensibly about the highest realms of power, it mostly takes place in small towns, in manor houses and vicarages, and developments that feel leisurely turn out to consume less than a day—one person (Veronica) seems to be instantly transported from a hideout in Istanbul (more Turks!) to the German-Dutch border, riding an explosive-laden bicycle. How did she get there? What is going on?
Böll's realism, like that of Balthus, is stately, eerie, and surreal. The developments are set forth with a quiet and measured authority but have, as one character reflects, something "downright fantastic" about them. In this novel, several galaxies of concern seem to be in slow collision. Böll is better on sex and religion than on power and politics. The affair between Sabine Fischer and her bodyguard Hubert Hendler is given a nineteenth-century resonance by their both being serious Catholics; the possibility of guilt established, the novelist is able to do some lovely psychologizing (raising the question Can you have a psychological novel without religious consciousness? or, to put it another way, Are human souls worth reading about if there is no sin?)…. The psychological weather within this triangle, so much more tenderly and reverently observed than in the case-hardened treatment of the same situation which we have come to expect in American fiction, would hold us longer than Böll permits it to; the clouds are quickly and oddly dispersed, as they are on the terrorist level of the action as well. It is as if Böll, having been seated long in the creation of this congested, repetitive work (the characters know each other too well, and repeat in dialogue what the author has already told us), suddenly rose and gave an abrupt, abstracted blessing, like an elderly priest bored by too long and tangled a confession. (pp. 132-33)
The sense given in "The Safety Net" is of an interlocked society some of whose members fight claustrophobia with extremist visions and acts that the majority press themselves into an even tighter phalanx to combat. A number of characters escape this novel, and the reader escapes it, too, with relief but a fearful suspicion that its social gridlock is the shape of things to come. Our hero, the bewildered and diffident rich man Fritz Tolm, has this piquant exchange with his wife near the end:
"You know I have always loved you. And there's something else you must know."
"Yes, what is it?"
"That some form of socialism must come, must prevail…."
As if it had not already crushingly prevailed over hundreds of millions, and as if it did much more, at best, than make the squeeze official. (pp. 133-34)
John Updike, "The Squeeze Is On" (© 1982 by John Updike), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 17, June 14, 1982, pp. 129-34.∗
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