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.)