Heinrich Böll Böll, Heinrich (Theodor) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Paul Pickrel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edwin Kennebeck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Edwin Kennebeck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

H. M. Waidson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Richard Plant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Matthew Hodgart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bernard Bergonzi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph P. Bauke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank J. Warnke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Victor Lange

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tamas Aczel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:...

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Robert C. Conard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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