Heinrich Böll Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Böll, Heinrich 1917–

Böll is a West German novelist, short story writer, playwright, translator, and essayist. Böll's literary philosophy, emerging from the environment of post-war Germany, called for the creation of a new literature, one that manifested a radical change in both style and moral content. The simple, laconic prose characteristic of his work is a direct reaction against the stylistic complexity of classical German literature. Consistent with his dedication to the development of a new literature, Böll does not dwell on the past with despair. Rather, he finds hope in the lives and actions of individuals. With biting satire, Böll exposes the meaninglessness of political and religious dogmas, contrasting their emptiness with the private acts of love and sacrifice which rebuild the spiritual strength of a people. Böll received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. He has collaborated with his wife, Annemarie, on translations of the works of several contemporary writers. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'What portion in the world can the artist have,' asked Yeats, 'but dissipation and despair?' Hans Schnier, the hero of Heinrich Böll's … The Clown, doesn't take to dissipation—he is an innocent, a pure person, irretrievably monogamous, and cognac costs money—nor completely to despair. The book ends with him begging outside Bonn Railway Station, the first coin falling into his hat. Charity? But he is singing for his supper. And rather the charity of passing individuals than a retainer, a grant, a subsidy. For this way no group, no institution, no party is buying the clown and his services. (p. 196)

Lacking action in the usual sense of the word, yet The Clown moves with a remarkable purposiveness, its constituents working singlemindedly together. Possibly for this reason it may not prove altogether acceptable. The sensitive contemporary reader prefers to be knocked flat by a velvet glove and there is perhaps too much iron in evidence here. I think it is the case that the irony is rather too insistent. (pp. 196-97)

Böll takes his epigraph from Romans XV. 'To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand.' Paul had been preaching the gospel where Christ's name was unknown, where he could not build upon another man's foundation. Schnier is a gifted mime, he could make an excellent living in Leipzig with his 'Cardinal' or 'Board Meeting' turn, and in Bonn with his 'Party Conference Elects its Presidium' or 'Cultural Council Meets' act. But the trouble is, he wants to do the latter numbers in Leipzig and the former in Bonn: he apparently lacks 'audience-sense'. 'To poke fun at Boards of Directors where Boards of Directors don't exist seems pretty low': and the same with Elections of Presidiums where presidiums are not elected. There is an obvious parallel here with Schrella's story in Böll's previous novel, Billiards at Half-past Nine. A refugee from the Nazis, Schrella was imprisoned in Holland for threatening a Dutch politician who said that all Germans ought to be killed. When the Germans came in they freed him, a martyr for Germany, but then realized that he was on their list of wanted persons, so he had to escape to England. In England he was imprisoned for threatening an English politician who said that all Germans should be killed and only their works of art saved. The clown's job is not to confirm but to disturb, to preach to the unconverted. Böll's further gloss on the text from Romans would seem to have it that, in the world as it is, real Christian feeling exists outside the...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

W. E. Yuill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Heinrich Böll was born in the last year of the Kaiser's reign and the first of the Russian revolution. Almost all of his stories have the local and topical affinities that this suggests: they are mostly set in the city of his birth and deal with the tumultuous era of European history that coincides with his life. Like a character whom he describes in one of his short stories he is "as old as the hunger and the filth in Europe, and the war".

The local associations of Böll's work go beyond mere setting and local colour, for, as a writer, he displays many of the attributes of his fellow-citizens: traditional Catholic faith, unquestioned but not unquestioning, level-headedness and practicality, humour and a drastic wit. He has the disrespect for authority and the sound political sense that prompted the Cologne crowds to greet Hitler not with flowers but with flower-pots; he has, too, the introspective and faintly melancholy temperament that characterizes what he calls "the gin-drinker's Rhine"—the part of the river that extends from Bonn to the mists of the North Sea. For Böll, however, Cologne is not simply an urban landscape: the dimensions of space merge for him into that of time, for he is constantly aware of the past that literally and metaphorically lies buried beneath the present—not only the past of his own experience but the remote past of Roman settlers. The past is not thought of in terms of a "cultural heritage" but rather as a continuity of human experience linking the Roman colonist with the modern artisan or clerk. Certainly Böll's fascination by the past is not of the kind that one would expect to issue in the form of historical novels or stories that are quaintly local; it is an aspect rather of his imaginative insight into basic human situations—and perhaps also of his belief in the ultimate timelessness of human existence.

Böll has always been more than a local writer: he is concerned with the fate and experience of a whole generation of Germans and of the individual in the great materialistic urban societies of the modern world. It was as the spokesman of his own generation that Böll first came into prominence; he subsequently developed into a mentor and critic of all those who seemed to forget too easily the sufferings of that generation and the causes of that suffering…. The tone of Böll's early war stories is certainly not nostalgic or romantic, but neither is it as hysterical as that of Borchert's play Draussen vor der Tür: the writer's reaction is one of sober, sombre, seemingly dispassionate disgust…. It is only in … Entfernung von der Truppe, that Böll, looking back over twenty years, can see his experience of war in a satirical and at times scurrilously comic light. In the early stories, when memories were still painfully fresh, there was no room for humour. In an age of conscription and mechanization war had lost whatever glamour it might formerly have had, and was unmitigated by heroism. There is certainly nothing romantic or heroic about the soldiers in Der Zug war pünktlich and Wo warst du, Adam? They are cannon-fodder. The railway station, which in Böll's stories so often epitomizes the impersonality, restlessness and rootlessness of modern life, becomes in war-time the antechamber of fate. Men are driven by "the grey authoritarian scourge" of loudspeakers into trains which, as symbols of destiny, carry them unresisting to a punctual death. Scarcely one figure in these early stories eludes death. Feinhals, in Wo warst du, Adam?, escapes until the last moment, only to be blown to pieces—by a random German shell—on the threshold of his own home. The stories are not designed, however, as hair-raising accounts of the horrors of battle, for the writer is concerned with deeper issues than physical ordeal and destruction…. It is the demoralization and degradation, the spiritual maiming and blinding that are emphasized. The killing of men's bodies is not the worst; their souls are enthralled or crushed by mindless discipline. (pp. 141-43)

Böll's stories are full of war-wounded and convalescents in the figurative sense, people for whom the war can never be "over"—not only the physically handicapped or the manifestly neurotic, but also those who are simply demoralized. The returning soldier and his attempts to adjust himself to life in post-war Germany naturally figure prominently in the stories. These "Heimkehrer" are not burdened like Beckmann, the hero of Draussen vor der Tür, with a sense of guilt, they do not succumb to hysterical despair. They suffer, rather, from an inarticulate malaise, a paralysis of will and feeling. (p. 143)

[The characters from Böll's early novels] are moody and uncommunicative. It is symptomatic of their alienation that they prefer to speak on the telephone rather than face to face. They turn their backs on the reviving world around them and, young as they are, live in their memories. Reminiscence is the characteristic dimension of Böll's writing. He is fascinated by the counterpoint of time and place and by the changes worked through time and circumstance. (p. 144)

It is not unnatural that the drastic disruption of their lives by the war made the whole of Böll's generation obsessively conscious of a pattern of change and continuity. For characters like Albert and Nella in Haus ohne Hüter time is out of joint in a special sense. For them the past is the time before the war, the present is the time since, and between past and present lies a limbo, a gulf that has swallowed what might have been. Besides the actual past and present there is in their minds a potential time, "le temps perdu", "the third level", as Böll calls it. He is continually seeking metaphors to express all this: in Haus ohne Hüter, three "times" are visualized as discs superimposed upon one another and revolving eccentrically….

Many of Böll's introspective characters, like the young widow Nella, cannot shake off the nostalgia for what might have been. They are haunted by the memory of a turning point in their lives. For these people time is essentially private and cannot be divorced from inner experience. (p. 145)

Hypnotized by the notion of time, [Böll's characters] often see in habit a means of arresting its flow. In the sacramental form of ritual, habit is a legitimate escape from time, an access to eternity, the rituals of his Church playing a large part in Böll's stories. In a secular context, however, habit can be a baleful force. The attempt to resurrect the past by repetition may have harrowing effects: Hans Schnier in Ansichten eines Clowns describes his abortive experiments in this respect and confesses that moments cannot be repeated. Habit can be an aid to survival, but it may also be an inert weight that crushes individuality and impoverishes life. In the story entitled Über die Brücke, the narrator, passing years later over a railway bridge he regularly used to cross, observes with mingled relief and dismay that the windows of a house are being cleaned in exactly the same sequence as before the war: the daughter, having taken over from her mother, the hypnotic routine of the "Putzplan" is becoming the same kind of household drudge. It may be that Böll has here put his finger on a particular weakness of his nation—the fondness for ceremony and regulated routine. (pp. 146-47)

The part played by time, memory and habit in Böll's works points to a concentration on emotion and inner sensation rather than on action. Only the satirical short stories tend to have definable plots: many others simply trace the changes of emotional climate in a character or the evolution of attitudes from a germ of experience. Even in the novels the external action—as distinct from reminiscence—rarely occupies more than a few hours. There is little of what one might call epic objectivity: frequently the author identifies himself with the protagonist, while the more complex works are built up from a series of private views.


(The entire section is 3312 words.)

H. M. Waidson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gruppenbild mit Dame] might well be called a "Zeitroman", a panoramic social novel which traces the impact of public events upon private lives. It is a novel form which may encourage a historical conspectus in which individual problems may be subordinated to the pattern of known, outward happenings…. Böll succeeds in embodying the moods of past times with the emotional tensions of the principal characters. Yet though poignant feeling is often present, the wider vistas of the "Zeitroman" contribute to preventing the reader from coming so constantly close to anyone in Gruppenbild mit Dame as he does to Hans Schnier, the first-person narrator and central figure of Ansichten eines Clowns. At the...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

W. G. Cunliffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The German novelist, Heinrich Böll, reflects a striking change in West German attitudes that has taken place since the end of World War II, when Böll started writing. The change concerns a basic dilemma of modern, Western society: the incongruity between man as a private individual and as a citizen of the state. This liberals' dilemma is expressed clearly in the first chapter of Emile, where Rousseau explains that a true conformity between the two is impossible, and that, therefore, the decision must be made whether to educate the individual as a private person (homme) or as a citizen of the state (citoyen). (p. 473)

Böll, too, is caught up in this dilemma, which we see him pursuing through...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)

Michael Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although he began writing before the Second World War, Böll's published work coincides almost exactly with the history of the Federal Republic, and there can be few more instructive documents on the extraordinary growth and success, doubts and strains, of this fledgling democracy. The sweep of Böll's narrative world—from the bleak anecdotes of the immediate post-war years, via the artistic turning-point of Billard um halb zehn to the controlled bitterness of Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum and the complex irony of Gruppenbild mit Dame—illuminates the social, economic and political development of West Germany….

When all allowances have been made for Böll's characteristic weaknesses—a certain stylistic banality and an occasional tendency towards sentimentality—the presentation of his complete narrative oeuvre underlines not only the astonishing consistency and inventiveness but also the humane warmth of a writer who has never wavered in his defence of the disadvantaged and inarticulate—those products of society so often dismissed as Abfall. Even without the counterbalancing record of his personal involvement in the political and social issues of his time … Böll's creative work of the past thirty years stands as a clear and impressive testament to the writer's commitment to the individual and his vital needs in the face of the manifold pressures of an increasingly abstract and anonymous society.

Michael Butler, "For the Defence," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 30, 1978, p. 730.

Diana Rowan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading a novel by Heinrich Böll is to pick through a pile of rubble with a teaspoon, or with bare hands. Shards of domestic pottery, bits of cloth almost unrecognizable as clothing, a doll with no face, half a singed photograph emerge slowly and painfully from a great deal of disintegrated brick and plaster. These shattered fragments just begin to suggest the outlines of a former life, when the grim weight of detail renders us numb, and the ponderous but relentless pace with which Böll forces it all into our attention makes a bilious taste of resentment rise in our throats. We were, after all, here to be entertained by good literature.

Yet we cannot stop; the shreds and shards look ominously...

(The entire section is 533 words.)