Heinrich Böll

Start Free Trial

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

'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...

(This entire section contains 1066 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

as it is,real Christian feeling exists outside the Churches, real socialism outside the socialist parties, real concern for racial harmony and real chances of it outside the Executive Committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences…. And, perhaps, real married love outside the marriage certificate.

Schnier then is an active non- or anti-party man, not merely an elegant ironist on the side-line. How he behaves as an artist consorts exactly with how he feels as a man. (pp. 197-98)

The rhetorician seeks to deceive his neighbour, Yeats said, the sentimentalist to deceive himself. Böll deals nimbly with his rhetoricians, but his clown is something of a sentimentalist, perhaps, a little too sorry for himself. In his lamentations for Marie he grows maudlin: a clown should be able to cut his losses, to shoulder a broken heart and march on. But the sorrows of unrequited monogamy are a rare phenomenon in current fiction, and it may be that our conditioning inevitably makes them seem embarrassing. Elsewhere I am more sure that Böll's tact has forsaken him. Our sympathies go astray when Schnier informs us that his mother (on whom we are already fully informed) was a ban-the-bomb campaigner for three days until a business friend told her this policy would lead to a slump in the stock market. At times Böll can be strident, as when Schnier thinks of the people who helped Marie and him in their hard times 'while at home they sat huddled over their stinking millions, had cast me out and gloated over their moral reasons'. Possibly explicitness of this order, this insistence, is intended as a guard against a self-indulgent or merely self-protective irony, against that habit of 'keeping your superiority feelings fresh in a refrigerator of irony', as a character in Billiards at Half-past Nine puts it. Böll doesn't want his novel read as a cosy, remote 'allegory', a mere parable about The Creative Artist in Relation to Church and State in an Age of Technology (to borrow a lecture-title from his earlier book, Tomorrow and Yesterday) or the Condition of Twentieth-Century Man (who is never you or me). Every now and then a clown must be allowed to be very simple and straightforward and unsophisticated.

Böll has something to say, and not of course merely something about the Germans. He says it several times. A common weakness of writers with something to say is their inability to understand that saying it four times is not necessarily four times as effective as saying it once. But to have something to say—how rare this is! Unlike Uwe Johnson in Speculations about Jakob, Böll doesn't erect reading-difficulty into a law; although retaining the flashback technique of Billiards at Half-past Nine, this new novel is less gratuitously involuted, with a positive stylishness of clarity and competency, and free from fussiness. Unlike Günter Grass, Böll doesn't obscure his real meaning with a barrage of private emblems. Unlike certain British contemporaries, he doesn't seek to obscure the absence of meaning with an aura of bogus 'symbolism', to disguise as high metaphysics a bedroom farce or an Arabian Nights' sexual dream. 'I would rather read Rilke, Hofmannsthal and Newman one by one than have someone mix me a kind of syrup out of all three,' remarks Schnier apropos of a sermon by an 'artistic' prelate. There are few novels coming out these days which aren't either a kind of syrup or a kind of emetic. The Clown, I have omitted to mention, besides being one of these few, is at times very funny, as well as sad, as well as salutary. (pp. 199-200)

D. J. Enright, in his Conspirators and Poets (© D. J. Enright 1966), Chatto & Windus, 1966.

W. E. Yuill

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 tone of the first person narrative so common in Böll is generally subdued, resigned, melancholy, often with a hint of the morbid…. To the ideal of frantic activity for which his countrymen are renowned Böll opposes the ascetic motto of memento mori. Too few of his compatriots, he asserts, are capable of melancholy—the mark of humility and hence of true humanity….

Although often struck, this muted note is by no means the only one in the register of Böll's work. In many of his stories, particularly since about 1952 when symptoms of overindulgence began to appear in German society, Böll looks round him with a critical eye, and the tone becomes ironical, sometimes hilariously satirical. (p. 148)

Böll tends to dwell in the minds of his characters, to convey his own view in their reflections and utterances. But it is not only their minds that he inhabits but their bodies as well. He sees with their eyes—it is perhaps significant that, when he describes the appearance of his protagonists, he often does so through the reflection in a mirror. Even more characteristically, he feels with them in the physical as well as the emotional sense: he feels the itch of stiff new uniforms, registers the peptic climate of his characters, is aware of their defective teeth. Above all, particularly in the later works, he seems to be sharply conscious of everyday smells…. (p. 149)

Few German writers have evoked so effectively the familiar texture and repetitive patterns of ordinary urban life. His meticulous descriptions have a certain aura of professional craftsmanship about them…. His technique might in a specific sense be called "realistic", but his realism is not simply objective, does not consist only in accumulation of detail. It is largely subjective: physical reality is nearly always apprehended through the senses and minds of characters in the stories. Nearly always it is restricted to features within the purview of one individual; we do not often find extensive description of landscape, setting or background. The author identifies himself with figures moving in urban surrounds—often precisely named real localities—so familiar or so restricted that the wider background is taken for granted. He operates, as it were, with a very short focal length, sometimes creating an effect that is almost obsessive or claustrophobic. One might perhaps detect in Böll an absorption in familiar things and in particular a leaning towards the drab and sordid that almost constitutes a kind of inverted romanticism with which readers of Graham Greene will be acquainted.

Böll's realism might be described as poetic as well as subjective. A poetic quality is manifested on two levels. In the first place, Böll imparts to the perceptions of the people in his stories the awareness of an urban poet, a sense of the intrinsic strangeness of familiar things. Secondly, as author, he invests objects with symbolic significance and employs them in thematic patterns. The sharp contours of everyday objects in the stories often give the impression that these items of reality have been torn from their context by the prehensile mind of the observer—it is not the natural coherence or proportions of things in themselves that matters but their emotional or emblematic associations. Familiar actions—the making of a telephone call, for instance—may be seen in close-up or slow motion, as it were, because the moment is fraught with emotional significance. Trivial objects acquire meaning as the evidence of fateful events: Bruno Schneider in Die Postkarte pores over the scrap of paper that changed the course of his life—the registration slip from his calling-up papers…. The relationship, at once spiritual and physical, between a man and a woman, between Schnier and Marie Züpfner, is commemorated in a mosaic of trivial objects and gestures. One of the charges that Schnier levels at Catholics is precisely that they "have no sense of detail". It is in keeping with Schnier's character that the obsession with what the song-writer calls "these foolish things" descends into near-maudlin sentimentality; for Böll, as a writer a concern with the details of ordinary living is linked with his awareness that man is a psychosomatic entity, that the soul inhabits a body and must express itself in a world that is physically real. Mundane things and actions can readily acquire a sacramental significance: the sensuous pleasure of eating fresh bread so exactly described in Das Brot der frühen Jahre has sacramental implications. (pp. 149-51)

This kind of symbolism is one of the features that give Böll's stories depth and make them much more than evocations of mood and setting. Many are mounted on a framework of parable: singly and together marking out a moral universe which has the objective coherence that the physical world they describe seems to lack. Behind the topicality is a timeless reality. In the grouping of characters and in typical experiences they undergo one may detect a kind of theology: figures superficially somewhat diverse fall into opposing categories that have the unambiguity of those in a morality play. (p. 151)

The division of characters into opposite moral types is not in itself an artistic weakness. However, the difference of approach to the two fundamental types, a consequence of Böll's theological view, might be considered an aesthetic drawback. It possibly deprives the stories of balance and involves a danger of oversimplification. The reluctance to fathom the "evil" character, or even to see him as problematic, and the habit of seeing him through the eyes of his anti-type suggest a certain limitation in the writer's imaginative range. The sympathetic characters, although superficially diverse, tend to share a resigned and inhibited temperament. Nevertheless, Böll's later works, particularly Entfernung von der Truppe, do suggest that he is acquiring more insight into bitterly rebellious or sardonic characters. (p. 152)

Böll's criticism of the political aspect of Roman Catholicism may be less specific than the much-publicized attack launched by Hochhuth in The Representative; it is hardly less outspoken and all the more impressive in that it is based on the personal experience of a sincere and thoughtful Catholic. Brief an einen jungen Katholiken embodies the first direct attack on the political attitude of the Church. Böll notes that the Vatican was the first foreign state to seek an understanding with Hitler and recalls the religious instruction which he himself received as a conscript. This instruction was concerned almost solely with sexual morality never referring to the real moral dangers threatening young men pressed into the service of an evil totalitarian system; the concept of conscience hardly entered into it. In post-war Germany Böll sees the Church again in danger of becoming too closely identified with the Establishment, of ceasing to be a theological and moral power and becoming instead a political pressure group.

In the novels and stories true faith is seldom linked with efficiency, success and prosperity, and is not found in the loveless organizational religion of Frau Franke and her like. Faith is most authentic in failure, in squalid surroundings or where it verges on despair—a paradoxical truth familiar to readers of Graham Greene. (pp. 153-54)

It is in keeping with the theological implications of Böll's works that many of his central characters have a strong impression that their lives are pre-ordained, that they are in some cases subject to supernatural guidance….

Andreas in Der Zug war pünktlich has a premonition of his death, a premonition that is punctually fulfilled, but in most of the stories it is love which strikes the hero with the force of revelation…. The kind of love shown in these encounters is not narrow and selfish; it initiates a reconciliation with mankind at large. Love emancipates the individual from isolation and imagined self-sufficiency, [and] breaks down a psychic blockage…. (p. 154)

Love, in Böll's view, even in its basest manifestations is never totally devoid of a sacramental element. Its true culmination, however, is in marriage and family life. Marriage is not simply a social institution; it is a sacrament as distinct from a ceremony, a communion of souls ordained in heaven and independent of—even on occasion in contravention of—social sanction. The harmony of souls in marriage is a facet of the divine cosmic order. (p. 155)

Among the writers of post-war Germany Heinrich Böll has earned a prominent place as a literary artist and moralist. His works appeal not only as authentic renderings of atmosphere, setting and mood, but also because they clearly embody emblematic characters and situations demonstrating moral problems and truths. They deal with ideas and experiences that are none the less profound because they can be understood by the great majority of people. In this, as in more obvious senses, Böll is a democrat. Unlike many German writers he is not hampered by philosophical systems or fettered by a pretentious "literary" tradition. It is hardly a compliment to a writer to say that his language is "simple", but Böll's idiom is at any rate not obscure or difficult: "workmanlike" might be the best word to describe it. Clear it certainly is and always to the point. That he is capable, however, of considerable sophistication is evident from the stories written in a parodistic style and also from the complex structure of works like Billard um halbzehn and Entfernung von der Truppe. Although his themes and settings may not be very diverse, the range of Böll's technique is in fact much wider than it might appear at first sight. The form in which Böll is most obviously at home is the short story, and even the novels, with their brief span of "real" time and their episodic structure, have the economy of short stories. Nevertheless, within the novels and in individual short stories there is a considerable variety of idiom, ranging from laconic description of incident, through impressionistic evocation of atmosphere to the regular structure of Novellen like Die Waage der Baleks or Wir Besenbinder, forming altogether a body of work remarkable for humour and perceptiveness.

As a Christian moralist Böll tries to apply the values of a traditional faith to the problems of modern man, isolated as he often is in an over-populated environment where economic considerations are paramount. The moral issues of the urban lower and middle classes with which Böll principally deals are not sensational. Men are corrupted in a banal fashion, "as in second-rate films". (pp. 155-56)

Böll wishes men to cleanse themselves of the grimy sediment that is deposited in an atmosphere of mere "respectability", he wishes to lead them back to a positive faith, to the humanistic nucleus of Christianity, to charity. Where he satirizes the social provisions of our industrial society it is because he fears their dehumanizing influence. Where he criticizes his Church it is because he fears that it is falling into dogmatism, working for sectional interests, becoming modish rather than modern. The motive behind much that Böll writes is compassion. In this compassion there is an element of sentimentality that has led one critic to speak of "allegorical confectionery", but nearly everywhere—and particularly in his latest works—the sweetness is neutralized by the acid of satire. It is the critical vein in Böll's writing as well as his technical skill that has kept him in the avant-garde of German writing and given him an appeal and authority far beyond the membership of his Church. (pp. 156-57)

W. E. Yuill, "Heinrich Böll," in Essays on Contemporary German Literature: German Men of Letters, Vol. IV, edited by Brian-Keith Smith (© 1966 Oswald Wolff), Oswald Wolff, 1966, pp. 141-58.

H. M. Waidson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 same time the later work can be regarded as a "Bildungsroman", as the author has indicated. He points out that his heroine learns what is inwardly relevant to her, while rejecting much else, and that the novel is about the formation of a woman's personality, in the sense of what she acquires in the way of traditional cultural-educational material and also of the manner in which she develops as an individual.

Gruppenbild mit Dame sums up within itself a whole range of action and feeling that has affinities with moods and motifs in others of the author's works. As Böll sees it, this novel, or parts of it, are almost like a summary, or a further development, of earlier ones. Certainly this is not the first time that he has described the reactions of young people to the anticipation and arrival of the war in 1939; the experiences of the war-years in a large urban centre like Cologne are given with detailed particulars, probably more fully than in any of Böll's preceding writings. (p. 124)

Heinrich Böll's heroines, from Olina in Der Zug war pünktlich … onwards, have by now become an impressive series of figures, comparable in their gradations of variety and consistency with the young women of Hardy's novels. But sometimes we see relatively little of them, and their personality has to come through obliquely and at rare intervals, as in the case of Edith (Billard um halbzehn) and Henriette (Ansichten eines Clowns). Now in Gruppenbild mit Dame it seems as if Leni Pfeiffer is to be brought before us as a full-length portrait. The novelist has expressed his aim as being "to describe or write about the fate of a German woman in her late forties" whose whole life has had to cope with the burden of the history of those years…. However, the reader does not come as close to Leni's own thinking and feeling or indeed her outward presence as might be expected, even though the narrative keeps circling round her, and the variety and liveliness of the information about her and her environment are impressive.

In its narrative method Gruppenbild mit Dame is reasonably accessible, certainly in comparison with Billard um halbzehn, where the analytical approach seems to cause the principal characters to be particularly deliberate and inward looking. Very early on in Gruppenbild mit Dame the narrator disclaims anything like total insight into Leni's outward or inner life. His aim, he states in this first intervention, is to acquire "what is called factual information", supporting his evidence by giving his source and mentioning not only the name of the informant but also some particulars about him. The narrator—"Der Verf." as he calls himself—is a self-appointed research worker who has taken on the task of collecting together all possible material that will contribute to a study of Leni Pfeiffer, reproducing written documents, taking down the statements of those who knew her, and interpolating summaries of what people generally think of her, as well as making his own comments…. The reader is indeed completely dependent upon the narrator for access to Leni and to the various people who have known her and talk about her. However, as the narrator is anxious to communicate and to take the reader into his confidence, it seems that there should not be many problems in this respect. There is certainly a wealth of information. Movement in time and place can be instantaneous, as the informants' memories take their impressions from one association to another. But the narrator, while allowing a free rein to his interviewees, and to himself, does keep in view a steady movement forward in time. (pp. 125-26)

The period of Leni's fulfilment is the axis of the novel. It could almost form a separate, rounded tale of its own; chapters V-IX … give this essential unit. What came earlier was preparation, and Leni's later life is revealed as clearly less memorable. (p. 126)

The flowering of love between Leni and Boris takes place paradoxically in an environment of death. Throughout 1944 and in the first months of 1945 the aerial bombardment of the urban centre is no small threat The two young people work together at the preparation of tributes to the dead. Their relationship is politically forbidden, and its discovery would probably lead to their execution. But when there are daylight raids, they can retreat alone to someone's family vault in the nearby cemetery. Within the episode of Leni's union with Boris there is one inset period which forms the core, between February 20 and March 7 1945, when the lovers and their closest acquaintances and friends live underground in catacomb-like conditions in the cemetery…. The analogies with the conditions of early Christians in Rome or of life before the fall of man and the social contract offer themselves….

Although we are told quite a lot about Leni, it is reporting and hearsay for the most part. We see her from the outside and do not come close to her. She is not particularly talkative, and her love for Boris has certain linguistic limitations in any case. We depend on the narrator, and he depends on his various informants, since he has no direct personal contact with Leni. (p. 127)

Apart from a satirical episode relating her contact with the Communist Party … there is little about Leni until the incidents of 1970 which form the final crisis. Now Leni is to be evicted from her flat by the Hoysers (grandfather and two grandsons), but her friends and admirers form a "Leni in Not—Helft Leni-Kommittee" and the narrator agrees to put the findings of his researches at the committee's disposal. Leni's association with "Gastarbeiter", her failure to charge her sub-tenants a sufficiently high rent, the imprisonment of her son Lev on account of the illegal way in which he has tried to assist his mother pay her debts, her pregnancy, and her marriage to the Turk Mehmet (who is already married with four children)—these are the tensions of 1970 which have become exacerbated to their critical point in the course of the time that the narrator has been writing about Leni. The happy ending demonstrates that the threat to the anarchist sub-culture which has been building up around Leni and the immigrant workers was only a passing one. In 1945 the spontaneously formed social group in the catacombs was clandestine and short-lived, but 25 years later a fresh community is emerging, which, although seriously threatened, survives the crisis and can maintain its essential self-expression. (p. 128)

Yet we are still some way from Leni, though the narrator meanwhile has been acquiring a profile of his own. While she remains distant, he comes closer and absorbs more of the reader's attention. If some authors, for instance in the nineteenth century, would begin a work with a substantial framework narrative but then let the device lapse. Böll directs attention increasingly to the narrator and his activities as the novel hurries along to its end. He opts for a casework approach to the characters whom he interviews, offering to give statistics about their size and weight if they are among the more prominent in the narrative. Most of the information provided by the various interviewees is handed on to the reader verbatim, and letters and other documents are also passed on. He informs us that, feeling himself to be in no position to meditate on tears, he has had recourse to encyclopaedia definitions … which lead him to a series of bumbling but affecting abbreviations. He offers alternative hypotheses concerning the fate of his heroine if her husband Alois Pfeiffer had not been killed in Russia during the war, or if five other eventualities involving Alois, Erhard and/or Heinrich had come about…. The presence of such interferences is to indicate that "many questions remain open"…. He may become "extremely confused" if an interviewee unexpectedly shows strong emotion…. He is a heavy smoker … and has got behind with his researches through watching the Clay-Frazier boxing-match on television….

These and the like may be playful ornamentations on the framework, but when the narrator visits Rome to find out more about Sister Rahel Maria Ginzburg, once a mentor of Leni's at her convent school, he and his interviewee, Sister Klementina, fall in love at first sight. This scene is an idyllic counterpart to the corresponding scene between Leni and Boris. Like Leni's act of offering a cup of coffee, Sister Klementina's request for a cigarette from the narrator takes on ritual significance, but at a correspondingly lighter level. (pp. 128-29)

The crisis of Leni's imminent eviction is clearly a much less dramatic and serious threat than was the sequence of events culminating in her and Boris' withdrawal to the catacombs twenty-five years earlier. The objective reasons for her way of life being in jeopardy at this time in the history of the Federal Republic are evidently more slender than the much closer presence of immediate and irreparable disaster in 1944–45. The main impact of poignant, sombre tension must come at the earlier time, while the narrator can step more into the foreground as the action of the novel and the passing of time, bringing with it an increasing remoteness of the war years and of youth, would allow the heroine to occupy a less central position, while permitting a lightening of the novel's texture and its permeation with even more freely ranging fantasy. Alternatively one could emphasize that the heightening crises and the formation of the two spontaneous groupings correspond to the times of Leni's two pregnancies; the birth of her second child is likely to be accompanied by a renewed and, we assume, possibly less precariously balanced fulfilment of her being.

These points concerning the roles of Leni and the narrator will by no means explore completely the possibilities of interpretation in a novel which is the author's most extended to date and where there is frequently a combination of exuberance and fantasy. What might be seen as the secularisation and sexualisation of the way in which human relationships are presented, by comparison with some earlier works of Böll, might well be looked at more closely, not to speak of the functions of the various other characters. (pp. 130-31)

H. M. Waidson, "Heroine and Narrator in Heinrich Böll's 'Gruppenbild Mit Dame'," in Forum for Modern Language Studies (copyright © by Forum for Modern Language Studies and H. M. Waidson), April, 1973, pp. 125-31.

W. G. Cunliffe

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 his works. In the early works he is firmly on the side of the private individual, but later he becomes less certain of individual values without being able to embrace supraindividual values. Unlike Rousseau, Böll attempts to find a compromise between "homme" and "citoyen," an attempt which results in the eccentric rebels characteristic of his later work.

In his early works, however, Böll has little doubt what to choose. In this he is typical of the German writers returning from the war. For them, the individual and his private life were far more important than any public cause, inevitably associated with totalitarian government. For years the cause of the polis had been advanced and the rights of the individual ruthlessly trampled underfoot…. The most private of private lives, that of the petit-bourgeois, was often seen as the bravest assertion of these rights, all the braver for its touching vulgarity disguising a tough core of passive resistance to authority. (pp. 473-74)

The early Böll is equally vehement in his praise of the petit-bourgeois private individual, with an added insistence on his mildness and lack of harmful drive or ambition. The mild-mannered hero of Wo warst du, Adam? (Adam, Where Art Thou?), the former architect Feinhals, passes through war and battle, noisy historical events, dazed and indifferently contemptuous. His one wish, as he explains when the closing stages of the war bring him from the Balkans to the Rhine, is to return to his nearby home where he can resume a useful, unpretentious life. He makes a final confession of this longing for home in a kitchen, a last haven before he meets his death on his own doorstep. (p. 474)

But it is not only under the extreme conditions of war and totalitarian rule that stuffy middle-class values provide a form of resistance in Böll's works against the ruthless world of affairs. In the early post-war stories, too, in Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953) (Acquainted with the Night), Haus ohne Hüter (1954) (The Unguarded House), and Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1955) (The Bread of our Early Years), the humble private virtues are a shield against the blandishments of the new prosperity. (p. 475)

The post-war world of affairs and business is condemned, as the war had been, from the point of view of a utopian petit-bourgeois. This point of view is exemplified in satirical sketches, such as the radio play Zum Tee bei Dr. Borsig (1955) (Tea with Dr. Borsig). Commerce is depicted here as the sale of grotesque and spurious patent medicines, and Borsig takes refuge from it in a petit-bourgeois haven, a cheap apartment near the railway station and a girl-friend who steals an afternoon from work to go with him to the movies. She does this as a matter of principle, as a way of protecting the claims of private life against a soulless community, and she may be considered as an early, slight exemplar of Böll's rebels. (p. 476)

This kind of resistance to the norms of a complacently prosperous society depends on private integrity and humanitarian non-conformity. These qualities, however, have become illusory in the post-war world. As Böll explains in a revelatory essay on Brendan Behan, this is an age in which the lower middle classes self-consciously ape the clichés of high society, because "striving for dull freedom out of dull bondage, [they] cannot get rid of their lower middle class clichés and believe they can, they ought to play at being sophisticated by 'sinning'—often without really enjoying it."

In other words, the rejection of old-fashioned petit-bourgeois integrity has, as Böll is forced to recognize, become a petit-bourgeois cliché. (pp. 476-77)

Böll's dissatisfaction with the virtues of individualism is revealed in Billard um halbzehn (1959) (Billiards at Half-past Nine). Up to then, the typical Böll hero had been a harmless victim, whose fate can be summed up in the last sentence of the short story "Der Mann mit den Messern"/"The Knife Thrower": "I was the man they threw knives at." Whether in war-time (The Train Was on Time; Adam, Where Art Thou?) or in the post-war period (Acquainted with the Night, The Unguarded House), decent, long-suffering humanity is the prey of the nameless forces of history. It is in Billiards that Böll introduces active critics of society and abandons, as Reich-Ranicki puts it, "inwardness and disguised lyricism." The passive character, the hotel page-boy Hugo, exists only in the margin. The central figure, Robert Fähmel, blows up an abbey designed by his father because it is a breeding-place of Fascism or, in the religious terminology of this novel, "the sacrament of the buffalo" is observed there. After the war he still wishes to eradicate all traces of the past, although he is caught in a web of inactivity relieved only by a tender concern for the "lamb" Hugo. It is his mother, Johanna, who emerges as the first of Böll's eccentric rebels, for Robert's act of destruction is a symbolical act. For years, Johanna has sought oblivion in the "enchanted castle" of a sanatorium, a means of escaping from the outside world. Now, on the day in 1958 which covers the foreground of the plot, she emerges from this refuge and becomes an activist. She is, however, an eccentric, almost comic activist—an old lady who, on a day's outing to visit her family, shoots at and wings a prominent political personage who is watching a political procession from a hotel balcony.

Böll is expressing the humanitarian liberal's dilemma by creating characters who are activists, feeling responsibility for the community, yet at the same time individualists, not subscribing to any ideology. They find a solution in eccentric rebellion which, from now on, is a recurring element in Böll's work. In Die Ansichten eines Clowns (The Clown), published in 1963, by which time the official Church has lost its integrity and is firmly entrenched in the ruling classes, the eccentric position of the hero is acknowledged in the epithet "clown." (pp. 477-78)

Rebellion through play-acting is the essential theme of the next novels, Entfernung von der Truppe (1964) (Absent without Leave) and Ende einer Dienstfahrt (1966) (End of a Mission). The hero of the former chooses the role of latrine orderly in the Wehrmacht and uses the noisome adjuncts of his calling to keep the world at bay. The latter centers around an act of defiance whereby the Gruhls, father and son, set fire to an army jeep in protest against a system that encourages official wastefulness, yet penalizes the honest, old-fashioned carpenter's business of Gruhl senior. The protest touches on big issues, but Böll keeps it at local level with the protesters anything but professional agitators, for Böll makes much play in this novel with the pleasures of the table and domestic happiness. In Böll's … Gruppenbild mit Dame (1971) (Group Portrait with Lady), the individualistic revolt is carried back to the war period, during which Böll's heroes had behaved so passively. Now we read of two young soldiers executed during the war for resistance activities, their resistance taking the eccentric form of offering an anti-aircraft gun to Danish partisans. One of the accused, we are told, claimed at the court-martial that they were dying for an honorable profession, the arms trade. (p. 478)

In moving from the passive hero to the eccentric rebel who is no longer satisfied with the virtues of the lamb, Böll has reflected an important change in German attitudes since the war. (p. 479)

W. G: Cunliffe, "Heinrich Böll's Eccentric Rebels," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1975, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1975, pp. 473-79.

Michael Butler

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 familiar. The jaunty archaeological dig in some other era, in other people's lives is over. Too late, we realize that the author has us exactly where he wants us—staring at some scrap in the pile of debris with the full shock of recognition.

At times, in the many novels and stories of this prolific writer, one feels manipulated, occasionally duped. The procession of characters, battered so hard by events that they no longer comprehend or even care about the forces which shaped their lives, almost becomes predictable and almost loses the original impact. Almost, but not quite. Böll … usually proves too much a master for that.

We might not immediately connect with this novel of postwar Germany "[And Never Said a Word"] … but the cumulative emotional impact is still there. In this tale, narrated alternately by an estranged husband and wife, the actual shock of war still lingers….

Between this couple, no longer young, lie 15 years of tangled history—the ordinary personal strengths and failings warped and magnified by the horror of war and its aftermath, poverty and hopelessness….

Where has the violence and despair in him come from? From the war? Or has some shard of violence, apathy, and greed in a score or legion of hearts as ordinary as his lead to the cataclysm of this latest war in an endless cycle of wars? The subtitle of one of Böll's best-known works, "The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum," underscores the intensity of Böll's concern with this massive theme; "How Violence Develops and Where it Leads." He tracks it ruthlessly and his writing reaches a scalding brilliance when he comes close to isolating something unnameable. (p. 18)

Böll's characters, and the shape of the social and emotional terrain in his fiction, may seem compulsively grotesque; but so are the realities with which he deals. He grapples with, and uncovers the substance of these people, not to exploit or condemn their grotesqueness, but in order to explore the possible sources of their dis-ease, which seems, by inheritance or by nature, to be ours as well.

He presents no answers, only the acrid questions of a survivor; but he also presents the few broken clues he has found, and keeps finding, in the wreckage. (p. 19)

Diana Rowan, "Living in War's Landscape" in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1978 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), July 12, 1978, pp. 18-19.

Previous

Böll, Heinrich (Theodor)

Next

Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 15)