Heinrich Böll Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 15) - 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. 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. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Brian Murdoch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As far as the early satires of Heinrich Böll are concerned, attention has been paid to his targets, and to the reason for the satire, and these are often fairly straightforward. Although some general comments have been made, the question of technique in some of the early pieces bears closer critical analysis. Such an investigation may be of value, incidentally, not only in the determining of the relationship between form and context as a stage in the aesthetic appreciation of the works concerned, but may also serve as a pointer to general critical approaches. (pp. 125-26)

The purpose of the present paper is to examine some of Böll's satirical techniques through detailed consideration of three stories: Der Lacher (1952), Es wird etwas geschehen (1954) and Schicksal einer henkellosen Tasse (1952), together with less comprehensive glances at other writings of the same genre. These stories may, however, stand as more or less typical representatives of the early satires, as fixed points by reference to which others may be analysed….

All three of the stories under discussion here are … first-person narratives; … comparison of the three with each other and with further texts can bring to light the 'subtle changes of emphasis' in various types of first-person narrative.

Der Lacher deals with a favourite theme of Böll's: the artificiality of modern life and the discrepancy between appearance and reality manifest particularly in the proliferation of superfluous occupations. The narrator of Der Lacher is the 'Lacher' himself, a man whose job it is simply to laugh, either for purposes of recording, or as a clacqueur, saving the performances of third and fourth-rate comedians. The initial result of the choice of an ich-narrator is of course the illusion of immediacy and truth drawing the reader into the story. The 'Lacher' is eminently credible as a figure. But there is a satirical double-take here, as there is in similar stories, in that the mere existence of a 'Lacher'—an existence we so readily accept—begs all sorts of logically absurd questions: he is a 'gelernter Lacher', and we ask where he trained?

What is being satirised, then, is fairly clear, and Böll's Lacher calls to mind other stories with a similar target…. Der Lacher 'stell Heiterkeit dar' [provides cheerfulness] … rather than actually causing laughter…. We assume that he himself does not realise that third and fourth-rate comedians are not of intrinsic value, hence do not need supporting. The closest the narrator comes to an awareness of the artificiality lies in his thoughtfulness at the end of the story, a thoughtfulness which relates, however, to the nature of his own laughter, not to his job…. Böll is, in fact, fond of this kind of part awareness, on the part of the ich-narrator, of the point at issue, and variations appear in other stories. (p. 126)

The involvement of the narrator of Der Lacher, then, is total. He has moments of wondering, but makes no overt comment on the nature of his job, certainly no cynical reaction to it and no albeit ineffectual counter-action. The satirical point is drawn from the job itself, but also from the empathetic representation of the person concerned, who makes, however, no actual comment.

Es wird etwas geschehen develops, to an extent, the same theme. In this case we are not even told what the narrator does (apart from answering several telephones in Wunsiedel's factory), and this is part of the satire. The theme is the human capacity for self-delusion once again, specifically the ability to convince oneself that one is accomplishing something when one is not. Parkinson's Law comes to mind, of course. The structure of the story and the nature of the narrator are, however, fuller than in Der Lacher. The ich of the story is a memoir-writer in this case, giving an account of a complete period of his life, from the standpoint of a fictional persent which is also significant. We are brought up to date gradually, by means of an extended flashback technique. The job involved is again superfluous, but unlike the Lacher, the narrator of Es wird etwas geschehen reacts to the superfluity and becomes, in effect, a satirist in his own right, within the satire as such. There is no comment on the nature of the ich from the omniscient author, but the narrator himself passes judgement upon the colleagues whose attitudes he treats so cynically in his own job. For although his own position is quite superfluous, he enters into it and becomes, as it were, a conscious 'Lacher', aware of the ambiguity of his situation, but keeping it up nevertheless. (p. 127)

That the narrator is also an object of satire is borne out by the final portion of the narrative. On the death of Wunsiedel, the narrator takes a post as a professional mourner, because his face is suited to this. But although the new job does suit his character, he is this time unaware of its artificiality. The new post is very closely akin to that of the 'Lacher'…. The story ends, therefore, on a somewhat pessimistic note, in returning us to the equally artificial world of the earlier story. The narrator has no thoughts at all...

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Cecile Cazort Zorach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Irisches Tagebuch occupies a somewhat ambiguous place in Böll's oeuvre. Chronologically and stylistically it stands closer to the early stories and novels, with their studied, stark simplicity, than to the major novels, with their modernist interweavings of narrative perspectives and disruptions of temporal and spatial continuities. The travel book likewise occupies an intermediate generic position between Böll's essays and his novels, for it uses traditional conventions of both non-fictional travel journalism and those of fictional narration….

The book's title, suggesting a traveler's tedious day-to-day jottings about strange peoples, landscapes, and mores, seems to belie the text itself, which is organized in topical chapters and not simply in temporal or spatial segments…. Böll has chosen [a title] graced with a peculiar linguistic symmetry: two eight-letter words of identical syllabic stress. This simple balance of two sides anticipates the duality which marks the German's encounter with Ireland throughout the book. Furthermore, each of these two words taken separately incorporates tensions between two disparate elements found in the text itself….

[As] most readers sense immediately, the Irisches Tagebuch, more than most travel books, deals at least obliquely as much with the author's native society as with the foreign country…. The obtrusive presence of [the word "Buch" in the title] calls attention to the activities of reading and writing which absorb the narrator's energies throughout his journey and which then culminate in the creation of this work. Even the general meaning of "Tagebuch" in the title expresses certain tensions found in Böll's book as in more conventional journals: those between unity and disparity, between sequentiality and atemporality, and between invention and report. (p. 124)

[This] principle of dualism functions primarily in three ways: on the most obvious thematic levels it elucidates the paradoxical coherence of the antinomies in Ireland itself; similarly, it underlines the persistent comparison of Ireland to Germany; it also operates on the more subtle level of the work's narrative unity and continuity, where it serves to guide the reader's and the narrator's journey through Ireland and through the text via a framework of loosely parallel chapters. (pp. 124-25)

[Each] of the individual chapters shows a dominant thematic orientation, often evident from its heading. Hence, unlike in much travel literature, it is neither the geographical nor the chronological stages of the journey which mould and direct the narrative but rather the specific qualities of the foreign environment brought out in each segment. (p. 125)

A duplication of themes from one chapter to another might simply yield a drearily repetitive catalogue of observations. In the Irisches Tagebuch, however, such parallelism dynamically channels the movement of the narrating consciousness as it explores the foreign world from different perspectives. Stylistic differences between the first part of the book and the second half mark the development which the encounter with Ireland elicits within the narrator. The most conspicuous stylistic change is the greatly reduced frequency of first-person pronouns in the later chapters…. Instead of acting as a protagonist as he has earlier, [the narrator] retires behind the scenes, often showing us elements in the foreign country from perspectives closer to the third person than to the first. Even in chapters where he reappears as both narrator and protagonist, he casts his own personal experience in a dubious light. The encounter with Ireland, with particular qualities of the land and its people, has transformed his own way of coming to terms with reality. The Irisches Tagebuch to a large extent deals with the transformation of a person's perspective through travel. (pp. 125-26)

Much of the narrator's...

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