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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2177
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 about the nature of his new post, and ends with a comment about the product of Wunsiedel's factory which might be thought of, in fact, as a somewhat hackneyed pointe.
Schicksal einer henkellosen Tasse is one of the more complex of Böll's early pieces as regards point of view. Once again a first-person narrative, the ich is this time not a person, but a coffee-cup. The technique recalls that of the fable, with the difference that the central figure is not even an animal. The effect is double-edged. Use of the first person leads, of course, to greater personal involvement and credibility, but the fact that that person is a coffee-cup gives rise to comic inner conflicts, and the same sort of logical absurdity as was apparent in Der Lacher. We wonder, here, about the reproductive faculties of the items of crockery, about where the coffee-cup acquired its obvious education. The story operates from a narrative present with a series of inner flashbacks, and basically the 'Fabel' consists of the cup's worry about its apparently imminent demise. (pp. 127-28)
But the unusual narrative point of view has a definite purpose, and underlines several of the points of the satire. The satirisation operates on several levels, extending the technique of Es wird etwas geschehen. We may consider first the level of objective satirisation. Just as the nature of the Lacher satirises a certain frame of mind, as does, objectively, the attitude of the narrator of Es wird etwas geschehen, so too does Böll make a satirical point by the actions of the cup and its relatives. To place snobbery into the thoughts of a butter-dish is to castigate one human foible even more clearly than when Aesop, to castigate another, makes the fox think that the grapes must be sour. The general attitude to life of the Hurz cup, the ninety-year-old porcelain, also satirises certain aspects of 'aristocractic' behaviour…. The exaggerated feelings of the cups mirror human attitudes, and this comment underlines at the same time the notion of an apparently useful object that is, nevertheless, not used. Specifically, of course, the introduction of the in herself most entertaining porcelain cup underlines the relationships between the 'human' figures of the story—Diana, Julius and the non-appearing Wolfgang. The quotation marks around the word 'human' are intentional: the fact that much of the story is in the hands of non-human characters makes the humans that much more real—much as with the cinematic technique of combining cartoon figures with live actors. Here, then, the narrator-cup is clearly a working cup, exposed to the dangers of life, just as Julius is—the cup and Julius experience the war, when the Hurz is presumably in a safe. (p. 128)
The point is that these are cups and saucers, and have no control over what happens to them. Similarly, man has no control over fate. This is the tragic situation with which man has to come to terms, and in reducing the blows of fate to the sensitivity of a talking coffee-cup, Böll is making the entire concept comical, but perhaps that much more acceptable and comprehensible. The notion of an existentialist coffee-cup is consistently entertaining, too, and this is of some importance.
The cup-narrator does not serve solely as an allegorical fable-component. It can mirror human feelings in a purely objective sense, becoming, as it were, what it in reality is. Thus it shows, without really comprehending, the thoughtfulness on Julius' part about the war. Julius stirs his coffee absently, and the cup notices, but cannot comment upon, this habit. It has become a sounding-board, showing us the effects of the war sub specie poculi.
Equally, however, the cup-narrator can become the commentator, as well as just the narrator. Not only is it a figure of objective satire, it can also make valid subjective comment. It is aware, for example, of its own rôle as a symbol of the past that Diana and Julius have shared, and it is aware that the new and expensive is not always better than the old and tried. (pp. 128-29)
The point of view of the narrator in this fable, then, is many-sided, although it might, prima facie have been supposed to be as simple as, for example, Abenteuer eines Brotbeutels. Taking this and the other two stories as a starting-point, a small amount of attention might be paid here to two other stories which have, however, been dealt with at greater length in critical studies of Böll: Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit and Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen. Of interest in the former is the rôle of the narrator as an observer (like the coffee-cup) of other men's follies, but one who is, unlike the coffee-cup, more or less involved with them. The narrator has, moreover, a character of his own once again. The reason for this point of view is of course the social criticism of Germany after the war, and particularly the criticism of the striving to obliterate all memory of the war and return to the pre-war status quo. Tante Milla satirises the point by exaggeration, but the narrator is involved too. These are his relatives, this is his Germany. Consequently Böll makes him go along initially with the apparently harmless wishes of the crazy aunt, and allows us, further, to build up from the narrator's comments a picture of the narrator himself as essentially conservative at first. But his attitudes also change, leading him towards his cousin Franz, the cousin who has acted throughout as a social critic. But Franz enters a monastery at the end, and we are left with a narrator who has become 'nachdenklich'—not in fact comprehending, but at least potentially cognizant of the follies satirised, of the 'moral' of the story. The narrator here of course mirrors what should be in [the] mind of the reader.
Dr Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen is not a first-person narrative, and may be cited as a useful contrast as far as technique is concerned. We have to judge Murke (and evaluate the satirical point) purely from his actions. This story demonstrates effectively the versatility of the first-person point of view. We are shown Murke more or less objectively. There are virtually no author-comments about his behaviour, apart from the uninformative and indeed contradictory comment that he is 'jung, intelligent und liebenswürdig' [young, intelligent, and kind], though somewhat arrogant…. Interestingly, his boss (so the omniscient author-voice tells us) considers him at least unconsciously, a 'Raubtier' [thief]…. The distancing effect is significant; the author does not tell us he is a 'Raubtier', but he makes one of his other characters tell us so, thus aiding the formation of our impression, but making nothing explicit. The ich-narrative can of course be at once objective and subjective. The reader is closer to the first-person narrator, there being no intermediary author to maintain distance; but that narrator may create distance, as is the case with the central figure of Es wird etwas geschehen. And in a different sense the whole tone remains objective: we are so far from the author's own person that judgements based on a knowledge (or supposition) of how Böll might think, become well-nigh impossible.
Some attention may be paid, finally, to the question, already adumbrated, of the interpolated moral. In spite of the distanced objectivity, there is, as indicated, a not infrequent half-realisation of the point on the part of one of the characters. The overt moral has, of course, become obsolete as a literary convention…. [In] having a character, or an ich-narrator ponder the point, while not quite reaching a conclusion Böll does at least tell us that there is a point to ponder. (pp. 129-30)
Brian Murdoch, "Point of View in the Early Satires of Heinrich Böll," in Modern Languages, Vol. LIV, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 125-31.
Cecile Cazort Zorach
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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 attempt to interpret his new surroundings throughout the book can be understood as a broader kind of reading, as a search for the relationships among various signs. As linear activities and as activities of interpretation, travel and reading exhibit certain innate similarities which lend themselves to literary development, especially at the hands of a traveling writer…. In recounting his journey, Böll adumbrates the processes of coming to terms with non-linguistic cultural signs….
The traveler's endeavor to read (in the broader sense) new cultural, social, and natural landscapes often relies on the literal reading of the country's written documents. Such documents, ranging from advertisements to Yeats' poetry, play a major role in the Irisches Tagebuch…. Swift's formidable presence early in the text hints that Böll may be flirting with a literary model which harbors trenchant social comment under the cloak of an entertaining story of travel. (p. 126)
By successfully deciphering legitimate signs and rejecting misleading ones, the traveler gradually acquires a deeper understanding of the foreign country. But in the Irisches Tagebuch the German traveler in Ireland eventually realizes the limited value of reading, whether literal or figurative. To grasp fully the peculiar nature of this strange land, the book's narrator learns that he must find for himself larger perspectives and new ways of seeing. The two middle chapters, Chapters 10 and 11, mark the pivotal point in this attempt…. By introducing a new narrative perspective, Chapter 10 seems to disrupt the account of the German writer's peregrinations in Ireland, smuggling into the book new people, places, and events lacking a clear relationship to the former protagonist. Thematically and stylistically, however, Böll integrates the chapter into the rest of the book. Throughout the chapter, aspects of Ireland which the narrator has emphasized earlier pervade the setting and action…. (p. 127)
In forsaking the eye-witness mode to enter into another person's consciousness, the author is acknowledging the severe limitations of empirical perception. Böll knows that by merely reading the surface signs no one can really grasp reality, particularly a reality so foreign to German perception as Ireland is…. Through the two women in the central story [of Chapter 10], Böll is able to develop more fully and more consistently the different angles of vision already present in the first-person narrator. Here the narrator divides himself into two different characters. His own social position lies closer to that of the doctor's wife…. Her sole activity reflects the narrator's activity in the rest of the book—charting a journey and reading…. At the same time one senses that the narrator's sympathies lie more with Mary McNamara…. The numerous sacral motifs … associated with her suggest her role as messenger, a role which the narrator himself plays on a secular level in pointing to Ireland as an idealistic alternative to the problematic realities of his own country…. Both the narrator and Mary McNamara here are participating in a kind of genesis; the new life which she is bringing into the world parallels the new beginning which he is making in his writing as, after nine chapters of more straightforward reporting, he ventures into new perspectives for viewing his world.
This venture in writing is born directly out of the narrator's encounter with Ireland and especially with a particular quality of the land and its people, i.e., the gift for fantasy. This motif recurs in numerous variations through the book but especially in the latter half….
In many of the later chapters the vision of quasi-fictional characters continues to supersede the examination of things which the traveler "wirklich hätte sehen können." Reluctant to abandon completely the account of his travels, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of experience, the narrator now distills scenes and characters from his experiences and puts them directly before the reader's eyes. Having earlier shown himself in the process of learning to read the foreign landscape, he now shows himself more self-consciously writing about it. (p. 128)
The tension between fantasy and objective presentation found throughout the Irisches Tagebuch dominates [Chapter 15] in particular. At this point the narrator has already learned the shortcomings of "objectivity" and has tested different vantage points from which to observe and interpret for others this unfamiliar world. Now he examines the perils of such nonobjective views…. [He could] have succumbed to the temptation posed by George the filmmaker, that is, creating in his book an artificially picturesque image of Ireland to make his native society appear all the more horrendous. Some readers may, indeed, find that Böll has not always steered clear of such pitfalls, and that in piecing together the sprawling fragments of his travel experiences he too has created a "kleiner Beitrag zur abendländischen Mythologie" [little contribution to Western mythology], which distorts and sentimentalizes Ireland. Böll anticipates such objections in the epigraph, where he warns the reader to distinguish between the Ireland of the book and the Ireland which he himself may someday visit. (p. 129)
Repeatedly, the German traveler must affirm essential differences between his own way of looking at reality and the Irish way. During the journey he gradually adopts more and more of the Irish perspective—a perspective defined by its own laws and not by the limits of what one experiences merely through the physical senses…. Just as the final, summarizing chapter, the "Abschied," carries the travelers through a "Niemandsland zwischen Traum und Erinnerung" [no-man's land between dream and remembrance], so the text as a whole, like much modern narrative, begins to explore tentatively the no-man's land between the conventionally-defined areas of fiction and nonfiction. Yet Böll's traveler does not, cannot, give himself over entirely to his imagination, and his journal, while not a perfectly sober account of sights and sounds of Ireland, remains a travel book…. [In] creating narrative continuity out of the splinters of personal experience, Böll has overcome the chaotic and episodic quality plaguing many travel books, while still retaining the rich diversity and dynamism which marks the best travel literature. (p. 130)
Cecile Cazort Zorach, "Two Faces of Erin: The Dual Journey in Heinrich Böll's 'Irisches tagebuch'," in The Germanic Review (copyright 1978 by Helen Dwight Reed Foundation; reprinted by permission of Heldref Publications), Vol. LIII, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 124-31.