And Never Said a Word
When Heinrich Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, the Swedish Academy cited his contribution to the revival of German literature after its demise during the Third Reich. The publicity surrounding the award of the Nobel Prize has led to a renewed interest in the U.S. in Böll’s work. It is therefore not surprising to see this new edition of one of his early works, but it is a pleasant surprise that the publisher decided to release the novel in a new translation. This has proved a worthwhile effort. Leila Vennewitz possesses, after having translated so many of Böll’s works, an exceptional feel for his language. The American phrases and the contemporary informality of the dialogue in this translation, which is approved by Heinrich Böll, bring the reader much closer to the intent of the German original than the former translation.
Up to this point in his career, Böll had experimented with the shorter and medium length literary forms and wavered in his choice between story, novel, long short story in the American manner, or collection of short stories around a single theme. And Never Said a Word is the second work Böll designated as a novel. In this early attempt at a new genre, the author chooses a narrow and finely delineated theme; namely, a marriage in danger of breaking apart. The structure is as simple as the theme. The novel has thirteen chapters, of which all odd numbered ones are narrated by the husband, Fred Bogner, and all even numbered ones by the wife, Käte Bogner. The time is limited to one weekend beginning as Fred is on his way from work on Saturday and ending very shortly after he returns to work on Monday morning.
Within this simple frame, Böll paints a broad picture of German society in the years after the war. In the center of this picture stands the Bogner family. Fred Bogner has left his wife and children because he, by nature peace-loving, opposed to any form of violence, now finds himself turning violent against his loved ones.
Fred Bogner is one of Böll’s unheroic heroes who are victimized by forces beyond their control and comprehension. The hopelessness, inhumanity, and injustice around them pervert their natural emotions. Fred Bogner is incapable of keeping a job, he is doping himself with smoke and drink. When he is at home, he suddenly explodes and beats his defenseless children. Because of these uncontrollable fits of violence, he has left home and now roams the streets. He sleeps in bombed-out houses, stairways, and wherever he can find warmth without human obligations. An early interest in death, which started when he, as a seven-year-old-boy, secretly followed his mother’s coffin to the cemetery is now perverted into a morbid fascination with death and dying. He attends funerals of strangers and is often invited home by the bereaved to listen to the life story of people of whom he knows nothing but their coffin.
Such perversion of human emotions leads Böll’s characters either to superficial activity without any emotional involvement or to lethargy. On the one end of this spectrum is Mrs. Franke, who serves on all church and social committees. She is always on the move but only displays tenderness when she talks about money. At the other extreme are the people who are seen in some of the public places depicted in the novel. They merely sit there and let the world pass them by. They do not react to anything around them as they apparently have given up hope of ever influencing the course of events. Mrs. Röder, Bogner’s landlady, is close to this stage of development. She is said to defeat any of Käte Bogner’s complaints about the conditions of their room with her “overwhelming lethargy.” Like Fred, Mrs. Röder takes schnapps as a cureall; however, while she lacks incentive and energy to fight any longer, Fred still explodes. His anger may not be directed very rationally, but it shows some residue of life and hope, conscious or subconscious—he may still be able to change things. Mrs. Röder has lost this hope, as indicated by her admonition to Käte Bogner not ever to complain again for “there’s no cure for poverty.”
Fred Bogner’s hope of improving the quality of his life has dwindled to the point where he is beginning to show signs of a suicidal fascination with defeat. This may be seen in his entire lifestyle, but is illustrated most clearly in his addiction to playing the slot machines. This addiction has gone so far that even money obtained at great sacrifice will end up in the machine. He will work extra hours or swallow his pride, asking acquaintances for loans to rent a room for a meeting with his wife. In most cases he will end up in front of a slot machine and not leave until all the money is gone. The initial fascination with winning has ceased, however. He has found a machine which almost never comes up with a winning combination, and even when it does, no money is paid out. Since finding this machine, he only plays this kind, the kind on which you lose even when you win. It is this stage of self-destruction which Fred has reached when Käte presents him with the ultimatum of either facing up to his responsibility as a husband...
(The entire section is 2119 words.)