Heinrich Böll was the first German ever to be elected president of the International PEN club; he was also the first, and so far only, writer from the Federal Republic of Germany to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The popularity of his works in Western and Eastern Europe has been nothing short of phenomenal. Even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972, more than two million copies of his books had been sold in the Soviet Union alone.
Still, Böll continues to be considered by his own country’s cultural elite as somewhat of an embarrassment. That he spoke out against German rearmament in the 1950’s, against restrictive emergency laws in the 1960’s, and, in his most controversial crusade, against the paranoia with which a conservative boulevard press proceeded, in the name of antiterrorism, to hunt down radical political dissent—all of this should have made him a hero of West Germany’s vociferous intelligentsia. Instead, there has always existed an uneasy distance between him and the intellectuals of his time and place. Böll remained curiously out of step with postwar German society, a society that preferred to view itself as secular, rational, hardworking, and pragmatic. His socialist humanism, by contrast, was anarchic rather than bureaucratic, lighthearted rather than deadly serious, subversive of organization rather than organized, impractical rather than efficient.
There can be no doubt that Böll is one of the most principled writers of modern German literature, but his principles are instinctively applied, not ideologically reasoned. They never constitute a system but can only be deduced from an at-times rather baffling array of attitudes toward life, love, and death, politics, religion, and morality. Nowhere is this flexibility and subtle cohesion of Böll’s wisdom as visible as in a collection of his most famous short stories; in none of his major novels does one feel quite as close to the center of his artistic and moral concerns as in the abrupt immediacy of this so versatile if unsystematic genre.
The present extensive, representative, and handsomely printed collection offers a lot of Böll at a reasonable price. The sixty short stories and three novellas are all admirably handled by Böll’s translator of more than twenty years, the Canadian Leila Vennewitz. Although only seventeen of the sixty-three stories have never before been published in English, this edition clearly deserves special attention because it is the most comprehensive collection of Böll’s stories in the English language. Apparently intended as a commemorative survey of Böll’s career as a short-story writer, the volume unfortunately limits an informed appreciation of Böll’s artistic development by not providing the first dates of publication for any of the stories or novellas. In fact, the first fifty stories belong to the sixteen years between 1947 and 1962, while only thirteen are representative of the author’s work during the last twenty-three years of his life. Even more specifically, the collection is quite rightly weighed in favor of the earliest Böll. The twenty-four stories and three novellas written between 1947 and 1951 take up about four hundred pages, while the last two decades are allotted a slim sixty. The interested reader should have been alerted to this otherwise perfectly justifiable imbalance.
With the inclusion of the novellas The Train Was on Time, And Where Were You, Adam?, and A Soldier’s Legacy, slightly more than half the volume is devoted to stories about World War II. Although the war did not remain a central theme for Böll after 1951, the trauma of its organized inhumanity continued to inform many of his social and moral convictions. Böll had been a soldier for the full six years of the war, participating in its senseless brutality in Poland, France, the Soviet Union, Romania, and Hungary. Like millions of German men, he was forced to do his duty; unlike most of them, he did it as reluctantly as possible, resorting to malingering and even desertion. After what he had gone through, Böll refused to write about the war in a literary tradition which depicted it as man’s arena for heroism and self-sacrifice, a chance to discover one’s own manliness and acquire the red badge of courage. War’s vast bureaucracy of terror, boredom, waste, and death filled Böll with nothing but unrelieved loathing. He viewed it as an incurable disease, a cancer which eats the marrow of men and leaves them broken and disoriented.
There are few actual scenes of combat in the stories. Most of them show the common soldiers wasting their time, lethargically preparing themselves for their own inevitable death. Waiting becomes the dominant mood: waiting in train stations and in trains on the way to the front (The Train Was on Time; “Between Trains in X”), on airfields (“Broommakers”), in the barracks (“When the War Broke Out”), in field hospitals (“Children Are Civilians Too”; “Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We. . .”; “Reunion with Drüng”), in sleazy bars (“That Time We Were in...
(The entire section is 2090 words.)