Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

What’s to Become of the Boy? appeared in English translation only one year before the 1972 Nobel laureate’s death. It was his first and only attempt to write a straight autobiography. Heinrich Böll had previously resisted pressures to write in that genre, believing that autobiographies had a natural inclination to distort the past by interpreting events with the benefit of hindsight.

The book is written in a relaxed, conversational style, much as if the reader were sitting across the table from Böll, listening to him reminisce about his adolescent years. It covers the last four years of Böll’s formal education. Those years, from 1933 to 1937, parallel the first four years of Nazi rule in Germany. Böll portrays that time against the gloomy backdrop of the Nazi Party’s consolidation of its control over German society.

Böll clearly has not done any research into his past, nor is the narrative based upon any diaries, journals, or other documents. Böll is simply recalling, remembering, or reminiscing. Indeed, at the beginning of the book he warns the reader: “All this happened forty-eight to forty-four years ago, and I have no notes or jottings to resort to. . . . I am no longer sure of how some of my personal experiences synchronize with historical events.”

Böll gives several examples of his faulty memory. All of them are meant to impress upon the reader that Böll’s purpose is not merely to provide a sort...

(The entire section is 530 words.)