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...

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What's to Become of the Boy?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Heinrich Böll, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, was the first German thus honored since Thomas Mann received the award in 1929. As Mann was then identified with the best that Germany’s Weimar Republic had made possible, Böll is now widely considered the most representative figure of West Germany’s postwar culture. In contrast to Mann, who liked to speak of himself as a born representative, Böll has always felt curiously ill at ease in the role of a semiofficial writer in residence, preferring to call himself at best an unrepresentative representative. Older than Günter Grass, Rolf Hochhuth, or Martin Walser by at least ten years, Böll occupies a unique position in the first generation of postwar writers. He, who was almost twenty-eight years old at the end of World War II, frankly admits that he was obviously old enough to know what had happened and in what he had, though unwillingly, participated. While clearly formulating his identity as a German writer within the continuity of his country’s unsavory history, Böll has become one of the most outspoken critics not only of Germany’s past but also of its specifically West German present.

When someone of Böll’s literary and public stature sits down to write his first autobiographical work, readers tend to expect a representative assessment. Even if one keeps in mind that Böll has chosen to write about only four years of his adolescence, the years on which he focuses—his last four years of high school, Adolf Hitler’s first four years in power—make the eighty-two small pages he offers in What’s to Become of the Boy? (published in Germany in 1981 as Was soll aus dem Jungen bloss werden?) seem a strangely offhanded, ineffectual appraisal. If this brief memoir at first glance looks unrepresentative, however, containing little more than the inconsequential reminiscences of an elderly celebrity, the reader must be cautioned that Böll has always cherished the deviously understated perspective of the atypical in his search for the typical in Germany’s past and present.

From the very beginning of the Nazi rule, the fifteen-year-old Böll and his family appear to have been equipped with an amazing political astuteness which resulted from a most atypical combination of heavyhearted fear and lighthearted irreverence. The political leadership of the Third Reich was judged with an instinctive horror as much as it was dismissed with an instinctive disrespect. Adolf Hitler, whom Böll’s mother recognized as a crazed warmonger from the day he came to power, was also caricatured by her as a turnip head. The debauched Hermann Göring, with his operatic craving for outlandish uniforms, was hated for his unashamed brutality but was relegated to the realm of farce rather than that of tragedy. At Ernst Röhm, the ravingly homosexual leader of the brown-shirted SA, the Bölls thumbed their noses with a dirty joke, while Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth Böll so adamantly refused to join, they ridiculed as a comically sentimental poetaster. Though the reign of terror these men unleashed on Germany was only too real and did not leave the Bölls unaffected, they recognized its power as arising from the crushing presence of “a howling void,” revealing a profound discrepancy between the magnitude of the deeds and the paltriness of the actors which alternately called for chilling silence or hysterical snickering from those watching the cruel spectacle.

With a similarly mocking nonchalance, Böll undercuts his recounting of events that are widely known for their political or symbolic significance. Hitler’s coming to power on January 30, 1933, Böll remembers as having surprised most people in Cologne, himself included; on that day, he was in bed, under the numbing influence of alcoholic remedies generously dispensed against the effects of an annual flu epidemic. The notorious book burnings of a few weeks later he recollects not for their cultural barbarity but for his discovery that books really do not burn well on command. Recollection of Hitler’s first open breach of international law, the occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, brings to mind how Böll’s father responded to the imminent threat of war by reenacting for the benefit of the whole family his simulated attack of appendicitis which had cost him his appendix but had saved the rest of his body from being sent into the death mill of Verdun in World War I. Even where Böll’s recollections rise to the level of passionate indictment, he remains determined to wrest from them an unexpected perspective. The execution of seven young Communists in Cologne in the fall of 1934 reaches its most powerful evocation in the description of the young men’s reemerging religiosity as they faced death. The constant street terror imposed on the city by roving bands of storm troopers and Hitler Youths, a terror that threw such a pall over Böll’s temperament of the loafer, is seen in conjunction with the rigor with which such comparatively human institutions as black marketing and...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review in The Atlantic. CCLIV (November, 1984), p. 148.

Barnet, Andrea. Review in Saturday Review. X (November/December, 1984), p. 81.

Craig, Gordon A. “Childhood of a Social Critic,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (October 7, 1984), p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 1, 1984, p. 722.

Lehman, David. “In the Shadow of the Nazis,” in Newsweek. CIV (October 15, 1984), p. 100.

Library Journal. CIX, September 15, 1984, p. 1751.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 25, 1984, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 17, 1984, p. 49.

Washington Post. November 16, 1984, p. C3.