“What portion in the world can the artist have,” asked Yeats, “but dissipation and despair?” Hans Schnier, the professional clown of Heinrich Böll’s new novel (the sixth to be published in America), doesn’t take to dissipation—he is an innocent, a pure person, irretrievably monogamous, and cognac costs money—nor completely to despair. The novel ends with him begging outside Bonn Railroad Station, the first coin falling into his hat. Charity? He is singing for his supper. And rather the charity of passing individuals than a retainer, a grant, a subsidy. For this way no group, no institution, no party is buying the clown and his services.
The novel begins with the twenty-seven-year-old clown arriving in Bonn, down on his luck, with a swollen knee and without his beloved Marie. The Catholics have seduced Marie away from him, persuaded her to marry one of Them and thus (in Schnier’s view) to commit adultery, double adultery even, since (he tells himself) she will surely return to him one day. Alone in his room, between telephone calls to various acquaintances who might be able to help him, he recalls the past. Such is the form of the novel.
Lacking action in the usual sense of the word, The Clown yet moves with a remarkable purposiveness, its constituents working singlemindedly together. Possibly for this reason it may not prove altogether acceptable. The sensitive contemporary reader prefers to be knocked flat by a velvet glove and there is perhaps too much iron in evidence here. I think it is the case that the irony is rather too insistent. So many of Schnier’s acquaintances have suffered a postwar sea-change into something not so strange though certainly rich enough. His mother, once so zealous that the “Jewish Yankees” should be driven from “our sacred German soil,” is now president of the Executive Committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences and “lectures to American women’s clubs about the remorse of German youth.” Brühl, a schoolteacher of Blood-and-Soil tendencies, is now a professor at a Teachers’ Training College, a man known for his “courageous political past”: he never actually joined the Nazi Party. Schnitzler, instrumental in forcing the young Schnier into the Hitler Youth, wrote a bad novel about a fairhaired French lieutenant and a darkhaired German girl which incurred the displeasure of the National Socialist Writers’ Association (a careless use of the palette) and caused him to be suspended from writing for some ten months: the Americans welcomed him as a resistance fighter, “gave him a job in their cultural information service, and today he is running all over Bonn telling all and sundry that he was banned under the Nazis.” These are people with whom (it is made plain, plainer than necessary) you cannot communicate. You ask them a personal question and you get a party answer. They do not help lone clowns.
Böll takes his epigraph from Romans XV. “To whom he was not spoken of, they …