Adam and the Train: Two Novels
The Ghost of Henry James
“And Where Were You, Adam” and “The Train Was On Time” are described as novels, but it is better to read them as novellas. I am sure that Herr Böll wrote them with a sense of their participation in that genre. The novella is neither a novel nor a short story. It distinguishes itself from each by listening to its own rhythm, it has its own pulse. Measuring time, it does not count pages. A certain rhythm is to be fulfilled: it is a matter of tact, a propriety of form, that the writer practices whatever degree of austerity is required in the fulfillment. He understands the genre, and he assents to its limitation. As for content, the main limitation is that the form goes better with ends than beginnings; if life is a five-act play, the novella comes in with act 4, and stays to the end, fulfilled in death.
In Herr Böll’s novellas, act 4 is 1944, and the remnants of a German army wait for the end in a village in Hungary, or Poland, or wherever. One life is equal to another now, rank is an anachronism. Captain Bauer’s skull has been ripped open, nothing left but the word “Byelyogorshe,” repeated as if it had cabalistic significance; and perhaps it has. Sergeant Scheider is blown up by a mine. Feinhals tries to go home, his Jewish girl Ilona is shot, he reaches his doorstep, is killed. In Lyov, Andreas meets a prostitute, Olina, they live for a few hours by speech and feeling, then they are killed.
As Herr Böll practices the genre, his most congenial materials are a soldier, a girl, and the year 1944. The pattern is like a fist, clenched then slackening, the fingers opening as life crawls to the extremities, and dies. Feeling shudders in memory, scenes from childhood, home, daily joys of routine. Andreas postpones his death by recalling what life meant on its high occasions. Lieutenant Greck goes for a ride on a swingboat in the middle of a hot day in a dirty Hungarian village. SS Captain Filskeit runs a concentration camp, but his secret life is in music, and he makes Ilona sing for her few days’ grace.
These are snatches of life, samples of good and bad, they affect the tempo of the story, subject to the grand design of rhythm. They also account for the remarkable density of these short fictions; as samples, they testify to lives beyond those which are given, other people, other villages, casualties of love and war. We live in an old chaos of the sun, as Wallace Stevens wrote. Like Greck, Bauer, Scheider, Filskeit, we are remnants, in the wrong sector, some astray in the head.
Of the two stories, “The Train Was On Time” is the more powerful, mainly because its companion piece is tempted to become a parable, and yields. In “And Where Were You, Adam,” Feinhals comes to his father’s house, sees the white flag hung …