Heinrich Böll’s very first novel, Der Engel Schwieg, has just appeared in a decent but uninspired translation by Breon Mitchell. It is called The Silent Angel, published by St. Martin’s Press, and described by their publicity department as “the rarest of literary finds—a previously unpublished novel by a Nobel Prize-winner.” Böll would have seen the irony of this daft recommendation on prestige grounds. Status, wealth, and prestige are the enemy in all he wrote, fiction and nonfiction alike. And he might have been amused by the pun in the press’s cable address: Saintmart. The irreconcilable conflict between saintliness or even just plain humanity on the one hand, and the market (mart) on the other was the message he proclaimed. Besides, St. Martin is a particularly suitable patron saint for this story, in which a rich young man chooses to give his life for another’s, and leaves all his possessions to the poor.
Der Engel Schwieg was not published until 1992, more than forty years after Böll wrote it, and seven after he died. It was his first novel, though he had published a few well-received short stories and a harrowing novella, The Train Was on Time, about a German soldier traveling to the Eastern front and foreseeing his own death somewhere between Lvov and Czernowicz. His publisher commissioned a novel—to become The Silent Angel—and then had doubts about the depressing nature of the story. Böll felt a “Commitment to the Literature of Ruins” (the title of an essay he was to publish in 1952); and that, in 1951, was thought to be too painful for German readers just crawling out from under them. Böll withdrew the manuscript.
He died a slightly passé guru in 1985, having been one of Germany’s most impressive writers in the Fifties and Sixties, and one of the two most prestigious and influential ones in the Sixties and Seventies (the other, of course, being Günter Grass). He was born in 1917 into a large, middle-class, liberal Catholic family in Cologne. Their cabinet-making business failed during the Depression of 1929, and in 1937 when Böll left school (where he had been the only boy in his class not to join the Hitlerjugend) he was apprenticed to a bookseller instead of going to the university. In 1939 he was drafted into the army and served on the Eastern front and in France. He was wounded several times, and finally captured by the Americans.
He was released in September 1945 and returned to his wife (they had married in 1942). Their first child had just been born; two months later he watched the little boy die. An infant’s death helps to shape the plot in The Silent Angel, and Böll generally writes about children with an aching tenderness, as though their fragility was always on his mind.
The despair and squalor of the war, especially on the Eastern front, and the grim “hunger years” in the cold and filthy ruins of Cologne crop up, if only in flashback, in most of Böll’s fiction. The Bölls could not afford the black market; they were undernourished, frequently ill, and with three little boys born between 1947 and 1950, often desperate. Böll published a number of short stories, but they did not bring in much. His first published novel came out in 1951 (Adam, Where Art Thou?),1 and in the same year his story “The Black Sheep” won him the first of an endless series of literary prizes, interspersed, in later years, with prizes and honors for services to humanity. By the early Sixties he had become “Germany’s conscience”—or rather half of it, the Catholic western half. The Protestant eastern half was and still is represented by Günter Grass, agnostic though he may be. Both writers supported the SPD, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, and the peace movement.
Böll was influenced by the ideas of the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy, who maintained that the happiness of the rich is purchased with the blood of the poor. The title of his best-known work, Le Sang du Pauvre, would fit The Silent Angel quite well. Böll’s Catholicism is anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. The most important Christian commandment is poverty. The rich are suspect; clerical fat cats in purple are anathema. The only good clerics are poor peasant priests, like the chaplain in The Silent Angel who gives the starving hero Hans bread and a bottle of Communion wine to take home. He hears Hans’s confession, and accepts that he steals coke from the railways and lives with a woman who is not his wife. He even arranges to marry them, though that means breaking the law, which demands a civil marriage first—out of the question in Hans’s case, because his papers are forged.
Far from being a sin, sex, as long as it is combined with love, is an experience of God; sensual pleasure is one of His gifts. All the sins of the flesh are readily forgiven in Böll’s book or, rather, not acknowledged as sin at all: getting drunk, for instance, and especially eating with greed and pleasure. There are many voluptuous passages about the beauty of bread, reflecting not only its value in the midst of so much hunger, but also its sacramental quality. Even smoking can be, and usually is, a rewarding experience. A cloud of cigarette smoke hangs over Böll’s whole output. Imperfect heroes and saintly heroines alike smoke like chimneys. In the literature of ruins, of the hunger years, cigarettes are snipped in half, stubs saved, dried out, used as currency; and when a character gives a cigarette to another, it becomes a symbol of charity. It is when he sees Regina smoking, occasionally “dipp[ing] her head in a hawklike movement to shake off the ash,” that Hans realizes he loves her and that she is his destiny. A few pages later she accepts his Communion wine and him. “I’m sad,” he says. “We’ll often be sad.” In quotation the words sound like a parody of Böll’s lugubrious humorlessness, which can be a problem: but in their context they are solemn and moving. All the conversations are very slightly stylized in a solemn mode. The device works well, because the novel is a parable.
It begins on May 8, 1945, the day Germany capitulated. Hans returns to the ruins of Cologne. The glow of buildings burning in the distance lights up the otherwise unlit streets. He is looking for Elisabeth, the widow of a fellow sergeant called Willi Gompertz. A few days earlier, Hans was waiting to be shot as a deserter, and Willi inexplicably insisted on exchanging uniforms with him and facing the firing squad in his place. In the lining of Willi’s tunic is his will, instructing Elisabeth to give his considerable fortune to the poor and not a penny to their rich relations. They belong to the smugly devout Rhenish commercial patriciate, the Catholic counterpart to Thomas Mann’s Protestant merchants in Lübeck. Böll hated this milieu. The picture he paints of it in this and other novels (particularly in The Clown, with its drop-out hero) is neither detailed nor sympathetic, certainly no Buddenbrooks, but interesting all the same from the social tourist point of view, since it hasn’t figured much in German literature before. In the course of tracing Elisabeth, Hans comes upon Regina Unger, a young unmarried mother. He has no papers, no food, and nowhere to go. She shelters him in the dusty rubble-filled apartment she occupies in a ruined building, because she can’t bear to be alone: her baby has just died.
When Hans finds Elisabeth, she is in bed, ill. She dies horribly, vomiting gobbets of congealing blood over the smug imperturbable hospital specialist, and over the priest who has come for the last rites and furtively wipes off the viaticum on his sleeve. Böll dwells with nauseating brilliance on blood, sweat, vomit, and excrement, presumably to contrast man’s helpless abjection with the joy and nobility of which he is capable. The love scenes between Hans and Regina, on the other hand, are sexy but never fully frontal. After their first encounter, “he was startled to see in her face the signs of tender rapture.” The German word Verzückung is less common and therefore more intense than “rapture”—it would apply to the expression on the face of Bernini’s Saint Teresa as the angel pierces her breast with the sword of divine love. To Böll, divine and profane love were compatible and complementary. “There is no purely physical nor purely nonphysical love,” he wrote in his Letter to a Young Catholic. So he celebrates physical love assiduously; but never, it seems to me, with much euphoria. There is an element of mutual pity in his love scenes, of cuddling up together against misery and desolation, whether particular or cosmic. This makes for a certain pudeur. It also makes one feel that in spite of his profession in favor of physical pleasures, Böll is really a natural ascetic, revolted by the body and all its emanations. So it is not surprising that his most powerful passages tend to be about squalor.
There is more blood than semen in The Silent Angel. Blood, as Mephistopheles remarked to Goethe’s Faust, is a very special juice. Its symbolic possibilities are unlimited, especially for a didactic Christian novelist. The reader is made to stand not only by Elisabeth’s deathbed, but also by Regina’s hospital trolley when she decides to earn a little money by donating blood. The scene is almost equally hard to take, with its needles, tubes, spillages, nausea, vertigo, and yelps of pain. It is also rather far-fetched that Regina’s blood, just when she is mourning her child, should be pumped into the veins of a girl who has chosen to have an abortion. The girl happens to be the daughter of Elisabeth’s brother-in-law, a well-heeled academic who edits a Catholic journal, collects religious art, and eventually manages to purloin Willi’s last testament in order to prove it false and keep the money in the family instead of letting it go to the poor.
The symbolism of the plot is as nothing compared to the symbolism of the symbols. Take the angel of the title: there are actually two of them, one on the first page, the other on the last. The first occupies a niche outside the hospital where Elisabeth will die and Regina donate her blood. In the half-light Hans thinks it is an ancient stone statue that greets him with a sad, gentle smile: when he begins to wipe off the dust that coats it, he sees that it is made of plaster and painted in “the garish colors…of the piety industry”; its smile is dead. The second angel is made of real marble and belongs to the Gompertz family vault in the cemetery. It has fallen over, face downward. During Elisabeth’s funeral service, her father-in-law and her evil brother-in-law stand on its back to keep their feet dry, pressing its face and the stumps of its broken arms deeper into the mud.
The Silent Angel is of great interest to students of Böll. Not only does it contain most of the themes he was to develop later; he actually cannibalized it, publishing odd chapters in magazines and recycling passages for his later novels. It seems to me more appealing than any of them (though not than the earlier novella, The Train Was on Time). He is, quite simply, a marvelous writer of imaginative prose. His choice of detail and his accounts of every physical sensation are stunning in their watchful, imaginative precision, making one’s flesh creep with disgust or else with delicious pleasure. He also has an extraordinary gift for creating a sense of stillness, out of which transcendental intimations seem on the point of emerging. But the more he wrote, the more didactic he became, and consequently the more schematic about his plots and characters. (And the more sentimental: sentimentality is a common feature of devotional propaganda.) One never doubts his sincerity. On the contrary, sometimes he writes as though crushed by the burden of his moral responsibility.
The reader, on the other hand, might feel crushed by the heavy, ironical humor that Böll increasingly developed. In his helpful Understanding Heinrich Böll,2 Robert C. Conard says that this humor was based on a concept borrowed from the eighteenth-century German writer Jean Paul. The principle of Böll’s humor is “the humbling of that for which society has high regard and the exalting of that for which society has low regard.” “It seems to me,” Conard quotes from a lecture of Böll’s, “there is only one humane possibility for humor: to show that which society declares trash (Abfall) and treats disparagingly (abfällig) in all its grandeur.” One of the ways Böll does this—in Group Portrait With Lady, for instance, and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum—is to use narrators who have no inkling of the significance of the events they relate. By the time Böll came to write Group Portrait in 1971 he was dishing out his particular brand of humor in excessive doses. The Lady of the title is a goofy, ultra-sensual, but morally and mystically inspired holy fool, despised and abused by the bien pensants; she must be one of the most irritating heroines in fiction.
November 17, 1994
To be reissued in November with the title And Where Were You Adam? by Northwestern University Press, which is also republishing much of Böll’s other work including, this autumn, The Bread of Those Early Years, Missing Persons and Other Essays, and A Soldier’s Legacy. Penguin Books is also reissuing Billiards at Half-Past Nine and Group Portrait with Lady. ↩
University of South Carolina Press, 1992. ↩