The earliest work in The Mad Dog, a collection of hitherto unpublished stories by Heinrich Böll, is “Youth on Fire.” It was written in 1937, when the author was nineteen years old, and is, as we say uneasily, interesting: “the most surprising story” here, according to Breon Mitchell’s zealous introduction, but not wholly surprising. A sensitive young man, disgusted by the world’s ugliness, is thinking of killing himself, when he is approached by a beautiful seventeen-year-old prostitute, who points to a crucifix round her neck and announces: “I come in the name of this sign.” Her mission, “under the mask of sin,” is to save young men on the brink of spiritual ruin. She sits “in mystical beauty, leaning forward slightly, with the suffering visage of an apocalyptic angel,” while in a rush of shame the young man covers his face with his hands.
The two fall in love and vow “to leave this squalor and begin a Christian life of poverty.” Other intense, idealistic young people join them, including a famous woman pianist. A lot of coffee is drunk, a lot of cigarettes are smoked, long speeches are made. The story, we take it, ends happily, hopefully. The atmosphere might be characterized as modified Dostoevskyan, strongly suffused with adolescent romanticism. Indeed there is a weird passing reference to a literary critic who once stated that Dostoevsky’s greatness lay in his being a truly gifted disciple of Goethe: as a result somebody fired three shots at the critic’s “laurel-laden head.” The contrast between the godliness of the young people and the godlessness of the times is radical; the godlessness we can believe in (it is always with us), and even the melodramatic touches (“The cold winter rain that murders the poor was still falling”), but not quite the godliness, with its air of a pious lithograph incongruously hung in a haunt of intellectual dropouts. The story demonstrates how deeply Böll’s youthful brand of Catholicism ran in its mixture of devoutness and revolt.
The escapee from an unspecified prison camp in “The Fugitive” takes refuge, filthy and exhausted, in the house of a priest, who somewhat grudgingly gives him food and fresh clothing, and in return receives a lecture: “You soak in your certainties like a man in a bathtub of lukewarm water, indecisive, hardly daring to get out and dry off. But you forget that the water is turning cold according to inexorable laws, as cold as reality.” As he leaves, he tells the priest, “You wanted to know my crime…. There it is,” and he takes a “slim brochure” from the bookshelves. (What? A New Testament?) The priest makes the sign of the cross over him; he makes the sign of the cross over the priest. Outside, he senses God’s promise, “wherever any person suffers for the sake of the cross,” and “prayers formed in him like pure, steady flames rising from the garden of faith, hope, and love, innocent and beautiful as flowers.” There is no happy ending here. He is shot down by his pursuers.
“The Tale of Berkova Bridge” comes as a relief: the straight-faced history, told by the engineer in charge, of a bridge, blown up several years before by retreating Russian troops, which is rebuilt for the use of retreating German troops. The moment it is finished—exactly on schedule, the engineer proudly records—it is blown up again, in the face of the retreating Germans, since the advancing Russians are close on their heels: the kind of ironic sidelight on the idiocies of war that appealed to Böll. But in “Trapped in Paris” we are back with a fugitive, a German soldier on the run from the war as American and German troops clash in the streets. He takes shelter in the apartment of a slim, dark-haired young woman. She loves her husband, somewhere at the front, more than her life. He hopes to get home to the wife he loves. “Who can trust a German?” she asks: if her husband doesn’t return, she will feel that she was his murderer. But she fits the soldier out with her husband’s clothes. We are given to understand that, while waiting for night to fall, they make love. As he leaves the house she presses some banknotes into his hand and kisses him chastely on the forehead: “Don’t be sad. The three who love us: God, your wife, and my husband, may well forgive us.”
The story is a strange mixture of realism—the tanks, the gunfire, the corpses, the door-to-door searches—and emotions which (in T.S. Eliot’s formula) lack “objective correlatives”; they seem disembodied, out of proportion to what we have been told, and hence inexplicable. Similarly, in the grim novella of 1949, “The Train Was on Time,” irrational feelings surge through the Polish prostitute, Olina; after thinking that her client, a German soldier, is mad, she suddenly decides: “He is the first and only one I’ve loved…. To me, to me, he belongs to me…he is my brother.” Implausible and overwrought; and it doesn’t seem sufficient to protest that strange things happen in wartime.
The title story of the new collection concerns a man responsible for over twenty murders, and now murdered in turn, of whom it is reported that he was exceptionally intelligent, at war with society, rejected by his closest friend, a priest (“a paid official of the state”), and that “he might still be alive, might have been a more humane person, had he found a woman to love, or succumbed only to those vices of all weak men—alcohol and tobacco.”
Böll hates the sin, and does his best to love the sinner. Wherever he can find something to admire, some instance of loving kindness or simple charity, however momentary and uncertain, he seizes on it: a tiny hope for the future. Generally speaking, it is as if the black horrors so amply described in Böll’s writings, particularly those about the war and its aftermath, horrors from which he couldn’t avert his eyes, were only to be countered by what looks like sentimentality, that sad triumph of longing over reason. The soldier of “Trapped in Paris” reflects on the elegance of the city and “the cool, gentle evening air, with its delicate summery smells,” seconds after shells have been bursting all around. Böll was a liberal, a humanist, not to say a romantic, and a dreadfully harassed one, at times keeping himself just this side of despair by the sheer force of will. A flawed artist he may be, but he is a representative, an exemplary figure of our age, or a significant part of it.
By and large there are three categories of characters in Böll’s fictions: the misused or unlucky near-saint; the rascal, good at heart, given to venial if not commendable misdemeanors; and the unvarnished villain, more commonly a bully or hypocrite, greedy, gross, corrupt, than a monster of evil. The heroine of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974) belongs to the first category: she is a woman of honesty and integrity, “unusually nice, smart, virtually blameless,” who happens to meet a young man, falls in love, helps him to evade the police, and provides the gutter press with a field day. It’s true, she shoots a muckraking reporter, but he had propositioned her crudely: “How about us having a bang for a start?” and bang went her gun. Unfortunately the killing of a journalist is considered a particularly heinous act, “wellnigh ceremonial, one might almost say a ritual murder.” As for her sweetheart, Ludwig’s crime is to have deserted from the army, taking the regimental pay with him. Clearly he comes into the second of the categories listed above.
The villain of the piece is the malicious and prurient cast of mind that pervades the newspapers, the clergy, the agents of law and order, and sections of the public. It blinds them to the simple truth of the case:that Katharina fell in love with Ludwig at first sight and he with her. There was never a criminal conspiracy; despite the headlines Ludwig is no more a gangster than she is a gangster’s moll. The two will have to serve a prison sentence—Böll couldn’t get around that—but they’ll still be quite young when they come out, still in love, and they have plans for an upright and useful future. It is easy—a shade too easy?—to take the right side. With so much plain odiousness in evidence, we can hardly not favor Katharina and smile tolerantly on Ludwig. A touch of humor, or of cynicism (or realism), helps: Katharina knows about catering, and the idea is to transfer her to the prison commissary, a prospect which alarms those working there: they have heard of her reputation for probity.
The pattern is repeated, with differing emphases and in varying settings, throughout Böll’s novels. Karl von Kreyl, in Women in a River Landscape (published in 1985, the year of the author’s death), is no paragon but at least not unadmirable, being in disgrace in men’s eyes and thought to engage in chopping up the grand pianos of Beethoven-loving bankers. (Good taste is often a sign of bad character.) He steals, too, but only the hood ornaments from Mercedes cars; these emblems, guaranteed stolen from highly placed personages, are bought from him by the secret service and used to keep happy a fetishistic Soviet informer who for once isn’t interested in money, women, or little boys. Böll must have found pleasure in the idea of his social outcasts indirectly doing the state some service. The bungling terrorists of The Safety Net (1979), with its less tendentious plot involving a gentle, melancholy capitalist, inadvertently help industry and big business as they go round burning cars in their Anti-Auto Action.
Such small quirks and ironies serve to reduce what, for want of a better word, I have called sentimentality, a sense of the author’s thumb weighing down the scales. A more portentous strategy governs Group Portrait with Lady (1971), which employs a tongue-in-cheek bureaucratic and documentary procedure, studiously unemotional, to build up a portrait “in depth” of Leni Pfeiffer. “A woman of forty-eight, German,…five foot six inches tall, weighs 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e., only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight”; “There follow two and a half tranquil years in which Leni reaches nineteen, twenty, and finally twenty-one”; and so forth. The irksome sociologese and spoof psychologizing are mercifully alleviated by a rich canvas of multifarious and unregenerate humanity.
Apropos of Leni, it might be ventured that Böll’s women are the most appealing of his creations, lively, intelligent, steadfast, forthright, prompt to grasp the essentials, free from the special pleading and occasional self-pity the men are prone to. Whether women—whether everybody—will agree with this opinion I begin to wonder, though. A “morally and mystically inspired holy fool” is how Gabriele Annan sees Leni Pfeiffer, reckoning that “she must be one of the most irritating heroines in fiction.”* Perhaps I, too, am something of a sentimentalist.
Near-saints they may be, yet there is no hint of self-righteousness about these characters, or in Böll himself. In What’s to Become of the Boy? (1981), a memoir of his boyhood, he tells of how, to keep his father’s business afloat, the family needed to have one of its members in a Nazi organization. His elder brother, Alois, was elected and joined the Storm Troopers. Heinrich would bribe the platoon leader, “whom I remember as being depraved but not unfriendly,” with packs of R6 cigarettes to enter his permanently absent brother as present on parades and route marches. “Among our flippant variations of the Rosary decades we included the words: ‘Thou who hast joined the Storm Troopers for our sakes.’ And the ‘Full is Her right hand of gifts’ was changed to: ‘Full is thy right hand of R6’s.”‘ Cigarettes feature prominently throughout Böll, exchanged among hard-pressed soldiers and between harried lovers, tokens of fellowship in company and of so-lace in isolation. In those days there were more immediate threats to health; whole armies marched on their smoke-filled lungs. A short sketch in the new collection, set in the time of postwar dearth, is devoted to fresh bread and tobacco; a painter tells a writer who has just traded his pen for them, “The best thing about America, the very best thing of all, are the cigarettes.”
“Holy fool” isn’t a bad name for Hans Schnier of The Clown (1963). Perhaps the most enduring and archetypal of Böll’s “victims,” one of those whom the worldly write off as themselves their own worst enemies, he loses his sweetheart to Catholicism (those pernicious -isms!) and his livelihood to unprofessional scruples. He is a gifted mime, and could do very well for himself in both the Germanies by performing his “Board Meeting” turn in Leipzig and his “Party Conference Elects its Presidium” in Bonn. Alas, he is determined to do the former in Bonn and the latter in Leipzig, on the grounds that poking fun at institutions that don’t exist where the fun is being poked is pointless and really rather low.
Schnier is such a softie, and so remiss toward his chosen art, that he abandons a promising number, “The General,” when he meets a little old lady, the widow of a general killed in action. It must be admitted, even the best-disposed reader will be tempted to give him a good kick now and again. He is kin to the character Schrella in the earlier novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959), who escapes from Nazi Germany to Holland and then England, and gets into trouble in both countries by uttering threats against politicians who contend that all Germans should be killed and only their works of art preserved. Like Schnier, Schrella is unable to trim his sails to the prevailing wind. Schnier doesn’t have the guts to make a successful satirist, and it’s no surprise that he ends up singing for his supper outside Bonn Railway Station. What he does have is a conscience and an inconvenient affection for particular individuals. In this Schnier is an exemplary figure, the born loser, and an eloquent one.
Representative in a lighter way is the protagonist of the splendid, wry story, “Murke’s Collected Silences,” a young editor in broadcasting, sickened by the pretentious rubbish he deals with. The celebrated thinker, Bur-Malottke, has developed doubts about “God” and insists that the word, occurring some thirty times in his recently recorded talks on “The Nature of Art,” should be amended to “that higher Being Whom we revere.” Murke is to do the splicing—“one might just as well commit suicide as contradict Bur-Malottke”—and at least contrives to make the great man sweat by obliging him to enunciate the new formula in all its grammatical cases including the vocative, time and time again, to “get it right.” Hans Schnier observed of a sermon preached by an “artistic” prelate that he “would rather read Rilke, Hofmannsthal, and Newman one by one than have someone mix me a kind of syrup out of all three,” but Bur-Malottke is the most sublimely awful of Böll’s self-important phonies. For the sake of posterity, not to mention his posthumous reputation, he then demands that similar changes be made to the tapes of all the programs he has recorded since 1945: a hundred and twenty hours of Bur-Malottke.
Sensitive though he is, Murke isn’t going to emulate the young man of “Youth on Fire” by giving up his squalid job and embarking on a life of Christian poverty. He has snipped out the rare moments on tape when speakers have paused to take breath—“People aren’t silent very often”—and joined them together. At home in the evenings, lying on his chesterfield and smoking, he plays the silences back, thus keeping himself sane and even cheerful.
So what did become of the “Boy” of Böll’s memoir? By a further irony, and one that in his public persona Böll could hardly dodge, he became a Nobel Prize winner, the president of International PEN, a spokesman for intellectual freedom and other good causes, a father figure, seat of moral authority, keeper of the nation’s conscience. Not entirely the sort of eminence the lone-wolf heroes and heroines of his fictions would have trusted, for how could anyone accept so many honors without losing honor to some degree? The role of national conscience was one he shared with the more secular and far more exuberant Günter Grass, the two luminaries making a team comparable to the uneasy partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge, if in some manifestations closer to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In view of Böll’s native modesty, the impression one receives from his writings, the burden of responsibility must have weighed heavily. Part of him may have yearned for a collection of silences.
November 20, 1997