HEINRICH BÖLL IS NOT AN UNKNOWN WRITER. He won the Nobel Prize in 1972, a major German foundation perpetuates his name, his cottage in Ireland is a retreat for artists. But he is often critically underrated, regarded as a little too pale, too conventionally decent in comparison to his wilder German contemporaries Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson. The Nobel citation went out of its way to say his work was not experimental, and even Salman Rushdie, in an intelligent and sympathetic introduction to The Safety Net (1979), writes of a “too programmatic” quality in the plotting.
None of this is exactly untrue. But this very welcome reissue of these five novels (and other works) allows us to see that it’s not enough. It’s a good moment, too, for thinking about Böll — although the publishers themselves do not explicitly suggest this, “Germany” is no longer simply, as it was for so long, a country with a recent hideous past and no future that wasn’t swallowed up by larger stories of Europe and Russia. Böll is an experimental writer, and his experiments are nonetheless brave because they are quiet. In fact, a certain quietness, a sort of lethal discretion, is his mark. Of the leading figure of Group Portrait with Lady (1971), we are told from the start that “her religious education must have failed or be deemed to have failed, probably to Leni’s advantage.” The switch of perspective could hardly be swifter or subtler: failure becomes success within the space of four words, and both religion and education turn into questionable terms. In the same novel, “certain blemishes” appear on some photographs of young men, but only as regards their clothing, which allows a glimpse of a German army uniform, along with the eagle and the swastika. Leni herself, as a child, is said to look “nice … even in the uniform of a Nazi girls’ organization.” We might think we are hearing the voice of the good German here, a person who knows what a historical blemish is, and when the word “even” is needed. But Böll’s angle is sharper, his impersonation of his compatriots stealthier. He is mimicking all those postwar “good Germans” who now know what a blemish Nazism was, and how it was not nice, but still haven’t learned anything from the change of regime.
In Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959), a returning exile remarks to an ex-Nazi, “Your good deeds … are almost more terrible than your bad ones.” He is referring to the protection the man offered to the exile’s sister, one person he saved — for a little while. In the same novel, an architect blows up an abbey his father had built not because he hates his father or the abbey but because destruction is the only language he knows: “He had wanted to erect a monument of dust and rubble for those who had not been historical monuments and whom no one had thought to spare.” But this formulation is too simple and too clear, too “programmatic” for the character himself, who reflects, “Even if he had said why, it wouldn’t have been why any more.” Still, his father anticipates and understands his logic: “Down with the honor of our fathers and grandfathers and our great-grandfathers.” These men are...