Good Germans: On Heinrich Böll

By Michael WoodAugust 3, 2011

Good Germans: On Heinrich Böll

Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Böll
The Safety Net by Heinrich Böll
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Group Portrait with Lady by Heinrich Böll
The Train Was On Time by Heinrich Böll

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 “not reconciled,” in a phrase Böll repeats, and that gave its name to the remarkable 1965 movie Jean-Marie Straub made from this novel. The son says, “I’m not reconciled either to myself or to the spirit of reconciliation … I am not reconciled to a world in which a gesture or a word misunderstood can cost a life.” The father says, “I can’t celebrate my reconciliation to a building, even if I did build it myself.” In the same tone the mother of the first of these men and the wife of the second, now institutionalized and thought to be mad, cries out in one of Böll’s finest lines, “Would you want to take my political unreason away from me?” It is in such unreason that one could begin to understand why good deeds might almost be more terrible than bad ones, although the “almost” is important, a way of signaling the peculiarity of secular resurrection, the presence of the ghastly old guard in correct new guard’s clothing.



“All of Böll’s novels are about the war,” William Vollman says in his afterword to The Train Was On Time (1949). This is almost literally the case, yet “the war” includes not only World War Two but (especially) what led up to it in Germany and its consequences in the same country. In an epigraph to his first book of stories, published in the same year as The Train Was On Time, Böll quotes the philosopher Theodor Haecker, a great figure of Christian resistance to Nazism: “An international catastrophe can serve many purposes. Including making excuses to God. ‘Where were you, Adam?’ ‘I was in the World War.’”

As we have seen, there is nothing conventionally religious about Böll — there is very little that is conventional at all — but there is something biblical about his attacks on church and state. The Clown (1963) bears an epigraph from the Epistle to the Romans: “To whom he has not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand.” Only those that seem to have no chance shall have a chance, it seems. But in Böll’s reading the strongest emphasis falls the other way, pointing at those who had every chance and grotesquely misused it. God is Böll’s name for the truth we long to hide from, as Adam hides in the garden after having eaten the fruit. The war, finally, is just the largest of many such excuses for evasion, and one of our chief problems is that we believe in our own excuses.

What happens in these novels, and why am I calling them experimental? In The Train Was On Time — the title itself being a mocking allusion to one of German and Italian fascism’s most ludicrously touted achievements — a young soldier headed for the Eastern front has a precise premonition of his death, the exact where and when. He may be right — the novel ends with him as sole survivor of an attack on a car he is in, not in a battle, but we don’t know how long he will live or how his story continues — but the point is his conviction rather than the plot. The whole novel, in other words, for all its meticulous realism about trains and stations and food, is a long offbeat meditation, a stream of uncertain consciousness, the portrait of a mind honorably in trouble within a situation of historical disgrace. Billiards at Half Past Nine is a brilliant portrayal of one day in the life of a whole family: the architects and madwoman we have seen, their children and friends and old foes. The time is 1958, but the day is full of memories, a whole local history, and the remarkable fact about this novel, as indeed about most of Böll’s work, is that while the villains are true villains, as monstrous and smiling as one could (not) wish, his more sympathetic characters are often far from admirable: ironic, aloof, unkind. But they are human. They have not sold their souls, and, whether atheists or believers, they are not hiding from God.

We find just such characters in The Clown, Group Portrait with Lady, and The Safety Net, although this last work opens up new territory for Böll. The Clown is the melancholy monologue of a comedian whose girl has left him, and who has started to drink and perform badly as a consequence. A whole German world passes in review before his disaffected, angry eyes. He has a memorable line, not unlike that of the mother in Billiards at Half Past Nine. “I am a clown,” he says, “and I collect moments.” He used to collect them for his act, for his numbers. Now he just collects them. In an obscure way, he understands that someone has to, and that almost no one else will. “Moments” here are contrasted with a more coherent, conventional history, the kind constructed by those who do not have the gifts or the trade of a clown — or a novelist.

Group Portrait with Lady is written in the mode of a formal, dogged, ultimately absurdist report — Beckett’s name comes up repeatedly in Böll’s novels — and describes a whole collection of what in another culture would be called drop-outs, apparent failures who are resolutely human in a world largely made up of humans become beasts. The tone here is remarkable, estranging, awkward, comic:


“The female protagonist in the first section is a woman of forty-eight, German: she is five feet six inches tall, weighs 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e. only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight … It would be better after all to convert the police officer’s report into indirect speech rather than quote it verbatim. This results, of course, in a considerable shift in style, and many a nice little detail goes out the window.”


Borrowing a mode of indirection from Thomas Mann, but taking it into new zones of dryness and apparent inadequacy, this voice says almost everything it has to say by pretending to lose the essential and announcing the loss.

Billiards at Half Past Nine is probably the most powerful of Böll’s novels, but the much later Safety Net has a haunting interest of its own because of the way the author “worries away” at his characters, as Rushdie says, and because it is really not about “the war” even in an extended sense. Of course various historical monsters show up, and it’s a fine sly touch for a man to have a literal corpse in a vault — that of the woman he killed to get at a pile of money — as his figurative skeleton in a closet. But the central scene is the estate of a newspaper magnate in an age of terror and security, those mutually reinforcing realities that keep turning into phantoms of themselves. “They’re forever conjuring up the Red peril,” the magnate’s wife says of her fellows among the rich. “They see the revolution at the door.” They’re wrong about the revolution, but something is indeed at the door, since young members of the magnate’s own family are terrorists in the Baader-Meinhof style. They are not going to penetrate the elaborate security systems that have been set up, but they have in part caused those systems to come into being. And security on the scale imagined in this novel means effective imprisonment in your luxury home, phone taps, guards everywhere, no trips without escorts, the abolition of privacy, a world in which “everything, every courteous gesture, was transformed into both surveillance and threat.”

And yet, as Böll reminds us in a characteristic swerve, although security in one sense is everywhere, in another sense it has died. “They should have realized that there was no such thing as security, either internal or external; he knew that all these measures had to be yet would prevent nothing.” This is the magnate speaking of himself and his wife, and of course he hasn’t quite got the whole picture. It’s part of Böll’s quietness that he leaves us to put that together for ourselves. We know that security does prevent all kinds of things, including sometimes what it is meant to prevent. But it also creates what it seeks to protect us from, and — the magnate’s grand claim is true in this respect — there is no such thing as certain or terminal security.


LARB Contributor

Michael Wood teaches at Princeton; he is the author, most recently, of Yeats and Violence. His other books include Literature and the Taste of Knowledge, The Road to Delphi, Children of Silence, and America in the Movies



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