What’s to Become of the Boy? by Heinrich Böll (trans. Leila Vennewitz). Melville House, 82 pp., $14.95.
The Collected Stories by Heinrich Böll (trans. Leila Vennewitz). Melville House, 976 pp., $29.95.
In his native Cologne and later the whole of Germany, Heinrich Böll was regarded as a figurehead of Trümmerliteratur, or “rubble literature.” He was one of a small coterie of writers who focused on the immediate aftermath of the war, employing as his characters former soldiers and POW’s, broken men who have to navigate their broken homeland and make sense of the detritus of possessions, scarred relationships, and dashed hopes. Böll set the tone for this form of fiction, using simple, straitened language that only observed the shattered lives and landscape, never judging or preaching. This was some feat seeing as Böll, though at odds with the Church, upheld the Catholic faith throughout his life. Unlike, say, Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, Böll ensured his characters, Church-tainted or otherwise, were averse to moralizing, and never aspired to be anything grander, socially, than of common-man stock. Such resolute earthiness coupled with his distinctive laconic style made him both an immensely popular writer, and a critically acclaimed one—the culmination of his work being recognition from the Nobel Committee in 1972.
Böll lived long and witnessed much: the austere ’30s, the War and its bleak fallout, plus Germany’s traumatic regeneration and eventual economic prosperity in the ensuing decades. Two new books from Melville House’s Essential Heinrich Böll series show Böll capturing it all, both in factual and fictional form. What’s to Become of the Boy? is his slender but insightful memoir of his formative years. The Collected Stories is a publishing coup, as it is the first time Böll’s 100 stories and three novellas have been collected in one volume.
The memoir chronicles Böll’s school years, but as they happened to be from 1933 to 1937 we are also given a valuable eyewitness account of the country’s political upheaval. Böll the writer is as personable and engaging as Böll the character and we delight in seeing him apportion equal status to the two dramas unfolding as contiguous events—namely, his adolescence and the steady rise of Nazism. The cheeky conflation of the two into one momentous hardship seems more the authorial work of a mischievous child, and it is a testament to Böll’s expertise as a writer that at times we feel as if we are reading the real-time report of Böll the Younger, not Böll the Elder. Certainly he digresses like an errant child with a limited attention span—or better, behaves like a truant pupil, for one running gag is the way he steadfastly chops and changes theme and refuses to regale us with school information. As if tired of dodging the topic, he eventually explains that he liked studying but not school, which was a place for reading and praising Mein Kampf, was for turning students into soldiers and loyal servants of the Fatherland (“school prepared us not for life but for death”), and had teachers whose lessons “led to Stalingrad and made Auschwitz possible.”
Böll wastes no time in nailing his own political colors to the mast, telling us early on that “We were, in a funny way, a Catholic family that happened to be against the Nazis”; but his wry humor and childlike insouciance is reined in every time he describes Hitler’s tightening stranglehold on the nation, which comes in the form of fresh waves of arbitrary roundups and executions. Böll’s memoir shines a fascinating light on the darkest of epochs. At the same time it is a master-class in compression and an exemplar of his talent for shifts in tone. One minute he is joking about the ludicrous pomp and artifice of this burgeoning Third Reich; the next he is soberly resigning himself to being, maybe even cowering, in their shadow for the long haul—“the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.”
At one juncture Böll admits he has started writing short stories “influenced by Dostoievski.” Sadly these must have remained unpublished, or dismissed as juvenilia, because none in this vein appears in The Collected Stories. No matter; this doorstop volume contains more than enough riches. Böll knew that the trick with the short story is to distil the drama into a moment. Some of his tales are mere one- or two-page sketches, over and done with after the briefest of surprises, revelations or enlightenments. Difficulties are seldom neatly resolved; tension is felt and made to linger. Unlike the memoir there are no deviations. With all these rules rigorously adhered to, Böll rightly became one of the best practitioners of the genre of the 20th century.
As befits a rubble writer, there are tales of love and life among the ruins. “Rise, My Love, Rise” features a character who, while visiting the grave of his dead loved one, senses a shadow growing behind him. Dusk deepens, and when he wanders back into town he feels he is “dragging the relentlessly drooping sail of the night behind.” It is up to the reader to deduce why he has “invoked” this shadow, but more interesting than character or action is surroundings: Böll’s man trudges like the walking wounded back to a city comprised of “enormous black ruins”; in addition, “the world seemed devoid of human life.” War has probably robbed this character of his lover and what better way to paint grief and loss than an obliterated landscape.
Other stories are backlit with similar destruction but we are occasionally offered a glimpse of hope. In “The Rain Gutter” a couple lie in bed listening to the wind howling outside. The woman tells her lover that the clattering noise they hear is that of a broken gutter, which clattered away in storms before the war, during the war, and now, after the war. The building had received blow after blow from Allied bombs, the woman saw so much rain come down, and yet “in those six years, so many deaths were died, cathedrals destroyed, but the gutter was still hanging there.” The woman and the gutter are survivors, the latter defying all odds to hang on in there; both are miraculous exceptions, the chosen few when weighed against the ravaged building and the many dead.
Böll was no on-the-job war-writer, but many of his stories are set during wartime, both on the battlefield and the home-front. Again the heroes are ordinary men, and the enemies are not fiendishly sadistic Nazis but lazy, venal, and ineffectual top brass. “A Soldier’s Legacy” talks of “pipsqueak lieutenants: totally ignorant, brainless, and not even competent in their military, let alone soldierly, craft,” all of them brainwashed by an “idiotic perversion of values” and an ideology whose “illusory conception had proven as void and insubstantial as a wizened toy balloon lying trampled on a fairground.” The humble soldiers in “The Ration Runners” have to carry a casualty, a “half-a-sapper” who is still “as heavy as the world . . . as if he had absorbed the sum of all the pain and all the burdens of the entire universe.” “Lugging the burden of the world” is Böll at his most trenchant; the explosion from a bomb reverberating “like peals of laughter” is blackly comic. The futility, injustice, and the unmanageable effort of war are encapsulated in what feels like little more than an anecdote.
But Böll could surprise the reader with war tales laced with longing and romance. “Drinking in Petöcki” is a poignant elegy to the loss of love in which a soldier gets slowly drunk in a bar while listening to the chatter at the counter “like a quiet humming at the edge of another world” and rueing the “crime” that there are no lovers around: “It would be a perfect spot for lovers, in this wonderful green-and-blue twilight.” “The Embrace” ushers in the return of love as a soldier on leave holds tight his sweetheart and ignores the clock that is “ticking him away,” instead eyeing his belt on the floor with the embossed words “GOTT MIT UNS.” It is more intimate but no less tragic, for in Böll’s eyes God forsook this country years ago. This fact is glimpsed in “The Unknown Soldier,” where the eponymous hero, caught under fire in Russia, appeals to his Maker to return so as to extinguish him: “Dear God, he prayed, let the next shell land right on top of me . . .” At the end Böll updates us with “God granted his wish.”
The later stories in this collection are set in the 1950s and beyond. We have moved on from the war years but find intact Böll’s stock-in-trade no-nonsense delivery emphasizing the unexceptional man with unremarkable status, keeping his head down but occasionally floundering in upturned, unrecognisable milieus. These tales of quotidian woes may lack the urgency of their predecessors (there is rarely stronger urgency in fiction than threat of war or immersion in it) but there is still much to admire—especially as it was now that Böll became chief proponent of the notion of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, an attempt to come to terms with the past, specifically the horrors of the Nazi epoch.
Consequently, bold concepts such as guilt, culpability, and atonement began to seep into his work. One famous story, “Murke’s Collected Silences,” is notable for its treatment of both skepticism and shame, as key characters—more precisely, war-survivors—question the existence of God and seek to rewrite Germany’s recent checkered history by erasing their role in it. The last stories included here, grouped under the title The Mad Dog, are not in fact the last ones Böll wrote but some of the first. Set in the 1930s and ’40s and assembled by Böll in 1947, the volume was published posthumously in 1995 because publishers feared the postwar reading public was too close to the horrors of their recent past to read a fictional account of it.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the lengthier works included here. The three novellas show Böll extending his range and fleshing out his characters. Each tale is a literary halfway house, not as multi-storeyed as his novels but roomier and airier than some of those very short stories which are at times too cramped. The standout is Enter and Exit, a tale in two halves. The first, “When the War Broke Out,” begins with a sunny depiction of Germany before its cataclysmic spiral into combat. When war is announced and the protagonist’s friend is one of the first killed in battle, the serenity that has hitherto infused the story is shattered, along with the character’s innocence. The second half, “When the War Was Over,” is infused with resignation and regret, not the resounding notes of jubilation found in writers on the winning side. Cologne, the narrator hears, is full of “rubble, ruins” and polluted with decomposing bodies. He courts controversy when declaring he would prefer to be a dead Jew than a live German. At his lowest ebb, he confesses he hates Nazis and non-Nazis, not because of what they stand for but because they were “men, men of the same species as those I had had to spend the last six years with.” Böll was never so bleak. His character is neither killed nor shell-shocked, but even worse off: he ends up hating both sides and, by extension, humankind. War destroys cities in Böll’s fiction, but at its most extreme it also corrupts or even annihilates those who participate in it.
The majority of Böll’s writing, be it memoir or fiction, is presented as pared down prose, lean but sturdy, subtle yet unsettling, always with the power to provoke and to devastate. Occasionally we have to wait for the stories to bite, but the payoff is rewarding every time. “Across the Bridge” opens with a line that is part-introduction, part-caveat: “The story I want to tell you has no particular point to it, and maybe it isn’t really a story at all, but I must tell you about it.” The drama Böll steadily unfolds is representative of that of the best of his stories—small, private terrors that afflict weary, beleaguered characters who have simply seen or felt too much. In “Rise, My Love, Rise” the bombed-out town his character walks through is comprised of “infinite suburban regions of despair,” but, reading on, we realize such suburbs are not only external, they also map Böll’s characters’ souls.
And so we are glad that they have this compulsion to tell us their stories, even if “it isn’t really a story at all.” We are equally glad that Melville House has added these two wonderful titles to its Essential Heinrich Böll series. It has taken them a year to bring all of Böll’s definitive works back into print but now the collection is complete, in eight volumes. Publishing success has always been dictated by a fickle reading public, and writers can all too easily slip out of favour and fashion and into obscurity, even Nobel winners. Melville House’s campaign has been a worthy one. We can only hope Heinrich Böll is back for good.
Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.
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