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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.

_________________

December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

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Translated from German by Breon Mitchell

If Heinrich Böll had been living now, would he have chosen to self-publish The Silent Angel?  His first novel was never published in his lifetime, ostensibily because the subject of surviving in the  ruins of a carpet-bombed German city was too raw for the German public to digest. I suspect, however, that the publishers (and Böll himself) also knew that as a novel it didn’t pass muster. Finished in 1951, the novel was published posthumously in 1992.  While it may belong on the shelf of a Böll completist, it’s not a book I can recommend.

Not that The Silent Angel is entirely without merit.  The realistic descriptions of an unnamed post-WWII bombed-out German city are full of poetic power and motifs.

Most of the streets were impassable.  Debris and rubble piled up to the first floors of the burned-out facades, and thick, heavy fumes of smoke were still rising from some of the row houses.

What once had been a ten-minute walk from the ring road to the Rubenstrasse now took him almost an hour.  Stovepipes thrust up between ruined walls, wisps of smoke drifted away ….

And always the angels remain silent, observers only of man’s inhumanity to man.  Time and time again the remains of an angelic statue is found broken, crushed and half-buried amidst the debris of the city.  Only once in the expression of one of these statues is there any suggestion that their heavenly counterparts are pained by recent events on earth.

The people, be they ex-servicemen or civilians, are exhausted by their losses. Their city is reduced to rubble.   Their families are dead.  Their faith too, symbolised by those stone angels, is buried in the dust.  Man cannot live by bread alone said Christ.  In this scenario, sometimes they don’t even have that.   It’s a good day – no, it is an excellent day – when they have a slice of bread to eat.

The promise of Boell as a writer and his ambitions for the novel in the various plot strands and the themes of human compassion vs post-war corruption are evident.  Unfortunately these are not bound together to form a cohesive narrative whole.  Particularly lacking I thought was the depth required to explain some of the human relationships.  I never bought into the central love story.  Or even the convolutions surrounding the executed soldier. Why would he sacrifice himself for the deserter, Hans, at the same time ensuring that his dying wife would receive his will and the vast riches that came with it?  Why did he choose not to return to take up his own inheritance and defy his hated father himself?

This was a frustrating bitty read for me.  Brilliant vignettes brought low by meagre psychological explanation.  Much of The Silent Angel was reworked in a later novel, And Never Said A Word.   I shall now look that out as I’m curious to see how the 1972 nobel laureate improved this material when writing at the height of his powers..

I read The Silent Angel for the German Literature Month readalong hosted by Caroline of Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat.  Now let’s see what other readalongers thought …..

Caroline  Christina  Rise  Tony

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I had such problems connecting with my chosen titles last week that it was time to revisit a favourite from times past. It’s well on 30 years since I studied Heinrich Böll in detail. I remember only that I enjoyed everything he wrote, even if I was studying him to death for my C20th German Literature final.  What to read?  Something short – I didn’t want to get embroiled in something long and complicated in the week before my holiday.

Thus did the 140 pages of Böll’s 1974 novelle The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum find its way to the summit of Mount TBR. 

In 1972 Böll criticised the tendency of the German gutter press to publish as fact many assumptions that could not be proven.  The particular examples he gave related to the alleged actions of the Red Army Faction.  Furore ensued.  Boell was branded a terrorist sympathiser and subjected to many an invasion of privacy, including a house search. 

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is his answer to the treatment he received, treatment which did no service to his health. The novella is, in effect, a personal diatribe;  a rant, if you will.  Except it is anything but.  The front cover blurb, courtesy of the Sunday Times, proclaims it “a marvel of compression and irony”.  Just so.  Boell’s anger controlled but his pen dripping with venom as he subjects his heroine Katharina Blum to the worst excesses of the gutter press.

Katharina, a young 27-year-old lonely divorcee, lets her hair down at a party and goes home with a man she has only just met.  The next morning, her home is stormed by the police, for her new lover is a suspected murderer.  Only they don’t find him.  Katharina must be in cahoots with him because the police have had the block of flats under surveillance all night.  The press get a whiff of the scandal and just 4 days later Katharina turns herself in for shooting the unscrupulous journalist who has destroyed her life.

No spoiler that – we are told as much in the first 5 pages.  For this is no thriller – the narrative voice is very detached – a reportage, an example of truly impartial reporting.  Yet there is no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie.  The centre of interest, however, not in what Katharina does but how she is driven to extreme action in such a short period of time.  Fascinating, too, how her acquaintances and her employers are tarred with the same unjust brush.  One example:  her red-haired employer was nicknamed “Trude The Red” during her university days.  Well, what a gift for the right-wing press and it’s a gift they unwrap with relish!

Böll once said: „Die Gewalt von Worten kann manchmal schlimmer sein als die von Ohrfeigen und Pistolen.“  Freely translated – Words can be more destructive than punches and pistols.  Katharina Blum’s experience is a case in point.

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