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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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About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50.  Then I started this blog and got distracted.  The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60).  If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop,  then this won’t be any hardship.

imageParnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.

Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he  neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.

One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels.  He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew.  But Andrew is not at home.  Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.

An avid reader herself, she believes that

When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life.  She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York.  Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other.  Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom.  It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.

This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger,  a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells.  Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions.  Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!

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This is fantastic!

Melville House Press are sponsoring our latest “Wednesdays are wunderbar” giveaway with a couple more to follow later in the month. Now they’re pairing their books with beers …

So what should you drink when reading Heinrich Böll?

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From the dust jacket:

Lore Segal’s tour de force look at the New York Literary scene was a hit with it was first released in the 1970’s, winning the praise of the literary elite.  …. It has been a cult classic ever since.

What associations do I start to make?  1970’s cult classic – they’re always a bit weird, aren’t they?  I’m thinking flared trousers and psychedelic flights of fancy.  And I wouldn’t be wrong because in places this book is quite bonkers and when it’s operating on that level, I’m not trying to understand it.  Just thanking my lucky stars that I’m not married to a mediocre poet and having an affair with the superman that is my best friend Hera’s husband Zeus!

In other places, however, I’m enjoying myself immensely; accompanying Lucinella on her journey with a bunch of literati on the round of parties, writer’s seminars and other literary events; gleefully soaking up the multitude of petty jealousies that exist among them;  puzzling about Lucinella’s love life that sees her stumbling into a marriage with a man whose worship of her is not reciprocated due to the irritation of scrumpled wet towels. (Bathroom wars!  Not just confined to the 1970’s ….)

This is such a heady satire.  Affectionate in places but with such vicious, laugh out loud (shame on me) barbs in others.  Filled with writerly angst.

Yesterday, he says, he changed a comma to a period-capital-A and copied the whole poem over and saw it should have been a comma and changed it back, and copied it over, and changed it back to a period. All day, for a week, for months, he has been changing this same comma and can’t go on until he gets it right.

Lucinella herself an aspiring poet, but her writer’s block caused by an obsession to get her filing system in order.

Tuesday I file Art.  The soap operas I write evenings go in a pink folder.  Mornings I write poetry, which I subdivide into the poem, that won a prize, which goes into a blue folder tied with a ribbon; abandoned ideas I put in a black one, and those on which I am at work in green, isn’t it, for hope?

It appears there are so many pitfalls to the literary life.  This novella portrays three contemporaneous Lucinellas. The young aspiring Lucinella, a hanger-on, ill-read but ambitious; the old Lucinella, never quite made it as a poet and not always in full possession of her faculties; and the narrator, not sure if she’s middle-aged or not but still obsessive and not quite up to the standard of her peers. This Lucinella’s major preoccupation is how to make her images dovetail.  Which they do eventually but only when she’s lying on a therapist’s couch!

I suspect there are many writer’s obsessions documented in these pages.  Not least that of appearing in the work of a friend.  The source of many a ruined friendship

Are you coming? she asks me.

“Not with you, I’m not,” I say.

“Why?” cries Ulla.  “What did I do?” 

“You put me in your novel,” I say.

“Did I say something unkind or untrue?” she says.  “You come off perfectly interesting and nice!”

“I know,” I say, and hang up on her.  How could Ulla make me into a minor character with walk-on in Chapter VIII and one eleven-line speech at the very end, when it’s obvious the protagonist is me.

 All of which makes me wonder how Segal’s satire won and continues to win the praise of the literary elite. Her fictional characters are so encompassing that everyone – publishers, writers, critics – are  implicated.  Fortunately they respond with more generosity than her fictional folk and that means that the literary world can’t really be this bitchy …. or can it?

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