Tag Archives: Heinrich Böll

Waking Inclination

DSCI0016The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll is a black and white dream. A clinging monochromatic oneiric post-war chill that is-  there is one word, and I hesitate to use it to describe this book because of its criminal overuse to describe thousands of books, but this should be among the first- one of the base line books worthy of the word- haunting.

The large, bold-faced R inside the red rectangle produced a fear in her that was gradually turning to nausea (24)

The nightmare begins with a certified postcard calling Hans up to duty. The mother’s reaction to that small white card with a blood red stamp on it, a bureaucratic horror marking the very end point of innocence, is skillfully rendered by Böll. It’s that sense of knowing: she can’t look at it, can’t even hold it in her hand, she knows that she doesn’t want to know, and yet, she knows that it’s too late because she already knows.

Böll skips the details of the war itself. After all what difference does it make? The same familiar blackened bits of humanity in varying degrees of guilt and innocence are all that’s left and are always the same.

He was sick of the whole thing, she’d know why – and she did know why. (22)

There is an unsubtle use of symbolism throughout the story:  the buying and selling of identities, blood, stone muted angels, the cold, decay, money: the smell of which he describes thusly, “– but it occurred to him that it was the smell of blood, the extremely diluted and refined smell of blood…” (115) And yet, more often, the overall effect is one of subtlety. The psychological divide between before and after is handled delicately by Böll. The conformity and hypocrisy of our lives is a malaise of immeasurable weight but, once held against the scale of truth rendered by abject destruction, the heft is revealed as pathetically flimsy.

He was tired; boredom and despair seemed to blend more intimately, a sluggish stream without end, whose bitterness was not sufficient to give it savor…” (112)

But it is the radical simplicity of love that is, I think, Böll’s meaning. All the societal niceties (and cruelties), all of the “accepted norms” that cause us to cower and hide ourselves away from what we feel and what we desire, once those instituted shackles fall away by the ravages of war, what are we left with? Love or hate? Happiness or fear? What’s left to savor?

Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me throughout my life, he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years, at least once a day. He was burdened with the thousands of meals he must somehow provide, a hopeless chain of necessity that filled him with fear. (123)

Hans understands in hindsight that his first marriage was born of expectation, fear, and polite reticence. There is a connection within a loveless marriage to the dread with which one is reduced to “eating to live,” rather than living in a world or society where life’s pleasures are ours to seize, ours to want.  When he meets Regina he has already been given his life back from a man’s sacrifice, Willy Gompertz, who provides the subplot (or counter-plot) of lives lived in fear and hate and who saw in Hans a man whom “want[s] to live.” Hans only needs to catch up to that insight. Böll beautifully shows Hans’ mental process of making the decision to feel:

He had accepted life, it was concentrated for him here; a brief span of infinity, filled with pain and happiness…” (131)

He makes an intellectual decision to connect to his heart and let himself experience the pain and happiness of desire, yes for a woman, but more, for it seems to me that the very birth of our empathic humanity is – to want to want.

He entered suddenly without knocking, went straight up to her, and kissed her on the mouth. He felt her soft, slightly moistened lips and saw that her eyes were open. (133)

*This was Böll’s first book written in 1950, but not published until 1992 in Germany, titled Der Engel schweig. Post-war Germany was not quite ready for the story, but Böll went on to write many books and win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This edition was translated by Breon Mitchell.

Other books by Heinrich Boll:

18 Stories: Process of Elimination
What’s to Become of the Boy? : The Howling Void
Billiards at Half-Past Nine: Abscissa and Ordinate

Abscissa and Ordinate

To make it plain and simple, you can kiss my arse a hundred and twenty-seven times. – Heinrich Böll, Billiards At Half-Past Nine

Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards At Half-Past Nine is a portrait of the horrors of mankind at its worst, and best. The rhythm of Böll’s prose expresses the full trauma of surviving the incomprehensible. Within three generations that hover around and in the aftermath of Germany’s two wars, the reflections of muted rage, and defeated hope by the men that are left are heart wrenching. The story is a tightly wound ball that tangles and crimps under the duress of the telling.

‘He’s harmless.’ ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but you’ll see what harmless people are capable of.’

whywhywhy, is the sad refrain of one woman reduced to a mere lament. What’s the use? We live in a world, as the book tells us again and again, where you can be killed for raising your arm. And we still live in that world- we are simply, many of us, lucky enough to not live in that town or that country for the time being.

‘Haven’t you been around long enough to know that only a new religion can cure their boredom? And the more stupid it is, the better, Oh, go away, you’re too stupid.”

But from whence does this stupidity stem? What are we to think of one family that produces four children, two that die in their sweet youth, one that tries to avenge all of the sins committed against the lambs of the world, and another that turns his own family in? Whywhywhy?

Böll does not know the answer, but he does know that life…goes on. We carry on. The persistence of blind devotion, or blind disaffection is a present and very scary danger. I may have no real idea of the exact coordinates of the horror of humankind, but I certainly know the chill: of the unkind, of people who say they care but do not, of individual and mob cruelty, of the unloved – I know it well.

That human beings, such as Böll, are capable of such moving literature of the kind that seek to find the axis of these feelings and so clearly express the hollowness  in the pit of our hearts that the horror produces, makes me at once proud but also ashamed, because – we never learn.

I’m afraid of houses you move into, then let yourself be convinced of the banal fact that life goes on and that you get used to anything in time.

The Howling Void

“Aside from school, Nazis, economic crises, there were other problems; for example, the ageless one of…amore.”
What’s to Become of the Boy? A Memoir – Heinrich Böll

A fellow blogger was kind enough to comment on my appreciation of Heinrich Böll, which reminded me that I did appreciate Heinrich Böll and was anxious to find the book I had initially sought ( I read and posted about 18 Stories in lieu).
But find it I did. It was not at all difficult, and yet I clearly remember it being difficult the first time around, so that remains a mystery of my predictable deficiency. At any rate:  thank you,  Tom.

The book is What’s to Become of the Boy? and it is wonderful. The opening paragraphs describe the misinformation on Böll’s high school “certificate of maturity.”

” It would never have occurred to me to have an error of that kind in such a solemn official document corrected: that error permits me to entertain a certain doubt as to whether I am really the person who is certified thereon as mature.” 

Böll’s attitude towards this institutional mistake (the very idea!) illustrates his emerging personality. Like many teenagers those formative years are the age of self-discovery, but the discovery is usually of the well, I’m NOT that sort more than the I AM this sort and Böll’s relief that he is not a mindless conformist is particularly sweet given the country and time in which he lived. Not one to let his ego run away from him he counters any clinging self-regard by confessing his own perceived lack of daring heroism. His was more the ordinary kind that in a better world might even simply be called – decency.

The entire brief book concerns itself with a four year period in which Böll attended high school during the incipient years of Nazi Germany – 1933 to 1937. It is told with such unelaborated charm as to weaken the knees of the likes of me.

“However, that gaiety was often of the desperate kind seen in some medieval paintings, where the laughter of the redeemed is sometimes akin to the expression on the faces of the damned.” 

Böll tries so earnestly to stick to the school part- nearly every chapter begins with some variation of “School? Oh yes, that too.” But his amusing inability then or later to stay on point, focused on his school work, is diverting and of course poignant, after all, there were other far more pressing matters uncomfortably close at hand.

“Yes, school too- I assure you, I’ll soon get back to that. After all, I was still a pupil, a pupil of life so to speak, subject to despondency and recklessness, yet bound and determine not to become a pupil of death- if that could possibly be avoided.” 

“The howling void” was Böll’s mother’s euphemism for Hitler and his Nazi followers. That term succinctly sums up all you need to know about the Böll family- their humor, kindness and intelligence. Heinrich Böll is the sort of writer that can express all we hate about the world while really making us love it all the more. A rare but essential gift.

Process of Elimination


I have been reading 18 Stories by Heinrich Böll. The stories are wonderful. All crisply told with a blunt freshness of life at it’s reduced absurdity.

When the passing truck provides the streetcar window with a backround for a moment, I check up on the expression on my face: isn’t it perhaps too pensive, almost verging on the sorrowful? I assiduously erase the remnants of brooding and do my best to give my face the expression I want it to wear: neither reserved nor familiar, neither superficial nor profound.”  – Heinrich Boll, The Thrower-away

I came across this book through the house of mirrors that is the internet, but I am always asking myself how I choose? I wonder if choosing books- a little like life, is not actually, more clearly, about what I don’t choose. The books on the shelf can pretend I didn’t not choose them – I simply chose another, maybe I will choose them next time, maybe someday one of them will fall into my hands in a perfect moment, who knows? But in truth: they know time is precious.

From their vantage on the shelves,  they can see that our lives are often formed by the things we don’t choose. We are not so proactive as we would like to believe. The shape of our stories are more of  a carving away, until one day we are fully formed and we wonder how the hell that happened? I suppose we can ask the books…

“…and it struck him that old people were wrong to talk about the gaiety of youth: when you were young, everything was serious and difficult, and nobody helped you,”   – And there was the evening and the morning…