Tag Archives: nazi germany

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.

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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.