The Clown

the-clown

Heinrich Boll is a writer who (in English at least) has come to be largely defined by one book, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Once widely published by Penguin, he is now largely out of print in the UK, though Melville House recently reissued a number of his books, including The Clown. (The Marion Boyars edition I have was translated by Leila Vennewitz in 1965, two years after the novel’s German publication, but this is the same translation Melville House has used). It is perhaps for this reason that I had little idea what to expect from The Clown, which I found surprisingly readable despite the critique of German post-war Catholicism which was clearly central to Boll’s intentions.

Its readability lies largely in the novel’s voice, that of its titular clown, Hans Schnier. Though the novel covers much of Schnier’s life (albeit he is still young, in his early twenties) we only spend a matter of hours with him, the novel consisting of an extended cry of anguish against his present circumstances. In particular he is angered and upset by the fact that his partner (though I’m using this word anachronistically, it accurately reflects Schnier’s feelings: living together, he regards their relationship as akin to marriage), Marie, has left him to marry another man. Her departure coincides with the (self-inflicted) collapse of his career as a clown:

“After three weeks there were already no more flowers in my room, by the middle of the second month I no longer had a room with a bath, and by the beginning of the third month the distance from the station was already seven marks, while my fee had shrunk to a third. Instead of cognac, gin, instead of vaudeville theatres, curious clubs which met in gloomy halls…”

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Schnier now finds himself with barely a mark to his name, and, on his return to Bonn, he lists all those he might ask for money. Though his family are wealthy he has little to do with them. He blames his mother in particular for the death of his sister Henrietta, who was allowed, and even encouraged, to volunteer for anti-aircraft duty towards the end of the war when she was sixteen years old. His mother’s support for the Nazi regime is encapsulated in her comment at the time, “You do see, don’t you, that everyone must do his bit to drive the Jewish Yankees from our sacred German soil?” When Schnier phones her during the course of the novel he cannot resist introducing himself as:

“…a delegate of the Executive committee of Jewish Yankees just passing through – may I please speak to your daughter?”

This anger at his mother is part of a general anger at those who supported the Nazis but now prosper in post-war Germany. Talking to his mother reminds him of Schnitzler, one of a number of artistic hangers-on his mother indulged, who encouraged his mother to enrol Schnier in the Hitler Youth, and is now working in the Foreign Office:

“A hypocrite like that doesn’t even have to tell lies to always be on the right side of the fence.”

Schnier’s choice of clowning as a career seems, at least in part, directed towards all the writers and artists his mother fawned on – he frequently refers to it as an art while knowing his mother will never regard it as seriously.

Schnier and Marie’s relationship founders because he cannot agree to have their children raised as Catholics. We learn that Marie has had miscarriages in their time together, though later it is hinted that, unbeknownst to Schnier, they might be abortions. This reflects a more general sense that the Catholics in the novel only take their Catholicism seriously as it suits them. (At one point Schnier is told, regarding priests and hunting, “There are certain rules, Schnier, but there are also exceptions.”) Schnier says he is by nature monogamous, and that Marie is putting her soul in danger:

“When she marries Zupfner, then she will really be sinning. That much I have grasped of your metaphysics: what she is doing is fornication and adultery…”

Schnier, then, has something of the holy fool about him; though not religious he is innocent in a way those who are religious either dislike or misunderstand. This innocence (as with Holden Caulfield) is often mistaken for rebellion. As his father says to him:

“…do you know what’s the matter with you? You lack the very thing that makes a man a man: the ability to accept a situation.”

Clowning is a refusal to accept the seriousness of life, even if it originates from despair. Acceptance leads to tyranny; dictatorships hate humour. Schnier goes as far as to refuse to accept his success as a clown. He refuses his father’s offer of financial help, then phones his father’s mistress to see if she will intercede on his behalf – his rebellion is not a matter of principal but an innate reaction. It is for this reason that, although The Clown is clearly a critique of post-war Germany (the nuances of which will always escape me), it is equally a coruscating response to the threats of complacency and amnesia.

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10 Responses to “The Clown”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    For the last few years I’ve nearly read this for GLM. I read it years ago and still have my old copy to hand; it’s the same translation as yours. As much as I liked it I have read little else by Böll, only some short stories, and always feel that I should hunt down some more by him. He does seem to be rather unfashionable now, at least in English.

  2. BookerTalk Says:

    it intrigues me how some authors just fade out of our consciousness and others keep going for decades

    • 1streading Says:

      I know – it now seems to be happening to the Latin American authors who were so prevalent in my youth. Some writers in particular (Henry Green for example) seem destined to always be in the process of being discovered!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    It sounds like an interesting book, one that works on more than one level. coincidentally, I’ve just been watching Deutschland 83 on More4, a series set in German at the height of the Cold War. (Maybe you’ve seen it too?) It includes footage from a few of the protest rallies/political meetings that were held at the time, some of which featured Boll. His name crops up more than once in the series.

  4. Misha Says:

    Truthfully, I am a newbie to German literature, so I am glad to discover the German Literature month. I am hoping to come across more books like this to add to my TBR list. Heinrich Boll has been on my wishlist for years now – need to get to him ASAP!

  5. Tony Says:

    This was a good read, but (as I mentioned in my – very old! – post), it is rather removed from the present day in its approach to politics and religion. Still, I’d like to get back to Böll at some point, if I can find the time.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, there were clearly many contemporary issues Boll was responding to. What made it still relevant (and enjoyable) for me was Hans’ character which had a more timeless quality about it. That the novel was first person certainly helped.

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