Archive for the ‘Heinrich Boll’ Category

The Bread of Those Early Years

November 17, 2019

Heinrich Boll’s fifth novel, The Bread of These Early Years, originally published in1955, is a story of hunger. The hunger originates in the narrator’s childhood: the rationing of the Second World War, and the poverty of the post-war period. But it also encompasses a more ambiguous longing, one which rejects the conventional life he has gradually accrued for the love of a woman he barely knows. As with The Train was on Time, it is short enough to qualify as a novella, and exists within an even briefer time period, a single day, a fact Boll emphasises by echoing the first sentence (“The day Hedwig arrived was a Monday…”) in the opening line of the final part: “It was dark, still Monday…”

On that Monday morning the narrator receives a letter from his father asking him to meet the daughter of a fellow teacher, Hedwig, who is coming to the city to train as a teacher herself. He is already aware of Hedwig’s approaching arrival as he has previously been asked by her father to find her a place to stay. Having lived in the city for seven years, only rarely visiting his father, he remembers her only as a child, “playing with some empty flower-pots in the garden.” In his recollection her hair is blonde and so he doesn’t initially recognise her as the young woman he is immediately attracted to at the train station:

“Her hair was dark, like slate roots after rain, her face white, startlingly white, like fresh whitewash with a bit of ochre shimmering trough…”

This physical description is suggestive of a new beginning – the cleansing rain, the freshening paint – and we are reminded of the narrator’s earlier comments on “how things would have turned out if I hadn’t met Hedwig at the train station”:

“I would have stepped into another life, the way a person mighty step into another train by mistake, a life that, in those days, before I knew Hedwig, seemed tolerable enough.”

His instant reaction is that he must make her his:

“…suddenly I was filled with fear, that fear explorers must feel when they step onto a new land, knowing that another expedition is on the way, might have already planted its flag, taken possession…”

Though the metaphor may feel slightly dated in its description of ‘conquest’, it too conveys the idea of new beginnings, and, in highlighting fear as the primary emotion, emphasises how vital this relationship suddenly seems to the narrator. This is not simply a love story, where the central character leaves one woman (in this case Ulla, the boss’ daughter) for another, but one where that decision is connected to rejecting the life he is currently living for a different one. It is clear that he has already struggled to find a life which satisfies him:

“I didn’t feel like continuing my electrician’s apprenticeship, but I had already tried so many things: I had been a bank clerk, a sales clerk, and a carpenter’s apprentice, each for exactly two months, and I hated this new job too…”

Meeting Hedwig is enough to make him abandoned his current job, fixing washing machines, leaving calls unanswered not only when he goes to meet her, but from that moment on. Even when he is standing in the laundrette he refuses to look at an overheating machine:

“I knew now what I’d always known but hadn’t admitted to myself for the last six years: that I hated this job as I hated every job I had tried my hand at.”

Further, he withdraws all his savings in another sign that he is drawing a line under his old life, this having hardly spoken to Hedwig. This longing is mirrored in his longing for bread as a child – he tells how he ‘prompted’ his father to visit a baker whose son his father taught every Sunday to get a loaf of bread, a gift which ends when his father gives the boy an F. He frequently remembers those who have fed him – Sister Clara, Veronika (“Each time she gave me a piece of bread I had those hands near my eyes”) – and often calculates prices in terms of loaves of bread. He describes his hunger as “the wolf that still slept inside me.” The memory of a visit to his mother in hospital demonstrates he is not the only one marked by this obsession as she says in reference to the woman in the next bed:

“Every time he [her husband] came they quarrelled about the money she gave him to buy food.”

This is perhaps contrasted by his boss’ more abstract attitude to money, also exemplified by his intended Ulla. In the conversation where he ends their relationship, he specifically mentions “the bread that you, that your father, never gave me,” while she speaks throughout in financial metaphors, even telling him, “There are such things a receipts for kisses.” It feels like two different ways of looking at the world are in competition.

The Bread of These Early Years, translated by Leila Vennewitz, is another powerful story from Boll, both a document of Germany’s post-war years and a wider examination of human longing, a longing which, as the ending suggests, can never be assuaged.

The Train Was on Time

May 7, 2019

The latest in Penguin’s wonderful European Writers series feature perhaps the most famous neglected writer yet, Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll. While Boll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum has remained stubbornly in print, most of his other work has not. The Train Was on Time is Boll’s first novel, originally published in 1949, and here in a translation by Leila Vennewitz from 1970 with a new introduction by Anna Funder, author of Stasiland.

The novel has a simple but powerful premise: a young German soldier, Andreas, sets off in a train to the Eastern front believing that he will die. “I don’t want to die,” he shouts to his friend as the train pulls out of the station:

“I don’t want to die, but the terrible thing is that I’m going to die…soon!”

This belief becomes engrained – “the word soon entered him like a bullet” – and he can think of little else. Initially the fear is a vague one:

“This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty.”

It is perhaps for this reason that, as his journey progresses, he becomes steadily convinced he knows the time and place of his death:

“Soon was no longer quite so blurred, he had already groped his way up to this Soon, circled it and sniffed it, and already he knew that he was going to die during the night of Saturday to Sunday between Lvov and Cernauti…in Galicia.”

The train journey, therefore, becomes a journey towards death, “every turn of the wheels tears off a piece of my life”:

“My life is now nothing but a specific number of miles, a section of railway line.”

The intensity with which Boll explores this conviction is gripping, but the novel is much more than one man’s journey: not only does Boll reveal Andreas’ experience of war, distilled to one particular moment, but he does the same for his other characters, Andreas’ companions in the railway carriage, an unshaven soldier (later Willi when he has shaved) and a blonde soldier. Among Andreas’ few positive memories are that of a woman he saw in France:

“For a tenth of a second our eyes held each other’s, maybe even less than a tenth of a second, and I can’t forget her eyes. For three and a half years I’ve had to think about them and haven’t been able to forget them.”

His sight of the woman is cut short when an aircraft crashes nearby, and when he returns to find her he cannot even discover who she was: “maybe it was a whore,” a man tells him, or “a madwoman from the asylum.” This sentimentality is entirely in keeping with Andreas’ youth and emphasises his innocence. Willi has had a more positive experience of war having made some money selling cars made from the salvageable parts of bombed army vehicles, but he, too, assumes he will die, deciding to spend all the money he has save to pay off the loan on his house:

“The mortgage, the whole Lvov mortgage is ours!”

The blonde soldier confides in Andreas his own terrible war story during six weeks in an isolated gun emplacement:

“The sergeant major was like an animal… so he seduced us, what else is there to say? We were all like that…except one. He refused. He was an old fellow, married with a family…”

The soldier who refuses is shot by the sergeant major and the blonde soldier conspires in the cover-up, telling Andreas, “After that I never enjoyed anything again, and I never will.” Andreas believes their fatalism unites them:

“Willi also knows he is going to die, and the blond fellow is ready to die too, their lives are over.”

In this way the novel does not simply exemplify the horror of war through Andreas’ experience, but also through the trauma of “the blond fellow” and Willi’s cheerful pessimism. Finally, when the three soldiers visit a brothel, we also see the effects on the civilian population in the shape of Olina, a Polish woman of Andreas’ age who was once a pianist. She reveals to Andreas that she (and, she says, all of Poland) works for the Polish resistance, but has her own epiphany in the hours she spends with him:

“And when I saw you standing over there by the window… it came to me for the first time that we also only murder the innocent.”

Despite its brevity, The Train Was on Time provides a detailed picture of war, as Boll selects his subjects like a skilled documentarian, noticing what others would prefer not to see. Its focus on a deeply felt central character and its relentless countdown lend it an emotional power like a pounding engine which advances from page to page towards the inevitable final scene.

The Clown

November 29, 2016

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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.