Reading Heinrich Böll

During the German Literature Month – November 2011, I received two books by the Nobel Prize in Literature winning author, Heinrich Böll as part of a giveaway (big thanks to Caroline @ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy @ Lizzy’s Literary Life) – his first ever novel, The Train Was on Time and another renowned one, The Clown. A week before I wouldn’t have been able to name my favourite German writer. Now, these two hauntingly beautiful novels seem to have changed that.
  • The Train Was on Time by Heinrich Böll
About the book: Published in 1949, The Train Was on Time (original: Der Zug war puenktlich) is Heinrich Böll’s first novel.
“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”
Summary: The novel is the story of a soldier, Andreas, who is stationed on the Eastern Front. Hitler has already lost the war; and as the troop train leaves Germany and slowly enters Poland, Andreas is sure of his eventual death. The story is about Andreas’s last train journey, the fellow soldiers and their experiences.
My thoughts: I found this to be a beautiful novel, like I said, hauntingly beautiful. The emotions portrayed in this novel are painful but real. A blurb on the back cover says that “Böll has feelingly symbolized a guilty Germany doing penance for its sins through suffering and death.” I couldn’t have said it better.
  • The Clown by Heinrich Böll
About the book: Published in 1963, The Clown (original: Ansichten eines Clowns i.e. Opinions of a Clown) is an acclaimed work (an instant bestseller of its time) and a German classic by Heinrich Böll.
“I don’t trust Catholics,” I said, “because they take advantage of you.”
“And Protestants?” he asked with a laugh.
“I loathe the way they fumble around with their consciences.”
“And atheists?” He was still laughing.
“They bore me because all they ever talk about is God.”
Summary: Hans Schnier is a famous clown; a clown whose ‘wife’ seems to have left him because he won’t marry her within the Catholic church. This searing loss has affected the man and the clown in him, and now alone at home, Schnier launches into a long, mordant monologue – that is this book.
(when Schnier’s sister, Henrietta, dies at war.)
For the first time I sensed how terrible are the objects left behind when someone goes away or dies. Mother actually made an effort to eat, no doubt it was supposed to mean: Life goes on or something of that sort, but I knew very well: that wasn’t so, it isn’t life that goes on but death.
My thoughts: The Clown is one of the most amazing books I’ve read, and definitely my favourite this year. The novel is written in a style that along with being deeply painful, is strikingly intelligent and humorous. The inability of the young man to fit in with his own society, an outcast and the helplessness of a nonbeliever in love with a devout, of a child who has lost his sister to the war, are the themes dealt with in the novel. About post-war Germany, it seems that the author has a lot to say – country struggling to find a new identity, Nazi-guilt, religion and post-War German consciousness.
(about the seeming lack of guilt in the society, the pretentiouness that Schnier hates.)
What upset me was the innocence of the returned emigrants. They were so moved by all the remorse and loud protestations of democracy that they were forever embracing and radiating good fellow-ship. They failed to grasp that the secret of the terror lay in the little things. To regret the big things is child’s play: political errors, adultery, murder, anti-Semitism – but who forgives, who understands, the little things? The way Herbert Kalick grabbed Götz Buchel by the collar, stood him in front of the class, although the teacher protested mildly, and said: “Look at him – if that isn’t a Jew!”
I remember too many moments, too many details, tiny little things.
I have heard people mention that the scope of the book is too narrow, the intended audience and the people who can relate to it. But doesn’t everyone have something they are/should be guilty about, every person and every country? Someone they have lost and the whole question of religion. I think, when put in to the right context, the book can be about any society, about any of us. It’s a must read and kind of a collector’s piece! I see myself re-reading this book many times!

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