Melville House is publishing “The Essential Heinrich Böll” over the next year. This month they have published The Safety Net, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, and The Clown (Ansichten eines Clowns, 1963; tr. from the German by Leila Vennewitz, 2010). In April, we will see The Train Was on Time, Irish Journal, and Group Portrait with Lady; next January they will be bringing out the final two volumes: What’s to Become of the Boy? Or: Something to Do with Books — A Memoir, and The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll.
This was my first experience with Böll. I had no idea whether his prose was dense and daunting, though that was certainly my preconception. I was surprised (and relieved, honestly — I wasn’t in the mood for obfuscation when I opened the book), then, to find the prose smooth and fluid and highly readable. The substance is still layered and folded, making much of this fine reading.
The Clown is Hans Schnier, our narrator:
What I do best are the absurdities of daily life: I observe, add up these observations, increase them to the nth degree and draw the square root from them, but with a different factor from the one I increased them by.
Hans is in his late twenties, and, despite his relatively substantial success for a professional clown, his parents still don’t consider him gainfully employed. When the book begins, Hans narrates his fall from grace; the style of the narration shows very clearly that he is distracted, depressed, and demotivated. Marie, the girl he has been living with “in sin” for several years, has been struck with guilt and has left him to marry a Catholic man in the Catholic church (“I must take the path that I must take.”). Hans comes from a Protestant family, but he has never been religious. Here is a great passage that shows how well Böll packs all of this information into a moody first-person narration:
I am not religious myself, I don’t even go to church, and I make use of the sacred texts and songs for therapeutic purposes: they help me more than anything else to overcome the two afflictions Nature has saddled me with: depression and headaches. Since Marie went over to the Catholics (although Marie is a Catholic herself I feel this phrase is appropriate), the intensity of these two complaints has increased, and even the Tantum Ergoor the Litany of Loreto — till no my favorite remedies for pain — are not much use any more. There is one temporarily effective remedy: alcohol; there could be a permanent cure: Marie. Marie has left me. A clown who takes to drink falls faster than a drunk tile-layer topples off a roof.
Besides suffering from depression, Hans also suffers from an inclination toward monogamy, which he describes as an affliction though something deeply embedded in his nature. Hans is completely lost without Marie; he has never wanted and still does not want anyone else. Not being religious but believing in monogamy, Hans rages that Marie will be committing adultery is she marries someone else, even though her Catholic friends keep insisting that by marrying someone else she will actually become pure. The conflict between unity (as portrayed in this relationship) being torn apart by social mores is central to the novel and was certainly the most interesting aspect for me.
The structure of the novel is interesting. Mostly, we are with Hans for only one day. He has returned to Bonn, his hometown, after his dependence on alcohol made him fall, literally; during a particularly clumsy performance which lacked the subtle movements that made him an artist, he fell, twisted his knew, and didn’t get up. The stage manager cancles all upcoming performances and refuses to pay full price for this one. His agent cannot secure another booking and is, frankly, getting tired of dealing with Hans anyway; where his agent could once book a nightly performance at a substantial price (and a substantial commission), Hans is now threatening to rely on the pennies thrown at him for performing in the street. Through all of this, Hans remains apathetic; performing on the street would, apparently, be just fine. Mainly, he wants more to drink:
I would have given my shirt for a drink, and only the thought of the complicated negotiations involved in such an exchange discouraged me from undertaking this transaction.
So the book picks up in Bonn, after Hans has returned. Through the remainder of the day, Hans makes a series of phone calls to and is visited by some family, friends, and enemies. He doesn’t necessarily want to speak to any of them — unless they can help him speak to Marie; mainly, he hopes some of them will give him a bit of money. His parents, after all, are millionaires.
As these interactions take place, we get a substantial back-story to the relationships and to Hans’ bitterness (it is no surprise to see that Hans has often been compared to Holden Caulfield). For example, we learn that during World War II, when Hans was just barely an adolescent, his mother bought into and supported the new regime and all of the atrocities it committed: “You do see, don’t you, that everyone must do his bit to drive the Jewish Yankees from our sacred German soil.” This ardent national spirit led her to send her older daughter, Henrietta, into service at age seventeen. Henrietta died, and one of Hans’ bitterest memories is of her departure. Now, his mother has a different tone, and Hans derides her as a hypocrite.
Meanwhile for years my mother has been president of the Executive Committee of the Societies for the Reconciliation of Racial Differences; she goes to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, sometimes even to America, and lectures to American women’s clubs about the remorse of German youth, still in the same gentle, mild voice she probably used when saying goodbye to Henrieta.
When Hans speaks to her on the phone, he lets his hatred show. Here’s what he says when she answers: “‘I am a delegate of the Executive Committee of Jewish Yankees, just passing through — may I please speak to your daughter?’ I even startled myself.” He also startled me.
The personal relationships and the conflicts portrayed are what made this book delightful for me. However, it wasn’t all delight. I’m not versed in the larger social conflicts Böll is addressing here. I’m not familiar with the role of the Catholic church in post-War Germany, and I’m not familiar with the criticisms against it. I also got the distinct impression that this was not speaking about Germany generally but about this particular region of Germany. When Hans goes into the politics and social constructs of this region, I was lost and the book seemed to drag on. Surely it would be more interesting if I were better educated on these matters, but, coming at it as a general reader, these longueurs were difficult to get through.
Thankfully the book is filled with intimate relationships between people, and those I do understand. Böll’s mixture of depression and wit — “There’s nothing more depressing for people than a clown they feel sorry for. It’s like a waiter coming up in a wheelchair to bring you your beer.” — also filled this book with life. Overall, a good read, and I’m anxious to see what the other Essential Bölls are like.