Boll`s Stories Mark German Culture Reborn
In 1972 Heinrich Boll received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first German to do so since Thomas Mann nearly half a century before. The Nobel Committee giving the award, lauded Boll`s ``renewal of German literature in the post-war era,`` while the writer, accepting it, said, ``This honor is not for me, but for the language in which I express myself and the country whose citizen I am.`` Both recognized that the award had political overtones extending beyond a single man`s achievement. In fact, Heinrich Boll was only one--albeit, with Gunter Grass, the most prominent--among a number of authors who grew to adulthood under Naziism and, in the years immediately following the war`s end, undertook to make their language, grossly distorted by a perverted regime, once again fit for literary use. These writers called themselves Group 47, after the year their alliance was formed, and the Nobel Prize, given a quarter of a century later, was a measure of their success.
The literary output of Heinrich Boll, who died last June at 67, was diverse and voluminous and consisted of stories ranging from a few pages long to novella-length, novels, essays, radio plays, translations (with his wife, Annemarie Cech) and poetry. It is, however, with his fiction that his reputation primarily lies. ``The Stories of Heinrich Boll`` is a thick tome that contains his best and most famous stories, including three superb early war novels. Nearly all of the work here reflects the Catholic humanist background of the artist`s middle-class Cologne youth--his parents were pacifists and liberals; his childhood, despite the harshness of the era, a happy one--as well as his own mature experiences and observations.
Drafted into the army in 1939, Boll spent six years as a conscript, during which he was stationed on both the western and eastern fronts, was wounded four times, deserted twice, and finally, toward the end of the war, was, not unhappily, taken prisoner by the Americans. The three short war novels here--``A Soldier`s Legacy`` (1947), ``The Train Was on Time`` (1949) and ``And Where Were You, Adam?`` (1951)--each has a protagonist (or, in the case of ``A Soldier`s Legacy,`` two protagonists), about the age Boll was as a soldier, who disbelieves the official party line, expresses in words, and sometimes by flouting regulations, his criticism of the war, and yet accepts as inexorable the meaningless death in it he sees as his fate. Never does the author suggest that war brings glory--or anything but misery and sorrow. In``A Soldier`s Legacy,`` the young narrator, Heinrich Wenk, says, ``A soldier`s goodbye is always, as it were, a goodbye forever. Think of that massive, insane load of pain hauled across Europe by those leave-trains!``, while Andreas, the central character in ``The Train Was On Time,`` thinks,
``There were the people I despised and loathed and mentally abused, for instance, like the man who said: `Practically speaking, practically speaking, we`ve already won the war`; I hated that man too, but I forced myself to pray for him because he was such a fool.``
In these novellas, as in the short stories, women are sympathetically portrayed as providers of emotional support and comfort and as soul mates
(Boll himself married in mid-war and wrote daily letters to his wife). The love object is rarely appropriate--in one case, she is a young whore who services soldiers, in another a Jew soon to perish--and in each case the affair ends in tragedy. In ``The Train Was on Time,`` Andreas barters--a not atypical transaction in a world where living is expensive but life is cheap --his watch, overcoat and paybook for a final chaste hour with Olina, a prostitute met in a brothel just before he goes to face his destiny.
The stories here, written over a period of three decades (and presented, irritatingly, without dates). Many are very fine. All are imbued with sympathy for the ordinary citizen--soldier or civilian--controlled by forces larger than himself, as well as with an appreciation for the essentials and simplicities of life--a crust of bread in a hungry man`s mouth is ``like a dry caress,`` church window frames are ``touchingly whitewashed.`` For hypocrites and cheats--quartermasters who steal soldiers` food, gentry who rob their peasants--Boll has no patience at all, nor does the bureaucrat or totalitarian avoid his scathing pen. ``My Sad Face`` is a marvelous satire of a regime which dictates the expressions on one`s countenance, while ``Murke`s Collected Silences,`` one of his classic tales, about an engineer who must excise the word ``God`` from a demagogue`s speeches, mocks the varying winds of ideological correctness.
``The Stories of Heinrich Boll,`` with more than 60 stories, one-fifth of them translated into English for the first time, one-third never before in book form, shows many aspects of this consummate storyteller who was also, from all evidence, a remarkable man. The stories are set in Germany but extend in import beyond one nation`s boundaries. Readers of this volume should have no doubt that Heinrich Boll well deserved his Nobel Prize.