The Desperate and the Despondent
Certain writers are so historically attached to their moment one cannot readily think of their work beyond it. Can we imagine Dickens without Victorian London, Wilfred Owen without WWI, or Fitzgerald without the Jazz age? Heinrich Bll would surely be such a writer, someone who may have written on a variety of other subjects (including the press and the perceived threat of terrorism in the seventies novella The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum) but whose work is chiefly significant for his examination of WWII Germany and its aftermath. In a Paris Review interview, Bll talks of enjoying conversations with his translators: "You have to explain historical things, especially small details, minute things. It was so complicated during the Nazi era. No, no, that's a lot of fun for me." Thinking of the writer as recluse, he says, "I could imagine, if the Nazis, the war, and postwar political developments had not happened that I might have led a very secretive life. But as a citizen of the Federal Republic and as a German I could not manage that."
In each comment we have a writer very much locating himself in the historical, but of course just because a writer is of his time, this does not mean that he cannot express a truth that goes beyond historical fact. In the same interview, Bll says, "Truth certainly exists, but it is very hard to put together, it's always an assembled truth; historical writing is a part of it, too, but I don't believe it can deliver the whole truth." Not that fiction would be likely to supply the truth either, but by being fiction it can at least offer a truth. Bll's fiction, though sometimes sardonic, is rarely witty, punchy or pithy, and the work seems to come out of an effort that coincides with the way Boll has talked about composing his own texts but needn't be the reason for it. When he says in the Paris Review that "...it happens very seldom, unfortunately, that I just dash something off. Of course, often the really decisive thought doesn't come until later. Sometimes, I start writing and suddenly the thought arrives, maybe on the third page, and then I throw away the rest and start with that," it is a comment any number of writers might make, but the fatigue and indecision of Bll's efforts seem more than most to make it on the page.
This is so even in a couple of Bll's most humorous stories, 'Action Will Be Taken' and 'Murke's Collected Silences'. In the former, the narrator talks of applying for a job once in a factory owned by one Alfred Wunsiedel, and determines to get the job by showing that he will work harder than all the other applicants, even though "I am inclined more to pensiveness and inactivity than to work". As he sees the breakfast served up before the interview as part of the test, he throws some orange juice down his throat and skips coffee, eggs and most of the toast. He was ready for work. In the interview he says he can work up to nine phones at the same time, and says he eliminated the word free time from his vocabulary at fifteen. Once he gets the job he tries as often as possible to use the imperative when describing what action needs to be taken. This isn't quite the same thing as working himself, but it does seem to require great zeal. However though Bll's writing is sometimes amused and metaphorical, the prose remains strangely dense, as if the comedic and the metaphoric cannot quite give the words humorous flight. "Wunsiedel's factory was swarming with people who were obsessed with telling you the story of their lives, as indeed vigorous personalities are fond of doing. The story of their lives is more important to them than their lives." When the narrator observes another character who cannot countenance the dead body of Wunsiedel in front of them, the narrator says, "on his face was that expression which one sees on children who obstinately refuse to give up their faith in Santa Claus, even though the arguments of their playmates sound so convincing."
Some might insist this is clumsy writing; that the observation isn't acute enough in the first instance to be more than mildly amusing, and that the metaphor is weak in the latter. However if one thinks of a writer of great wit like Oscar Wilde, one notices how often the aphorism is so self-contained that it is as if there is no problem sitting behind it. "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." "Poets are not so scrupulous as you are," a character says in The Picture of Dorian Gray. "They know how useful passion is for publication. Nowadays a broken heart will run to many editions." In such writing there is no problem behind the prose, and it is in keeping with Wilde's insistence that "there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written." Bll, however, seems very interested in morality and fiction, and indeed his own difficulty in writing he often attaches not to conventional notions of writer's block, but instead to social problems. When he says in The Paris Review, "Inhibitions or blocks have recently become second nature with me. It has to do with the situation on earth. I live in a country which has the greatest concentration of atomic weapons on earthand now more masses of new atomic weapons are to be added. That can take away your breath, and your enjoyment of life, and give you pause about whether writing makes any sense."
One might say it makes sense when sense can be made of it, as if prose doesn't only come out of the aesthetics of form, but comes from an ethical position also. For Bll there would be such a thing as a moral or immoral book, and his purpose is to find a prose style that matches the moral need, just as he found his subject so often in Germany during and after the war. Bll's fiction when funny is not the comic as form, but the comic as ethos, evident in 'Murke's Collected Silences'. In this story about a young man working for a radio corporation, he is asked to edit out the word God from esteemed professor Bur-Malottke's programmes. Bur-Malottke decided that "he might be blamed for contributing to the religious overtones in radio", and so decides to replace the word God with "that higher being whom we revere." It is a complicated and time-consuming piece of work, and clearly based on a neurotic whim of an august figure whom the radio director doesn't want to offend. By the end of the story the word has been removed, the phrase replacing it, and yet there are all these stray Gods available to anyone who wants to use them. A one act play was being aired that very evening. The assistant drama producer wasn't quite happy with it, and felt some of the silences in the play needed to be filled in. The producer and the playwright agree that a voice saying God would be ideal, and there Murke is with numerous examples of the word sitting around unused. Bur-Malottke might have insisted that he didn't want God used in his show, but he didn't say anything about his intoning of the word being used elsewhere. Murke doesn't tell the producer whose voice it is, but does ask him to take full responsibility for its use.
The story is funny enough, but the humour hardly leaps off the page; it instead sticks grimly to it, as though Bll wanted less the big laugh than our awareness of institutional limitations and power structures at work in the post-war years. It isn't at all that the professor is a tyrant and thus allows the story to function as an allegory of Hitler; he is instead a figure who plays up his reputation and his legacy. When he says to the director that he wants to correct all the tapes he has broadcast going back to the end of the war, the director manifests all the signs of fear one might expect in a life threatening situation. "The director was silent; he cleared his throat slightly, and little shining beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. It occurred to him that Bur-Malottke had spoken for at least an hour every month since 1945; and he made a swift calculation while Bur-Malottke went on talking: twelve times ten hours meant one hundred and twenty hours of spoken Bur-Malottke."The director suffers perhaps some of the same internal stress evident in the factory director who keels over in 'Action Must be Taken'. If Oscar Wilde regarded morality as secondary to the well written book, and evident in so many of his brilliantly phrased but hardly critical observations, Bll looks for the critique more than for the humour.
Throughout The Stories of Heinrich Bll there is a despondent anger, a critical attack on a German society that allowed Nazism to destroy human values. So often Bll seems to be looking at the emotional rubble of a country defeated not only by external forces, by the allied troops, but by an internal weakness that is twofold: first, the pre-war acceptance of Hitler, it would seem, and then the post-war irresoluteness and poverty that leaves people hungry, tired and without meaning. There is little sense in Bll's stories and novellas in this large collection that suggest halcyon days. In 'The Train was On Time', a character talks about his father. His father died from a war wound several years after the war, and his wife died shortly afterwards. Before the war "he made good money, but we were always terribly poor. He drank. I took it so much for granted that a man should come to the breakfast table with a thick head and in a foul temper..." Not all men were like this the character notes, but it is the sort of story Bll will have characters telling, as though he wants to explore every nook and cranny of emotional and social incompetence lest Germany fails to examine itself. He usually creates characters where this examination is paramount, and the tone of the work contains within it Bll's ever present antipathy to the Nazi regime, evident in statements like the one found in the memoir What's to Become of the Boy: " ... my unconquerable (and still unconquered) aversion to the Nazis was not revolt...they revolted me, repelled me on every level of my existence: conscious and instinctive, aesthetic and political."
Few writers reflect so readily this contempt for a regime rarely mentioned by name in The Stories of Heinrich Bll, and where Hitler is so rarely present that when he is name-checked it comes almost as a surprise. In 'A Soldier's Legacy', the narrator tells the story in the form of a report to the brother of someone he fought alongside. Constantly referred to as 'your brother", this is a figure first and foremost not of heroic actions but heroic values, and at one moment in this long story he says, "I'm told there are parents who greet their sleepy children in the morning with a snappy 'Heil Hitler'...Can you imagine anything more sickening." It is as if Hitler is name-checked to reflect the heroism of someone willing to dismiss him by name. The narrator then describes himself as a weak person, "I had no prop, no religion, only a very vague ephemeral dream of a certain beauty and order. And yet, on that particular morning we two were, I believe, on the same level with our despair." It is in a certain disgust and despair that 'heroism' arises and meets the tone of much of Bll's work. In The Paris Review Boll talks of Hemingway's influence on his fiction, saying "...behind this apparent, let's say almost journalistic, superficiality one can perceive a depth. Where I differ completely from him is in his trauma of masculinityit probably was a trauma in his caseor this hero worship, virility worship! I never liked that. It had no appeal for me; it was distasteful to me. Nonetheless, his means of expression were so important."
There are two things worth concluding on here. One is the refusal of hero worship in Bll's work; the other the stylistic similarities with Hemingway. When Bll mentions the trauma of masculinity in Hemingway's fiction, he is talking of a sought heroism, heroism chiefly of action, the very heroism Bll's work elides and dismisses. When in Hemingway's own The Paris Review interview he talks of the importance of "survival, with honour", but where "failure and well-disguised cowardice are more human and more beloved" there is a vague sense of disdain at the weaknesses of man. Hemingway was of course a much more sensitive and subtle thinker and even interviewee than his reputation might suggest, but next to Bll's interest in modest values over heroic actions one might see a basic difference that explains Boll's comment in The Paris Review. However, Bll does admit to the influence of Hemingway's style, but is style not inextricably linked to content? Can the taciturn, bare prose of Hemingway serve the needs of a writer much more interested in despair? If we answer affirmatively it rests perhaps in Hemingway's contained heroism and Bll's moral bravery, with the former relevant to action and the latter to ethical observation, but where a similar prose style can work for each. In 'A Soldier's Legacy', Bll chooses the position of passive narration as the heroic character of the brother is viewed from the perspective of someone who is himself, as we've noted, not brave. The narrator is compelled to tell the brother's sibling of his deeds, but they never quite become actions but more examples of moral conscience. When at the end of 'A Soldier's Legacy', the soldier's intervention chiefly resides in getting the person who kills him to shut up: '"Don't you realize, you bastard", your brother said to him, "that the other hundred and twenty men in your battalion can use a few hours' sleep."' In common parlance, the Hemingwayesque is a world in which one proves or fails to prove one's masculinity, and however fair or unfair this happens to be to the body of the American's work, it is clearly present enough to be a means by which to understand Hemingway, with his fascination with boxing and bullfighting. At the beginning of The Sun Also Rises, we hear that "Robert Cohn was once a middleweight boxing champion of Princeton...there was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym." Or later, when describing the bullfighter Romero we see Hemingway's sense of contained heroism. "Romero's bullfighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time." It would be utterly unfair to say Hemingway accepts heroism straightforwardly, but it seems to fascinate him; where in Bll it would be not only false consciousness on an individual scale, but nationally also; as if Nazism were heroism as false consciousness on a national level. As the narrator says in 'A Soldier's legacy', "It was painful to listen to their illusions on the subject of Germany. Would that country, now also dirty, mangled, wretched and starving, where barracks had become prisons and hospitals had become barracks - would that country live up to their dreams?"
Indeed vital to Bll's work is the refusal of patriotism as he explores war as a state of futility and emotional inertness."Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. What is soon? What a terrible word. Soon. Soon can mean in one second, Soon can mean one year..." a character says in 'The Train Was on Time', adding "Soon I shall be dead. I shall die, soon...One thing is for sure, this soon will be in wartime." The taciturn becomes the exhausted and love as much as language seems to get absorbed into the futile. In numerous Bll stories affection contains a strong dimension of self-loathing rather than self-love. In 'Breaking the News' a young man goes to tell a young woman that her soldier husband has died. "I threw aside everything - disgust, fear and desolation - like a contemptible burden and placed my hand on the plump, heaving shoulder...", but it is a burden she then takes upon herself. "'I knew it, I knew it, when I saw him off - it's almost three years ago now - when I saw him off at the station," and then she adds almost in a whisper, "Don't Despise Me." In 'And Where Were You, Adam?' A character says, "perhaps it was asking too much to love a Jewish girl while this [war] was on", while in 'Between Trains in X' the central character is lying in a Hungarian girl's bed and she asks him what he is thinking. "I was just thinking about who will be lying in this room seventy years from now, who will be sitting or lying on these six square feet of space, and how much he'll know about you and me. Nothing...he'll only know there was a war."
It's as if the war creates such a climate of despair and despondency that depression is depersonalized; it becomes a permeating mood. Hemingway's dry style can often give understatement to the aggressive aspect of behaviour; as if seeking its presence, and seeing it as essentially individualistic, no matter if it is also fundamental. As an American diplomat Ellis Briggs once said: "in a group of people, if two of them were antagonistic to each other, Ernest felt it at once." It is as though in Hemingway violent situations bring out an undercurrent of character, for Bll it breaks character, creates despondency so great, and wills so weak, that characters search around for credence wherever they can. Violence isn't intrinsic to human nature, in Bll's work, it is a plague on it. As the narrator says in Bll's 'Reunion on the Avenue', "...I could tell from Hecker's hands when he lit a fresh cigarette from the old one that he was on the edge and afraid: we were all afraid, everyone who was still human was afraid."
© Tony McKibbin