I confess that I didn't pick up The Clown for any literary reason at all. I was interested in this book entirely because the book promised to be about a mime. It was only after that I learned anything about Heinrich Böll. The essentials on Böll are that he is a German novelist, Nobel Prize 1972, grew up in a respectable Catholic pacifist family in World War II. From this book, it seems that he has inherited his parents' distaste for war, though they also seem to have turned him against certain aspects of Catholicism and respectability.
The Clown, in spite of its title, is a rather dreary book, punctuated only rarely by moments of comedy, which sometimes come simply from the dreariness reaching such heights as to be comical.
It is indeed about a mime, somewhere in his twenties while Germany is going through the fifties, recovering from the War. Hans Schnier is a young man but an old mime, watching the career and the success he has built up quickly fading away. The opening of the book is the only section devoted to discussion of the narrator as a mime. Hans discusses various acts he performs (such as "Going to Work") and talks about life on the road as an artist. This part was wonderful for me, since I like mimes a lot, but the real purpose of this section was to show how Böll will use this mime as a narrator. Through the narrator, Böll can imaginatively enter the lives of other characters through discussion of their outward performances. The mime will thoroughly analyze the superficial aspects of their behavior--their gestures, their facial expressions, their entire "act"--in order to find the underlying emptiness that they disguise.
The whole of the book consists of the narrator's conversations with old friends and acquaintances over the course of a day or two. He has come back to Bonn to re-establish contact with Marie, a former lover who has abandoned him in favor of a group of people who, for Hans, are defined by their superficial respectability and their hypocritical Catholicism. He talks to them, criticizes their hypocrisy, criticizes their superficiality, then imagines Marie and her new lover, then recites memories of his time with her. The sadness of his personal tale mixes with a real critique of postwar Germany, trying to put on a veneer of progress--this includes some people's efforts taking up Catholicism--and hope after the revolting and shameful adventure of World War II. It is a sad story throughout, climaxing with a meeting with his father in which neither is quite able to reach the other. His father more than anything wants to make Hans some coffee, as though gesture can solve the problems, but by that point Hans feels so helpless that he declines the offer.
As a story of a young man coming home and angry at the respectable world, the book reminded me of Catcher in the Rye. The Clown is much more serious in intent, with its discussion of war and the fate of a whole country, but the comparison helped me think about why I didn't find the book completely enjoyable. Unlike Catcher, the narrator of The Clown it is a little too dark to inspire total sympathy. Additionally, the criticisms of his society are a little too serious to be funny but too superficial to persuade fully.
I imagine that part of this problem likely comes from translation, both linguistic and cultural. The tone may very well be more pleasant and enjoyable in German, and the superficial descriptions of German Catholics and of high-society Germans are likely more enjoyable if one can sense the accuracy of them. One has to respect a unique choice of narrator to handle such heavy themes, and one can't deny how deftly Böll handles a personal--and quite quirky--story into the cultural life of his society. All in all, a very good book, but not one to be picked up too lightly.