Saturday, April 30, 2011


I keep finding myself picking up these Heinrich Böll novels. This latest one, titled And Never Said a Word, was a real let-down, yet I know that I'm still going to move on to the next one. This makes me aware of the value of Böll, which lies somewhere beyond the actual qualities of his writing or his ability to come up with plots and characters. What comes through all his books, a deep moral concern and a deep moral seriousness which it gives him the ability to infuse significance into the smalles of activities, from drinking coffee to interacting with neighbors. Even when, as I suspect would happen to anyone reading this book, one gets terribly bored, one admires the man who produced it.
The plot of And Never Said a Word is simple, and in fact I hesitate to call it a plot. It is, as in his other books, more of a situation, one which different characters deal with in different ways without fully resolving. Here Fred and Käte Bogner, married with kids, have separated but still meet up occasionally. Fred gives Kate all the money from his job as a switchboard operator. We are told that Fred has moved out because the apartment was too small. We are told, too, that the strain of living in such a cramped space had even caused Fred to hit his children. Of this he is deeply ashamed of, while Käte is both sympathetic and unforgiving (a combination which Böll works with as well as any writer could). They talk, they think, they meet up. And basically, that's that.

It is probably that same quality that can cause the problems of this book. Because Böll sees moral significance in everything, he can get heavy-handed and long-winded with his descriptions of very simple matters. One can lose any sense of proportion when hearing so much about what people on the streets are wearing or what an apartment looks like. And one gets quite bored and impatient, waiting for a description of something of more obvious significance. A sentence at random:
She was fishing hot doughnuts out of the steaming fat, placing them on a grill, and suddenly she looked up, our eyes met, and she smiled at me. Her smile had a magical effect on me, I smiled back, and we remained thus for several seconds, without moving, and while I actually saw only her--I saw, as from a great distance, myself as well, saw the two of us standing there, smiling at each other like sisters, and I lowered my gaze when I remembered that I had no money to buy one of her doughnuts, the smell of which was stirring up my stomach.

And that's how the whole book goes. The main problem with this is that it's just a bit tiring. Another problem is that this is Fred speaking in something like real-time, and as a first person monologue this is simply absurd. And the last problem is that just as a thought-process of someone going through the problems that Fred is going through this is again absurd.

Böll is wedded to the idea of the wise innocent, whose sadness enables him to see through the external appearance of everything around him and find the sadness and the yearning below. I suspect this is somehow tied to his Christianity--an idealization of innocent suffering and a belief in the purifying effects of poverty. The title of the work, in fact, comes from a song about Jesus, who, when being hung on the cross, "never said a mumbling word." (This, by the way, is a little confusing to me as I recall that he did say some words in Aramaic questioning his father's forsaking of him.) Unlike that quiet and innocent man, Böll's characters are wordy, even verbose, and the kind of simplicity and innocence and poverty they are meant to represent is severely hampered for it. I can't imagine that the man who said, "Let he who among you who is without sin throw the first stone," would have anything of the appeal he has if he'd gone on and on and on about the adulteress's clothing and the sad look in her eyes and the faces of the onlookers and the doughnuts she was frying and how cramped her apartment was and how sad her children looked and blah blah blah.

So the book's not so good. It's bad, even. But so what if he wrote a bad book? I'm off to get another.

1 comment:

  1. I think Heinrich Böll did a wonderful job describing the relationship of a couple struggling to get by in post-war Germany. He shows the reader very well how the aftermath of the war crippled their lives and marriage; the details of their daily lives subtly show how Fred and Käte percieve their world, and the fact he goes back and forth between the POV of the two characters is enlightening, and provides the reader with the full story. It's also heart-warming and very realistic. Despite their troubles, they still love each other very much, and the ending is hopeful. I actually loved this book - my first Heinrich Böll novel - and can't wait to read more of this author.