Artist René Böll offers insight into the life and work of his father, writer Heinrich Böll. The Nobel laureate was once called the "author of ordinary people." December 21 marks the 100th anniversary of Böll's birth.
René Böll, one Heinrich Böll's two surviving sons, is busier than ever at the moment giving interviews on the occasion of his father's centenery. A visual artist and former publisher, the 69-year-old also writes poetry and is executor of his father's estate. He is also a co-founder of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
He was candid in an interview with author Tanja Dückers at the International Literature Festival in Berlin this fall about how he feels his father is perceived nowadays, what marked him as a writer, and about the ups, downs and public disputes of the past.
Author for ordinary people
Heinrich Böll was born in Cologne in 1917 and grew up in a lower middle class Catholic family. Years later, in 1971, the national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called him an "idyllist of laundry room stink" and an "honorable nuisance in our country." René noted, "He would look back at his own texts and respond: 'But a laundry room doesn't even come up in my texts.'" Added the son, "He never even set foot in a laundry room."
Wrestling with post-war Germany
René grows serious when reflecting on his father's basic attitudes, relaying a story that the elder Böll never distinguished between ordinary and exceptional persons. Criticism of his literature in this regard is misguided, he believes, as one of his father's strengths was that he was able to put himself in other people's shoes. That can be seen in the post-war works that garnered him initial attention, such as "Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa..." (Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We…), published in 1950, as well as in his later "Briefe aus dem Krieg" (Letters from the War), published 16 years after his death in 1985.
"I think these things were essential for him — that people were equal everywhere," René said. "Arrogance and conceit, class distinctions and especially a subordinate mentality were completely foreign to him."
Heinrich Böll (r) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972
Böll's writings during the 1950s and 60s reflected the factional disputes between former Nazis and dissidents, books such as "Billard um halb zehn" (Billiards at Half-Past Nine) und his very successful 1963 novel "Ansichten eines Clowns"(The Clown). He was a political author who scored best-selling novels such as the 1971 "Gruppenbild mit Dame" (Group Portrait with Lady). Celebrated in Germany, he became famous worldwide when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.
Political conscience or author?
Soon afterwards, the public had a different take on Böll. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize, Böll published an appeal to Germany's Red Army Faction in the news magazine Der Spiegel while simultaneously criticizing how the Bild tabloid reported on Ulrike Meinhof and the Baader-Meinhof group, a militant leftist terrorist cell. Der Spiegel published Böll's essay and titled it "Will Ulrike Gnade oder freies Geleit?" (Does Ulrike Want Clemency or Safe Conduct?)
"That article was a serious matter of course, especially because Der Spiegel changed the title," said René Böll. "My father always said 'Ulrike Meinhof,' never 'Ulrike.'" The intimacy implied by using just her first name did not exist, he noted. Böll the writer had never met Meinhof, his son believes.
"What followed was a storm of newspaper articles attacking my father, indeed our whole family," René said. "There were tirades in German Parliament, where he was called insignificant and ignorant. And the right-wing press labeled him a Communist and an anarchist."
Despite the protests, Böll remained successful. His most famous work, "Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum"(The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), was published in 1974. In it, Böll accused the Springer, publisher of Bild, of "outright fascism." His contribution to the debate on violence during the 1970s sold over two million copies, was translated into 30 languages and was turned into a film by German director Volker Schlöndorff.
13 of Böll's books became movies. From 1970, he served as president of the German chapter of the Poets, Essayists, Novelists (P.E.N.), and from 1972 to 1974 presided over the international chapter of that writers' association.
"My father could describe very simple things in an incredibly beautiful way," René said. "I think 'Billiards at Half-Past Nine' is still largely underrated."
Heinrich Böll has recently become popular again as a writing witness of past periods of postwar Germany. "Ulrich Greiner, in the newsweekly Die Zeit, recently wrote that 'People haven't even discovered the literary quality of Böll's works,'" René said. "I agree."
"Very few books are being sold, but there are still millions lying around," he added. How many get thrown away, and how many are pulled off the shelves and read?
The latest of Böll's works were published just this past October by Kiepenheur & Witsch: "Man möchte manchmal wimmern wie ein Kind" (Sometimes You Want to Whimper Like a Child. The War Diaries, 1943-1945). Drafted into the Wehrmacht, Böll served on the Russian and French fronts during World War II, was wounded four times and ultimately landed in an American prisoner of war camp.
"My father carried three little pocket calendars with him," said René, who painfully deciphered some of the notes and the scribbling. "He wrote in the trenches and in military hospitals, using a pencil or whatever he had at hand."
"Sometimes his experiences were nearly impossible to convey. Instead, they were single words: hunger, desperation, fear, how an officer was shot next to him," René noted.
The diaries end with Heinrich Böll's release from the prison camp. Their publication this fall also brings things full circle: in commemoration of his 100th birthday and 22 years after his death, a reevaluation of his works has begun in Germany.