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The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Boll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement.

The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Boll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement. Ed. by MICHAEL BUTLER. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. xv + 280 pp. 37.50 [pounds sterling].

In the many obituaries and articles that followed Boll's death in 1985 there was general agreement about his sense of responsibility, his commitment, and his integrity. Questions were raised, however, about the nature of his specifically literary achievement, his strengths and weaknesses as a writer of fiction, and some doubts were expressed about the aesthetic qualities of his more ambitious works. In 1988 J. H. Reid published the first major reappraisal in English of the completed work, and stressed its essential German quality. Like Thomas Mann, Boll must be seen specifically as 'a German for his time'. This new collection of essays edited by Michael Butler, from a series of research seminars conducted by the German staff at Birmingham, now admirably complements Reid's book in offering several detailed studies of the major works, paying particular attention to their aesthetic qualities and the literary traditions to which they belong.

The seminar papers have been put together as a book in a coherent form with some central binding notions, most crucially that there is an intimate and subtle link between the moral and aesthetic issues and the socio-political concerns in Boll's work. In the initial two chapters Butler provides a succinct account of Boll's development as a 'conservative moralist' as well as offering the most detailed analysis thus far of Der Engel schwieg (written 1949 to 1951, but published only in 1992), whilst Wilfried van der Will traces Boll's career as an 'embattled intellectual', exploring the strange paradox that he not only became the object of great adulation but also was intensely hated by many of his contemporaries. The roots of Boll's moralism in the German Enlightenment are explored, together with his emergence as a non-conformist among 'Linksintellektuellen' in charting 'der dritte Weg' between Communism and Capitalism. Culturally, he is part of that tradition of non-conformism established by Buchner, Heine, and the writers of 'Junges Deutschland'. These two chapters form the contextual basis for the book, with the following ten contributions providing its analytical core.

All the major works are covered, with the exception of the 'Horspiele', which are deemed to merit a separate generic study. Whilst there is no individual chapter on the important non-fiction, due account is taken of key essays on the writer's task, particularly 'Die Sprache als Hort der Freiheit', as well as the Frankfurter Vorlesungen and the interview Eine deutsche Erinnerung. Ronald Speirs's essay on the rhetoric of the early short stories is exemplary. He follows through some of the dominant patterns of the stories, nicely indicating that they are frequently linked to patterns of religious worship and, before focusing on the growing technical subtlety exemplified in a single story ('Die Postkarte', revised 1953), shows the 'development of [an] ironic, understated, implicative style' (p. 67). John Klapper's essay on the early satires suggests that Boll is closer to Horace and Tucholsky than to Swift, relying less on gross exaggeration, more on the closeness of his satire to 'existing circumstance' (p. 72). David Hill argues in his piece on the longer early fiction that war and the emergence of a particularly vigorous form of capitalism are symptoms of a wider malaise concerning alienation and the disintegration of values. Butler's own essay on Billard um halb zehn demonstrates the centrality of the idea of 'eine aktive Nachdenklichkeit', a term from the essay 'Wo ist dein Bruder?' of 1956, and this same author in his essay on Ansichten eines Clowns demonstrates the importance of the Theseus myth for a fuller understanding of the text. W. J. Dodd makes a strong case for those two most underrated novels Entfernung von der Truppe and Ende einer Dienstfahrt, again seeing Boll as a writer within a known literary tradition, linking the anarchic Schmo lder to Schweyk and Baron von Munchhausen (p. 161) and assessing the characters in Birglar in the light of Boll's view of the German comic tradition expressed in the Frankfurter Vorlesungen. Michael Perraudin offers a close analysis of the complex and problematic role of the Verf. in Gruppenbild mit Dame and an astute reassessment of the many critical approaches to the novel's narrator in the published literature. Nigel Harris's discussion of violence in all its forms, physical, structural, psychological, and linguistic, considerably aids understanding of the polemical element of Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. Wilfried van der Will shows how in Fursorgliche Belagerung Boll successfully captures the political mood of the so-called 'Deutscher Herbst' of 1978. Perhaps the most interesting analytical contribution is Butler's reassessment of his earlier view of Frauen vor Flusslandschaft, which is a positive evaluation of the work in the light of its experimental form, and he singles out Grobsch's monologue in Chapter 6 as 'a bravura piece of satirical prose' (p. 244). It is an intriguing idea to see the frightening Kurhaus Kuhlbollen and the Rhine as counter-symbols (p. 249), and the essay focuses convincingly on the fuller implications for the understanding of the novel of the whole of Goethe's 'Wanderers Gemutsruhe', two stanzas of which preface the novel.

A common theme running through these essays relates to the 'mythologisch-theologische Problematik' Boll himself asserted (in Eine deutsche Erinnerung) to be central to his work, since it encompasses his view that the need to learn from the past is linked to a metaphysical and aesthetic standpoint that underlines the importance of humane values. This ultimately reflects, too, a belief in the value of literature itself as 'Dynamit fur alle Ordnungen dieser Welt' (quoted on page 255). It is a view, Utopian and yet realistic, that informs much of Boll's work and is amply demonstrated in the various analyses that make up this impressive volume.

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Author:Hanson, William
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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