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The life of Nobel Prize winning writer Heinrich Boll

Heinrich Boll in 1983. Photo: Alain MINGAM/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks back on the life of influential German writer Heinrich Boll.

It was a dark, chilly February evening when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arrived at a remote house in the shadow of the Eifel Hills an hour southwest of Cologne on February 13, 1974. Almost exactly 24 hours earlier the dissident writer had been arrested in Moscow, spent the night in prison then been expelled from the Soviet Union. He had been granted asylum in Germany and specifically requested to be taken to this farmhouse with its barn and cobbled courtyard situated on the outskirts of the village of Langenbroich.

As he approached the gate looking tired, bewildered and clutching a bunch of daffodils handed to him by a well-wisher, the posse of journalists who had followed him on the two-and-a-half hour drive from Frankfurt airport still shouted questions even though he’d already told them he couldn’t say anything until he’d spoken to his family and made sure they were safe.

The floodlights set up by the television crew beaming the pictures live across West Germany lit up the faces of villagers, police officers, journalists and the heavy features of the owner of the house emerging from the front door. Heinrich Böll kissed a tired, bewildered Solzhenitsyn on both cheeks, and invited him inside.

It was no surprise that Böll was Solzhenitsyn’s first thought as a provider of sanctuary, even in the confused whirl of events in which he had become engulfed. They had been friends since 1962 when Böll visited the Soviet Union as part of a cultural delegation and the German writer had since recommended Solzhenitsyn for the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he’d received himself two years before the Russian’s arrival on his doorstep. Only the previous month Böll had called for the Soviets to lift their ban on publishing Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

When the West German authorities had telephoned Böll that morning and asked if he’d be happy to receive Solzhenitsyn the 57-year-old agreed immediately. By the time his wife Annemarie went into the village to shop for their imminent houseguest the word was out and Böll found himself giving an impromptu news conference from a first-floor window.

‘Sometimes we have visitors here and sometimes they get something to eat,’ he smiled when asked about his wife’s shopping trip. ‘Please don’t trample him when he arrives.’

There was extra nuance to Böll’s involvement with Solzhenitsyn’s enforced departure from Moscow and arrival at his door: arrivals and departures were a key aspect of his life and work.

‘I suppose that’s related to the war, to the hundreds of departures and farewells which could always be final,’ he told the Paris Review in 1983. ‘Nobody knew, will we ever see one another again? It’s always difficult to depart; the realistic aspect does not exclude the metaphorical one, the interpretation that here on earth we find ourselves in a waiting room.’

No wonder he opened his home to an old friend who at that moment had no idea if he’d ever see his family again.

The Second World War formed and defined Heinrich Böll. Conscripted in 1939, he spent the conflict as an infantryman in the Wehrmacht, serving in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Crimea and in France. He was wounded four times and endured a bout of typhoid before, in the spring of 1945, he was captured near his home city of Cologne by the Americans and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Even behind the razor wire he felt more at liberty than he had since the start of the war.

‘I will never forget the moment when I was liberated by the American army,’ he recalled later. ‘I will never forget those very young boys coming up the hill who had to take me prisoner in order to liberate me.’

The son of a Cologne cabinet maker, Böll had been apprenticed to a bookseller when he left school but was called up to do mandatory work placements on the land before being conscripted into the army. After his release by the Americans he worked for a while for his father’s business and published his first short stories ahead of his first novel, Der Zug war pünktlich (The Train Was on Time) in 1949 about the experiences of German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

Böll was unusual in that he was prepared to write about the horrors of Germany’s role in the war and confront its legacy almost as soon as it was over. As a miraculous economic revival heaved West Germany towards an unlikely financial redemption Böll was part of a group of writers who felt this came at the expense of any kind of moral responsibility. As he saw it, too many people were happy to overlook their nation’s recent past. It had become something to be ignored, a taboo. Not everyone approved of his stance.

‘We were obviously giving offence by having seen these things and continuing to see them,’ he said.

Trümmerliteratur, they called it, ‘the literature of the rubble’, books and stories unafraid to portray what soldiers had seen and endured during the war before their return home to find their towns and cities reduced to ruins.

Before the war Böll felt as if Cologne had been stolen from him by the Nazis. When he came back after being released by the Americans it was to a city with its heart torn out by Allied bombing. He never got over it.

Shaped personally and professionally by these experiences, Böll hit his literary stride during the 1960s and 1970s with novels translated into English as The Clown, Group Portrait with Lady, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Safety Net. His fiction was ambitious in form and subject matter yet he remained prolific and, unusually for a writer of literary fiction, commercially successful. During his lifetime he was the most widely read German author in the world with books translated into more than 30 languages, and while his international profile has faded since his death, Böll remains popular in Germany today. Such was his influence that when in 1972 he became Germany’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature since Thomas Mann in 1929 the committee cited his extraordinary contribution to ‘a renewal in German literature’.

He even found time to translate in partnership with Annemarie authors previously considered too difficult to render into German, like J.D. Salinger, Flann O’Brien, and Brendan Behan (he liked Irish writers in particular as for many years the Bölls kept a holiday home on Achill Island, County Mayo).

Unusually he was read on both sides of the Berlin Wall when hardly any West German authors were published in the East. Not only were his books officially endorsed in the German Democratic Republic he was a regular visitor there and would give lectures to packed audiences, railing against oppressive institutionalised power yet never incurring the disapproval of the most oppressive, instutionalised power in Europe at the time.

Most likely it was his determination to confront Germany’s fascist past that made his popularity so wide-ranging among readers, radicals and intellectuals on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as well as his frustration with a traditionally German kind of conditioning that could facilitate oppressive regimes.

‘The Nazi period could only ever have happened in Germany because the German education of obedience to any law and order was the main problem,’ he said.

His wide-ranging popularity combined with his lived experience to make Böll an effective leader first of the West German arm of the human rights organisation PEN International then president of its entire global network, and a sometimes controversial supporter of the radicalism that swept across the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Recognising this as an overdue reckoning with the German past he invited criticism from conservative sections of society on one hand and earned himself a reputation as ‘the conscience of the nation’ on the other. It was a title that irritated him; he felt everyone had an equal responsibility to confront both past and current oppression.

‘I don’t believe you can delegate your conscience,’ he said in 1974 once Solzhenitsyn had moved on and life began to return to normal in Langenbroich.

‘You have to have a personal conscience; you can’t go around saying that writers will be your conscience for you. Why, for example, should I have more conscience than the waiter who brings me my coffee?’

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