When I was young (long ago), familiarity with some the work of Heinrich Böll (1917 -1985) was part of minimal cultural literacy. His 1971 novel Gruppenbildmit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady) was an international best-seller that prodded the Swedish Academy to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature the next year. The spines of his Irish Journal, his novel The Clown, and Eighteen Stories in their Grove editions were on the shelves of most North American intellectuals and would-be intellectuals.
Böll had avoided the Hitler Youth and the SS (unlike Günter Grass in both cases) and survived, though wounded four times, service in the Wehrmacht in France, Romania, Hungary and the Soviet Union. Böll was the leading creator of Trümmerliteratur-the literature of the rubble, the rubble not only being the physical destruction of German cities such as his native Köln/Cologne but the anguish of soldiers in a war that was not only unjust but losing.
I thought that Böll had been forgotten since Volker Schlöndorff’s 1975 movie adaptation of Böll’s 1974 Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), but though I have not seen or heard recent discussion of Böll, new editions of his works are rolling out in English. I picked up a copy of a collection of stories he wrote after the war (1947-49, plus one he wrote in 1936, before the war and rubble gave him his main subjects.
The stories in The Mad Dog (1997), translated by Breon Mitchell, were unsuccessfully submitted for publication. I don’t think that the title story is the best, though it’s weary voice(s a physician brought in to certify death and a priest who was with “the murdered murderer” during his last hour) is impressive.
The wry voice of a punctilious engineer who was in charge of building a bridge that was being wired with dynamite to be blow up in “The Tale of the Borkovo Bridge” (set in the 1943 retreat from the Red Army) is also impressive and the story relates absurdities that make the standard military phenomenon of “Hurry up and wait” seem comparatively sensible.
For me, the most outstanding of the stories is “Trapped in Paris,” with love, compassion, terror, and death throbbing in 19 pages. The story placed first in the collection, “The Fugitive” also has the last three of those (compassion, terror, and death). I guess both are “thrillers.” The final story, which was the first chapter of a novel Böll dropped, “Paradise Lost” seems diffuse in contrast with too much description of the nearly palatial house in which a returned soldier’s pre-conscription love lived. It is still affecting, as is the brief story told from the perspective of a woman in “The Tribe of Esau,” which only runs 3 ½ pages. “America,” which is the same length, is not affecting. “The Dead No Longer Obey,” is a sketch of two pages for which the title pretty much tells the story, a war story that could happen in any army anywhere.
“Youth on Fire” is the kind of story that a teenager overwhelmed by Dostoevsky might write, and Böll was still in high school when he wrote it in 1936. Though it is pretty awful, with a saintly prostitute and a despairing, oversensitive young male protagonist, this fervent early story does show by contrast the mature, postwar despairing moralist in embryo before he had mastered the craft of story-telling. It seems to me that it is more optimistic about the redemptive power of love than Böll’s mature work in which love cannot conquer all (“The Rendezvous” in this volume provides an early instance.)
“Trapped in Paris” and “The Tale of the Borkovo Bridge” are good introductions to Böll, though the collection of stories he could not get published when he wrote them and chose not to publish later is not a fair trial. Billiards at Half-Past Nine and The Clown remain the proper introduction to Böll and his Collected Stories is four times the length (probably more, given how many blank pages there are in The Mad Dog).