December 17, 2010

Heinrich Böll: Revisited


As the many many new fans of Hans Fallada‘s Every Man Dies Alone might already be aware, Melville House has developed something of a reputation for rescuing authors from literary neglect. (Indeed, one of our distributor reps has nicknamed us “Melville Haus.”) Heinrich Böll might seem an unlikely candidate for this “neglected” category since he was one of the most celebrated German authors of the 20th century and won a little award known as the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But literary reputations can be capricious things and his sales and reputation have declined in America, until many are unfamiliar with the fineness of his stories, the complexity of his morals, the power of his insights. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Melville House will be releasing “The Essential Heinrich Böll,” a series of eight great works by Böll, including the first complete collection of his short stories that have been published in English. The books feature brilliant new designs and new introductions and afterwords by prominent literary figures including William T. Vollman and Salman Rushdie. In the latest issue of Bookslut, Jessa Crispin (who wrote the afterword to Billiards at Half-Past Nine) spoke to Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson about the often uphill battle involved in making the English-speaking world notice, read, and even, shockingly, take pleasure in the writing of Heinrich Böll.

Below are a few highlights from the wide-ranging conversation. Read the entire interview here.


When I first became familiar with Böll in my 20s, I was thinking outdated, dull, deadly boring. (But it turns out I like a lot of things that other people consider to be outdated, dull, and deadly boring. Like Henry James. And the opera.) Everything awash in brown tones. What I was surprised by, revisiting Billiards at Half Past Nine in order to write the introduction, was the anger. The book is shot through with red.


Böll doesn’t have the kind of personal story that Fallada — or Keun or von Horvath — did. Although as a thoughtful young liberal, even just as a German of the day, his life was not bereft of hellish drama. He did survive the war, and he did write about having been a conscripted Nazi soldier very quickly after the war — he didn’t obscure the fact for decades, the way Gunter Grass did. He did, very bravely, place himself squarely in the ranks of those who must atone, who took part in the horror.

But he was of a slightly later, transitional generation and his topic was not the rise of totalitarianism nor the war for the most part but rather of its aftermath. He introduced the age of guilt and responsibility to his fellow Germans. He asked not only “What then must we do?” but, first, “My God, what have we done?” And of course neither of these questions were particularly welcome.

And this is the kind of writing — and the kind of writer — that it seems to me is very important to contemporary American culture to remember, at the same time that that culture has made it easy to forget about.


Billiards at Half Past Nine is a chorus of voices, and everyone is fucked in their own way. But when I think about it, it’s the moment when the mother can no longer recognize her son Otto, the son who becomes a true believer in the party and starts bringing other believers into her home. That’s the part that breaks my heart. You can know and love your family, and then one of them just gets taken over by this force, and there’s just no reaching them anymore.

I don’t know how I feel about the news that the Americans are remaking The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum — the old German version is so very, very good. I hope they let a German be in it.

I think that’s why I like your insistence on bringing the German voice into the conversation. Gunter Grass can’t do it all! There are some other German writers saying interesting things, in fiction and nonfiction and poetry. And that’s what I’ve always liked about your list, actually. That it is rigorous and cacophonous in a way that so little of American literary culture is anymore.


The book that sparked my interest in doing the Böll project the most, to answer your question, was a book written at precisely that transitional moment, when people are afraid of fascism coming and going – The Safety Net, which I hadn’t read it before. It’s about what happens when a paranoid nation encounters concepts of “security” that may be more troubling than the trouble from which they’re seeking protection. I mean, it’s actually about countries trying to implement security systems and procedures that will protect them from terrorism. Böll was writing about the terrorism of the Red Army Faction — the Baader-Meinhoff Gang — but it might just as well have been al Qaida. And interestingly enough, he’s looking at how this impacts the people who actually implement those security systems — those in power….The book has a big cast of characters, industrialists and politicians, including the president of Germany, and their families, paralyzed and slowly damaged by security concerns. It’s a perverse kind of Prince and the Pauper. I mean, imagine if Bush or Sarah Palin had to live with the real fruits of their paranoia? It’s the kind of book that makes you want to stand up and cheer if it weren’t so chilling.