Wilhelm Johannes Schwarz, Heinrich Böll: Teller of Tales (Frederick Ungar, 1969)
[originally posted 24Jan2002]
“It is certainly too early,” Schwarz begins his conspectus, “to assign Heinrich Böll his definitive place in German literature.” The Nobel committee obviously thought differently three years after the publication of this slim overview of Boll’s work to date; Boll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, based largely on the work he’d published up to 1969. Schwarz says that Böll’s novels are overrated at the beginning of the book. That’s the best kind of overrated there is, one thinks.
Teller of Tales is not so much a critical study as it is a survey. Rather than delve deeply into any aspect of the short stories and novels of Heinrich Boll, Schwarz seems content to draw parallels between certain types of characters in Böll’s novels. Each chapter except the first (Survey) and the last (Conspectus) focuses on a type of character who crops up in multiple Boll publications: the artist, the Catholic, etc. While this is certainly good information to have for one who’s working his way through Böll’s books, it would have been nice to see an extra hundred pages or so in this volume (which is only 116 pp. sans endnotes, preface, etc.) devoted to giving us more of what, in Schwarz’ opinion, Böll was really on about. Instead, Schwarz repeatedly falls back on the claim of the survey writer that such things are “beyond the limits of [the] study.” This, combined with Schwarz’ parade of
disparaging remarks throughout the survey (the “overrated” comment above, the sentence “Whenever he ventures into other techniques [e.g., the ambitious symbolism of Billiards at Half-Past Nine or the metaphysical dream language of The Bread of Our Early Years] his style appears labored and less than fully convincing.” In the preface, and other such comments throughout the first twenty pages of the book), one gets the distinct impression that Schwarz’ ulterior motive here was to damn Böll with faint praise. There is certainly something to be said for calling Böll to task for the plodding pace of Billiards or the rather deus-ex-machina ending of The Train Was on Time, but with only one or two exceptions Schwarz ignores that which makes Böll such a brilliant writer when he’s on his game—his ability to make a reader not care about these things by being able to get his point across so clearly and competently. One must, of course, make an allotment for the possibility that Schwarz simply missed the point repeatedly, but that seems somewhat disingenuous when Schwarz talks again and again about Böll’s depictions of life in general after the war. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter to the Homecomer (what today we would think of as DPs). How much of the point could he really have missed? It’s also true that this was published five years before Boll’s magnum opus, The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum (and one thinks the Nobel committee must have been singularly pleased to see an author they’d given the award to only two years previous pull his finest novel out of a hat!), and perhaps Blum puts more of Böll’s stylistic kinks and message-bearing ability into perspective in the earlier novels.
It’s a decent place to start for the aspiring Boll critic who wants to see what directions he has to choose when writing a dissertation or a critical article. However, this certainly never approaches the utility for the layman contained in such critical studies as Reddick’s The Danzig Trilogy of Gunter Grass (a necessity for getting the full power of Grass’ great work) or David Paul Henry’s The Early Development of the Hermeneutic of Karl Barth (a necessity for getting anything about Barth at all). As such, it’s probably best left until after the layman has read a good stack of Böll novels. ** ½