Böll — Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972 — would have turned 100 yesterday, & if the German papers are honoring him, though with rather distant & at times skeptical homages, internationally there doesn’t seem to be much noise about this centennial. A forgotten writer? He who was maybe the first contemporary prose writer I & my school mates enthused about, age 12/13, in high school when we read a few short stories from Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa in German lit class; he who a few years later, around 1968, was a defender & even collaborator of the radical students, us soixante-huitards as we came to be called; he, in whose dacha in the Eiffel Alexander Solzhenitsyn took refuge when he got out of the Soviet Union; he who was a friend to Paul Celan, the only one of the Gruppe 47 with whom Celan kept in touch & whom he visited in Köln on several occasions.
I must confess that my enthusiasm too was short-lived. The early short-stories, core examples of what came to be called Trümmerliteratur (rubble lit), were important for someone born just after WWII in a country that had been occupied by Germany in that they gave insight into how young (& older) Germans could be dragged into Nazism, how even non-nazis were dragged into the Wehrmacht & what their experiences in & right after the war were. I read a few more of the novels, but my interest waned (maybe because American lit began to take over for me?), though around 1960 I read and fell in love with his novel Billard um halb zehn (Billiards at Half-past Nine), a tale of three generations of Germans, builders & destroyers, which I reread every few years all the way into the eighties. And since then nothing, except for a volume of correspondence between him, Celan and two other of the poet’s “Rheinland friends.” Checking my book shelves I find five Böll titles. Only Billiards is well-thumbed. No more appetite for Böll’s prose. My fault? Böll’s? Or just as time goes by? I don’t know — & it probably matters little. But just maybe, during these holidays I’ll take down one or the other of Böll’s works & try to reread what was so important to me half a century ago. I’ll report here, if anything worth reporting comes of this. Here, below, the opening pages of Billiards: