Where Language is Home: A Conversation on Heinrich Böll at Goethe Institut New York
(© Samay Böll)
The author Heinrich Böll is among the contemporary literary greats of Germany, whose work earned him accolades throughout his career both at home and abroad- including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. The Brooklyn publisher Melville House has reintroduced Böll to his American audience with its release of eight new English translations in the series "The Essential Heinrich Böll" over the past year.
The series and the life of the author behind it formed the subject of "An Evening on The Essential Heinrich Böll," a panel discussion with artist René Böll, Wall Street Journal critic Sam Sacks, and German-Irish author Hugo Hamilton at Goethe-Institut New York on January 16. The discussion began with a personal narrative by René Böll, who described his father's relationship to Ireland with a slide presentation of family photos from their time on Achill Island, off the western coast of Ireland, in the 1950s. Though Heinrich Böll was deeply attached to his home city of Cologne, Ireland was "always on his mind," a place that served as an "escape" from the war-torn city.
He presented images of Böll family life in a cottage with no electricity or running water, where the children were home-schooled by their mother and lived in relative anonymity- and isolation- while their father wrote and their mother translated English books into German. As a hand-written list of points appeared on the screen, René Böll paused and expounded on a few anecdotes: the title read "irische Themen," and, as he explained, these were the recollections and remarks that would form Böll's Irish Journal, a book documenting his travels through Ireland in the 1950s.
This view of Heinrich Böll illuminated his relationship with a country that afforded him the space to work in ways a destroyed Cologne could not. It also highlighted the importance of Böll's observations of Germany from this distance, in a place that was largely "still asleep" to the war and the Holocaust, as Hugo Hamilton, author of "The Speckled People," described the remoteness of Irish society in the 1950s.
(© Samay Böll)
Böll grappled with the consciousness of a postwar Germany in his writing, meditating on themes that directly confronted the physical and psychological destruction in the aftermath of the Second World War. Sacks noted in the "stylistic ingenuity and brilliance" of works such as "Billiards at Half-Nine" and "The Clown," a deep concern for humanity and a "constant search to regain innocence" of Böll's Trümmerliteratur, or "literature of the rubble," as German post-war literature is often characterized.
Himself a witness to combat as a private wounded four times throughout WWII, Böll engaged Germany's traumatic and immediate past and attempted to muster a language that could take on a period that seemed to defy description or reflection. His linguistic and stylistic efforts were Böll's tool to produce a literature free of a "German language corrupted by Nazi propaganda," said Sacks. Böll was influenced by writing outside of the German writing tradition, added Hamilton, as he developed a language that would "reshape of the moral consciousness of Germany."
Though he may have found temporary refuge in the quiet of an Irish island, "the German language was his home," said René Böll. Remaining true to his art with an acute social awareness of his time, Böll's legacy extends far beyond his literary stance into a compelling figure for present-day, English-language readers alike.