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Heinrich Böll drew a line between polemic essays and serious fiction and preserved the integrity of each function in his writings. The response, primarily to his stories and novels, was phenomenal as judged by more than the 30 million copies of his books published, including translations into some forty-five languages. Although there were scores of "committed" writers on the postwar scene, Böll has been credited with being the representative, critical chronicler of the recent four decades of the Federal Republic of Germany. This aspect of Böll's "contemporaneity" is insistently underlined by James H. Reid, a Reader in German of the University of Nottingham, in his study Heinrich Böll: A German for His Time. Marshaling a great deal of reliable information, Reid amply discusses Böll's steady concerns with German social, economic, political, and religio-institutional issues. A defensive apology for not dealing with Böll's fiction on artistic and aesthetic grounds marks Reid's conclusion: "Böll's works will survive as long as the issues with which they deal continue to be of interest." We can easily put aside the question of whether or not the "issues" that Böll confronts can ever vanish from German life by noting that we still continue to read Cervantes with negligible attention to the specific socioreligious and economic issues that convulsed sixteenth-century Spain, and we continue to read Dante without involvement in the theological warfares of his times.
The perishability of works of fiction depends upon many intangibles, but the contemporary appeal of Böll's fiction has roots that remain uncovered, even in Reid's sweeping study. For too long we have been content to hear that Böll's writings evoke reciprocal responses from those who feel exploited by institutional machineries or those who share Böll's political views on both sides of the divided Germanies or, as Reid notes as well, that "Böll does not choose to leave his readers in despair." Just how sensitive Germans are to their indigestible past was demonstrated by the furious reactions to a speech in November 1988 by Bundestag president Philipp Jenninger as he graphically recreated the silent complicities in Germany that led to the barbarous Crystal Night of 1938 and to the later mass murders of Jews and other victims. Although Böll did not shirk the stark realities of the past in his writings, he found a way of blunting German guilt by conciliatory rationalizations. Repeatedly, he fashioned syllogisms: not the German soldier but the Army establishment must be saddled with the catastrophes and the horrors of the "dirty war"; the social and political cleansing of Germany, he concluded in an essay of 1960, must be more expeditious because "all of us have been damaged by the past—and we are survivors." Such equalizing of suffering and secular absolutions from guilt were soothing pieties sought by Germans in [End Page 351] defense against conscience, foreign criticism, and accusations by émigrés. Günter Grass, on the contrary, did not endear himself to most of his compatriots with the near-scatological portrayals of historical incidents and Germans in his novels.
Ernest Hemingway is mentioned by Reid as being the most important of American writers read by Böll and then goes on to repeat—without elaboration—the oft-quoted remark by Böll that J. D. Salinger had served a postwar "liberating function" for him. In fact, the Hemingway impact was slight in comparison with that of Salinger. Böll and his wife Marie translated much of Salinger's fiction, and "liberation" consisted of recognizing and adopting techniques that interwove interior memory narratives skillfully developed in The Catcher in the Rye; the theme of the...