René Böll, one of Heinrich Böll’s two surviving sons, is busier than ever giving interviews on the occasion of his father’s centenary. A visual artist and former publisher, the 69-year-old also writes poetry and is his father’s executor. He is also co-founder of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Son René Böll manages his father’s estate
He was candid in an interview with author Tanja Dückers at the Berlin International Literature Festival this fall about how he thinks his father is viewed these days, what marked him as a writer, and on the ups, downs and public conflicts of the past.
Author for ordinary people
Heinrich Böll was born in Cologne in 1917 and grew up in a lower middle class Catholic family. Years later, in 1971, the national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called it an “idyllic laundry stench” and “honorable nuisance in our country”. René noted: “He looked at his own texts and replied:” But a laundry room does not even appear in my texts. “” added the son: “He has never even set foot in a laundry room.”
One of the many objects from Heinrich Böll’s estate: a family photo taken in Ireland, 1958
Struggling with post-war Germany
René gets serious as he reflects on his father’s basic attitudes, relating a story that the elder Böll never distinguished between ordinary and exceptional people. Criticism of his literature in this regard is wrong, he believes, as one of his father’s strengths was that he was able to put himself in other people’s shoes. This can be seen in the post-war works which first caught his attention, such as “Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa …” (Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We …), published in 1950 , as well as in his later “Briefe aus dem Krieg” (Letters of War), published 16 years after his death in 1985.
“I think these things were essential for him – that people were equal everywhere,” said René. “Arrogance and vanity, class distinctions and above all a subordinate mentality were completely foreign to him.
Heinrich Böll (r) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972
Böll’s writings in the 1950s and 1960s reflected factional conflicts between former Nazis and dissidents, books such as “Billard um halb zehn” (Billiards at half past nine) and his bestselling 1963 novel “Ansichten eines Clowns ” (The clown). He was a political author who scored successful novels such as the 1971 “Gruppenbild mit Dame” (Group Portrait with a Lady). Celebrated in Germany, he gained worldwide fame when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.
Political conscience or author?
Soon after, the public had a different take on Böll. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, Böll published an appeal to the German Red Army faction in the news magazine Der Spiegel while criticizing the way the Bild The tabloid reported on Ulrike Meinhof and the Baader-Meinhof group, a militant left-wing terrorist cell. Der Spiegel published Böll’s essay and titled “Will Ulrike Gnade oder freies Geleit?” (Does Ulrike want mercy or a safe-conduct?)
“This article was of course serious business, especially because Der Spiegel changed the title, ”said René Böll. “My father always said ‘Ulrike Meinhof’, never ‘Ulrike’. The intimacy involved in simply using his first name did not exist, he noted. son believes.
“What followed was a storm of newspaper articles attacking my father and even our entire family,” said René. “There were tirades in the German Parliament, where he was called insignificant and ignorant. And the right-wing press called him a communist and anarchist.”
Heinrich Böll (l) with writer Günter Grass and Chancellor Willy Brandt, 1970
Despite the protests, Böll succeeded. His most famous work, “Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum” (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), was published in 1974. Böll accused the Springer, publisher of Bild, of “pure and simple fascism”. His contribution to the debate on violence in the 1970s sold over two million copies, has been translated into 30 languages, and was made into a film by German director Volker Schlöndorff.
13 of Böll’s books have become films. From 1970 he was president of the German chapter of poets, essayists, novelists (PEN), and from 1972 to 1974 chaired the international chapter of this association of writers.
“My dad could describe very simple things in an incredibly beautiful way,” said René. “I think ‘Billiards at Half-Past Nine’ is still grossly underrated.”
Heinrich Böll has recently become popular again as a written witness to past periods of post-war Germany. “Ulrich Greiner, in the weekly Die zeit, recently wrote that “People haven’t even discovered the literary quality of Böll’s works,” said René. ” I agree. “
“Very few books are sold, but there are still millions lying around,” he added. How many are thrown away and how many are taken off the shelves and read?
The last of Böll’s work was published last October by Kiepenheur & Witsch: “Man möchte manchmal wimmern wie ein Kind” (Sometimes you want to whine like a child. The War Diaries, 1943-1945). Enlisted in the Wehrmacht, Böll served on the Russian and French fronts in World War II, was wounded four times, and eventually landed in a US POW camp.
Böll would have written about “ordinary people”
“My father had three little pocket calendars with him,” says René, who painfully deciphers a few notes and doodles. “He wrote in the trenches and in military hospitals, using a pencil or whatever he had on hand.”
“Sometimes his experiences were almost impossible to convey. Instead, it was just words: hunger, despair, fear, how an officer was shot down next to him,” René noted.
The newspapers end with the release of Heinrich Böll from the prison camp. Their release this fall also comes full circle: in commemoration of his 100th birthday and 22 years after his death, a reassessment of his works has started in Germany.