Saturday, 26 November 2011

German Literature Month - 'Der Engel Schwieg' Read-Along

It's funny how things work out.

I realise you're probably not quite with me yet, so let me explain.  Among my many plans for German Literature Month, several of which have fallen by the wayside, was an intention to spread my reading as widely as possible, and one reason for this was to avoid reading more than one book by any given author.  However, after enjoying Heinrich Böll's early novel Und sagte kein einziges Wort, I caved in (as I am wont to do) and bought a copy of his posthumously released work Der Engel schwieg (The Silent Angel) just in time for Caroline's read-along.

Don't worry - I am (albeit slowly) going somewhere with this...

Der Engel schwieg is a novel Böll drafted at the request of his publishers; however, they (in their infinite wisdom) decided that the tone was not what they, or their readers required at the time.  It was not until 1992 that the book was published for the first time, in honour of what would have been Böll's 75th birthday.

The reason for the rejection was quite simply that the Germans were apparently sick of stories about the war, an idea which seems a little absurd now, but was probably fairly accurate at the time.  Böll's book then, dealing as it does with the experiences of a soldier gone AWOL right at the end of the Second World War, may have seemed a little unpalatable - which, of course, is not to say that it isn't a good book...

The main character of the novel is the aforementioned soldier, Hans Schnitzler, who returns to Cologne in search of three things: a new, safe identity; the wife of a man whose message he has promised to deliver; and, most importantly, a reason to actually carry on living.  After disposing of the first two of his tasks, Hans decides on a whim to return an overcoat he borrows from a Catholic hospital he visits, and (in a rather sentimental twist) goes some way towards succeeding in his third task.

The war may be over, but the hard work of actually living is only just beginning.  In the first third of the novel, the reader is repeatedly assaulted by the uncaring remarks of Böll's weary inventions.  The overall impression of the survivors of the war is that the dead are the lucky ones, as they will not have to deal with the pain and hardships to come.  As the story progresses though, and Hans and Regina (the owner of the overcoat!) become closer, the tone grows more optimistic, suggesting that there is always a way forward, even if it is currently hidden from sight.

This idea is one of Böll's central themes, and Der Engel schwieg is, as much as it is a novel, a repository for the ideas the writer was to develop over the rest of his career.  One of Böll's most successful, and certainly most substantial, works, Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady), is a more detailed, extended look at the time and issues covered here.  However (and this is where I have been going since the start of the post!), the work most influenced by Der Engel schwieg is, of course, none other than Und sagte kein einziges Wort...

On the very first page, as Hans is first startled, and then fascinated, by a dusty, grimy statue of an angel, I had an uncanny feeling of déjà vu (or perhaps déjà lu!), one which was quickly born out.  You see, once his novel had been rejected, the prosaic writer, with a family to provide for, cannibalised his story, sending parts off for publication in newspapers and recycling some of it in the later novel.  The angel scene is not the only one reused in Und sagte kein einziges Wort: both Hans and Fred have an impeccable memory for faces, while Regina's battle with dirt is very similar to Käte's experiences in her one-room apartment.  In addition, the sympathetic priest who helps Hans out has a more-than-passing resemblance to the clergyman Käte and Fred encounter.

But there is more of a similarity than just a few recycled passages.  In essence, the later book is a redrafting of Der Engel schwieg, with the action moved several years into the future.  Rather than concentrating on the difficulty of moving on at the end of the war, Und sagte kein einziges Wort focuses on the day-to-day struggles of the poor in a time when the Wirtschaftswunder had yet to take hold.  Obviously, the idea of a struggling working class couple was more acceptable than that of a couple living in sin in a bomb-damaged house...

Useful as it is to the Böll scholar though, Der Engel schwieg is a fascinating novel in its own right.  The descriptions of the constant search for food, a pleasure which has become a need, a drive, can be painful to read, reminding us of our fortune in being able to open the cupboards any time we feel peckish.  We are stunned by Hans' walks through the streets of Cologne, over piles of rubble, past houses with no roof (and walls with no house).  And, as is usually the case in Böll's fiction, there is a villain - a rich man, well-connected and influential in the church.  Part of Böll's magic here is in showing us how he too is actually a very unhappy person...

According to Caroline, Böll is considered to be a bit of a sentimental and romantic read by the Germans, perhaps not as heavyweight as certain other novellists, and I can definitely see where you could get that idea.  However, in his efforts to humanise the anonymous lives of ordinary Germans after the war, he also succeeds in creating real, flesh-and-blood heroes.  From depressing, hopeless beginnings, his creations do eventually see light at the end of the tunnel.  Hans and Regina, initially envious of the dead, later find happiness, a feeling they didn't think would ever return:
"Ich bin sehr glücklich", sagte sie langsam.
"Ich auch", sagte er, "ich weiß nicht, ob ich jemals so glücklich war."
"I'm very happy", she said slowly.
"Me too", he said, "I don't know if I was ever this happy." p.155 (2009, dtv)
Sometimes, it's nice to just have a happy ending...