When Heinrich Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, the general tenor was that it was an explicitly political award. That image is wrong, and it was wrong even then.
Translated with DeepL.
Original language: Deutsch
When Heinrich Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, the general tenor, not only in the German reception, was that it was an explicitly political award. Böll had been the target of a wide variety of attacks by conservative media throughout 1972 - from Bild-Zeitung to Die Welt to Berliner Morgenpost, from Christ und Welt to Rheinischer Merkur to Gerhard Löwenthal's ZDF-Magazin - attacks that could almost be interpreted conspiracy-theoretically as a targeted joint campaign. In reality, they were more like rearguard action, since the mood had shifted at least since the second half of the 1960s in favor of opening up and liberalizing society, which Willy Brandt summed up in 1969 with the catchy formula "Mehr Demokratie wagen" (dare more democracy). The attacks on Böll were based on a Spiegel article that appeared in early 1972. It was the time when the term "sympathizing" (with the terrorism of the RAF) came into being and later advanced to "sympathizing swamp." Moreover, since in November of the eventful year 1972 federal elections were pending, the Swedish Academy's decision in favor of Böll was even interpreted by the usual suspects as an intervention in the election campaign, first and foremost by Franz Josef Strauß.
Against the general tenor
So far, so predictable. However, even literary critics, who largely agreed with this decision, understood the prize to be predominantly morally and politically motivated, while Heinrich Böll's literary qualities were often judged skeptically.
The general tenor - long before the Nobel Prize - was that the author did indeed take up important themes and material and also told stories that were well worth reading, that he was a very committed writer, but that formally he was not up to the mark. This image of the good man of Cologne, who had his merits but told stories in a somewhat sedate manner, has persisted to this day.
This image is wrong and was already wrong at the time. Heinrich Böll did not give his actual Nobel Prize speech or lecture until May 2nd, 1973, before the members of the Swedish Academy. It is entitled "Versuch über die Vernunft der Poesie" ("Attempt at the Reason of Poetry") and is nothing less than a poetics lecture in short form. Böll begins with an image from engineering, referring to the statement of many experts that even in such a meticulously planned process as the construction of a bridge, "a few millimeters to centimeters of unpredictability remain." It is this unpredictability that is at stake, this inevitable difference between conception and work, this transition from the conscious (planned) to the unconscious, through which alone a literary text can succeed, moreover, that process in which "the author's imagination combines with that of the reader in a hitherto unexplained way, an overall process that cannot be reconstructed." That is why the writer never finds a satisfactory answer to the question of how or why he wrote this or that, even if he were to keep an accompanying work log during the work. "It remains and will remain a district, however tiny, into which the reason of our provenance does not penetrate, because it encounters the hitherto unsettled reason of poetry and imagination."
This sounds very little like a staunch advocate of "engaged literature," as much as Böll was engaged as a public figure on all sorts of issues. Accordingly, in his Nobel Lecture, he defends literature as a whole and in all its forms: "...and it seems to me almost suicidal if we still and always discuss the division into committed literature and the other at all."
Storytelling with a double bottom
The writer's work deals with the unpredictable, the ambiguous; his duty, according to Böll, is to "penetrate the spaces in between." (Highly interesting here the proximity to Roland Barthes' well-known characterization: "writer = man of the in-between.")
Böll certainly did that in his works. Six years before the Nobel Prize, for example, the story "Ende einer Dienstfahrt" appeared, whose apparent harmony and peacefulness has a double bottom. Böll makes use of the form of the idyll, but not with a backward-looking, reactionary tendency, but as a foil of utopian reflections. Billiards at Nine-thirty," published in the praised (West) German literary year of 1959, is also formally a very advanced novel with its polyphonic three-generation story, told in one day, and only at first glance is Grass's contemporaneous "Tin Drum" with its baroque habitus "more modern." What makes Böll's narration so special is its sensuality, its dense description, but far removed from any naturalism: "What is real is determined by the author," as he said in his laudatory speech for the Büchner Prize winner Reiner Kunze in 1977. He not only determines it, he creates it.
"Not out of mere playfulness and not just to shock, art and literature have repeatedly changed their forms," Böll's speech said. He himself also sought new forms until the end. The so-called novel "Frauen vor Flusslandschaft" (Women in front of a river landscape), which was published posthumously and whose 12 chapters know only the dialogue form and soliloquy, is an expression of what Marcel Reich-Ranicki called in his review "an elegy with bizarre features, a requiem with satirical accents". I could imagine that Böll, in the thorough revision he was still planning, would have dispensed with the dialogues and let only one voice speak in this great elegy, as Beckett did in "The Last Tape," only that this voice would have been clearly female.
So there were already enough literary reasons in 1972 to award Heinrich Böll the Nobel Prize for Literature and to temporarily forget the committed public figure and the good man of Cologne - which he was not anyway. And there are sufficient literary reasons to continue reading him.