I love blogging exercises that bring much deserved attention to books languishing almost forgotten on publisher’s back lists, particularly ones that were once rightly heralded as classics.
What is the neglected classic?
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll (1974). Boll is a German writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, who died in 1985. His writing was often preoccupied with the problem of authority, and his literary villains tend to come from the church, the government or the world of big business. He was quick to condemn lack of moral courage, abuse of power and self-righteous smugness, all of which made him an important author in the wake of Nazism. His work was termed ‘the literature of the rubble’, as he and several other authors in his era struggled to come to terms with the legacy of the Second World War. Like most writers who have achieved renown in their own lifetimes, Boll has been somewhat forgotten after his death.
When did you first read it?
I read it when I was preparing for my admissions interview for Cambridge, so that would have been….ooh, 1985? 1986? A long time ago, in any case. I had never read anything like it in my life before, and it was all the more powerful because it was a short little book written in a style of maximum accessibility. I’d read Jane Austen and found her charmingly clever and fun, and the Bronte’s who had been emotionally fraught. But I had never come across a book that contained and channeled its emotion into a whipcrack of cold disdain. It burned the way ice burns. It made me angry. I wanted to get to Cambridge very badly and have someone tell me what to do with what I’d read.
Give a brief summary of the book.
This is what it says on the back:
The first facts to be presented are brutal.
On Wednesday, 20 February 1974, a young woman of twenty-seven leaves her apartment in a certain city at about 6.45 p.m. to attend a dance at a private home.
Following a brief encounter with a man wanted by the police, the hitherto unremarkable Katharina Blum becomes the object of an smear campaign conducted by an unscrupulous newspaper. Labelled a whore, communist sympathizer and atheist, her life is ruined; her privacy and reputation systematically destroyed.
In the formal, but not unsympathetic, manner of a police report, Nobel Prize Winner Heinrich Boll traces events as they lead to their violent conclusion.
What makes the book stand out to you?
It’s a stylistically simple narrative, no pretensions, no tricks, a complete absence of emotional manipulation, and it is all the more forceful for that. It’s one of those stories where you don’t have any idea what is going to happen, but you can feel the net closing and just about every action the characters take makes you feel like yelling ‘NO!’ at them. I wanted to climb through the bars of the sentences and get involved.
Name some similar authors.
It has crime and thriller elements, so might appeal to those who like Barbara Vine. Maybe a bit of early John Updike, or one of Joyce Carol Oates’ novellas show similarities, with a taste of the darkly satirical in the manner of someone like Vonnegut. But if a woman had written this, it would definitely have been Marilyn French.
What sort of person would you recommend to read this book?
Hmm, tricky one. I don’t think anyone is barred from liking this as it is written in a very plain way. But I think you’d enjoy it more if you had at least a mild interest in political issues – particularly feminism and the portrayal of women in the media. Be warned that there is nothing fluffy or comforting about it, either, and not much in the way of a happy ending.
Do you have any quotes you would like to share?
It’s more of a taster, as the book isn’t linguistically rich or expressively emotional in a quotable way.
‘The prolonged nature of the investigation was explained by the fact that Katharina Blum was remarkably meticulous in checking the entire wording and in having every sentence read aloud to her as it was committed to the record. For example, the advances mentioned in the foregoing paragraph were first recorded as ‘amorous’, the original wording beng that ‘the gentleman became amorous’, which Katharina Blum indignantly rejected. A regular argument as to definition ensued between her and public prosecutors, and between her and Beizmenne, with Katharina asserting that ‘becoming amorous’ implied reciprocity whereas ‘advances’ were a one-sided affair, which they had invariably been. Upon her questioners observing that surely this wasn’t important and it would be her fault if the interrogation lasted longer than usual, she said she would not sign any deposition containing the word ‘amorous’ instead of ‘advances’. For her the difference was of crucial significance, and one of the reasons why she had separated from her husband was that he had never been amorous but had consistently made advances.’
Just a couple of extra things to tack onto the end of this post. The first is that the Slaves of Golconda group has chosen its next read, scheduled for discussion on 31st May. The book is Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, which won the Whitbread Prize for biography.
‘In one of the most extraordinary memoirs of recent years, Lorna Sage brings alive her girlhood in post-war provincial Britain. From memories of her family and the wounds they inflict upon one another, she tells a tale of thwarted love, failed religion and the salvation she found in books.’
‘Lorna Sage may be the proof we need that literature really can make something happen…Bad Blood tells a story about books as passports our of a childhood hell.’ Marina Warner, Independent.
Do join in with us if you would like to.
The other thing is that I’ve become involved in an online radio review programme. I’ll tell you more about this when I have some proper details, but one of the topics up for discussion is going to be the recent rash of Jane Austen spin-offs. I would be so very grateful for any recommendations; there are so many sequels and rewrites and Austen-obsessed novels to choose from, I don’t know where to start! But please, no zombie mash-ups; they give me a sense of humour failure. Thank you in advance!