On Heinrich Boll

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!


27 thoughts on “On Heinrich Boll

  1. Hi,

    I like that meme idea too and may try my hand at it this weekend; thanks for passing along the idea. For the Jane Austen query, you may already know this one but I’m just reading Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (for an eventual review) and it has some interesting comments on, well, Jane’s fame, as well as quite a few references. I think it slightly predates the zombie/sea monster phenom (the downside of actual publishing clearly being that at some point you have to stop writing and go to press). Anyway, the book may be of interest.

  2. This book is definitely going on my list! I was interested but then when you said if a woman had written it it would be Marilyn French, well that clenched it.

    Congratulations on the radio project. How very exciting! Will there be podcasts or transcripts or something so those of us not in the neighborhood can enjoy them too? As for Austen spin-offs I avoid them like the plague except for the zombie mashup I made an unfortunate exception with that one.

  3. This sounds fascinating! I love a good (fictional) smear campaign! 😛 And Lorna Sage’s book sounds great as well – I may lurk on the edges of the group on this one. 🙂

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  5. What a wonderful meme. I love to hear about these less-well known books and this one sounds like it had a huge impact. Keep us posted about the online radio interview program too, please.

  6. If I recall, you’ve recommended this book before at some point, and it sounds like a fine read. It goes on my list right now.

    BTW, what do you think of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

    As for Jane Austen spin offs…I rather liked The Lost Diaries of Jane Austen, by Syrie James. I don’t care for the zombie books either – they just seem too strange! The radio show sounds like fun 🙂

  7. Ooh! The Voice of Litlove, coming soon to BBC Radio (which means I will miss it. D**n!)! I too loved The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, which I actually saw as a film–it makes an unforgettable film, precisely because of “the complete absence of emotional manipulation” that you mention. But I loved Boll’s short stories back in the dim dark ages of school. You make me want to bolster my spine and attack all those little yellow books hiding in the bedroom…As for Austen, no help from this quarter. Sorry.

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  9. Sounds powerful! You’ve inspired me to pull the Boll novel I have “Group Portrait with Lady” down off the shelf. The back cover claims the Nobel committee singled it out as his “most grandly conceived work.” It deals with similar themes as Katharina Blum. (the portrait includes “60 people who have known her in the past and present: cabinet ministers, prostitutes, garbage men, poets, profiteers, Communists, Catholics, Nazis. The result is both a sardonic pseudo-documentary … and a telling social portrait of Germany from the Twenties to the present.”)

    I remember liking it, but I don’t think it was the tour de force that K. Blum is.

  10. On Austen spin-offs: Stephanie Barron writes a mystery series where Jane Austen is a detective. Also, I’ve heard good things about Cathleen Schine’s new novel “The Three Weissmans of Westport”, which is inspired by Sense and Sensibility.
    Hope this helps you a little bit!

  11. An online radio review program! Cool 🙂 I’m looking forward to hearing more about it. This meme is interesting; I’ll have to think if there’s a book I’m dying to write about.

  12. I like the sound of Heinrich Boll (and my friend worked for the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Joburg) so I will add this to the TBR list. And congratulations on the radio project! I hope there’s a podcast since I enjoyed the podcasts you did before.

  13. What a fun meme. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a blog post on “nearly lost” books that hardly anyone reads. This is a good way to jump-start that. And how exciting you’re going to be on the radio. Sorry, though. I can’t help you with “new” Jane Austen. I tend to avoid that stuff.

  14. This is something I’ve had on my shelves for a long time now, somewhat mysteriously, without knowing much about it. And I have to say that I’ve always been slightly put off it because of how much I had overdosed on “Rubble” everything in my German studies. But you’ve made it sound much more appealing to me.

    Also, I agree that this is a great meme. I’ll have to see if I can think of anything I love that people don’t know.

  15. I think you might have mentioned this book before, because it sounds very familiar. Unfortunately it isn’t something my library owns (though it seems like we should), but we do have a German film that was made in the early 1970s–have you seen it? I think it sounds really interesting and will have to get it I think. As for Austen spin-offs–I know there are oodles of them, but I stay away from them (I think the originals are just fine on their own). If you don’t get very many suggestions, I know Sourcebooks publishes quite a lot of them, so you might take a look at their website. And I am looking forward to hearing more about your radio program (and contemplating reading Larsson sooner than later so I can listen in with a little background reading done).

  16. I had replied to my comments and was writing literally the last one when I pressed the wrong key and lost the lot. Aargh! So I had to go and do something else for a moment before returning for a second try…

    Rohan – thank you so much for that very useful recommendation. I’ve looked the book up and it seems splendid, so I will certainly be getting hold of it.

    Stefanie – I would love to know what you think of it! And as for the radio show, yes definitely, if it comes off there will be podcasts, to which I will alert my dear blogging friends. And I wish I could fancy the zombie thing – it’s a sense of humour failure on my part, I’m sure!

    Jenny – oh please do come and lurk with the Slaves, or even be welcomed into their cozy midst! And I’d love to know what you think of the Boll, too.

    Lilian – I am a sucker for those obscure-but-good classics! And I will certainly keep you informed of our progress!

    Becca – I most probably have mentioned it before; it’s in my pantheon of greats. I really enjoyed the Larsson, but am being restrained about it here as it will be part of the radio show. Once I know how not to repeat myself, I will review it here! And thank you for the book recommendation – I agree it looks head and shoulders above the other Austen spin-offs.

    ds – nothing as fancy as the BBC, alas! But hopefully fun, and certainly available on podcast if it all comes off. I have never seen the film, but you make me want to – it’s lovely that you know Boll’s writing too. He was such a favourite of mine!

    Ombudsben – I am SO impressed by my blogging friends and their knowledge – not to mention their bookcases. I have that Boll novel too, only in German, which I can no longer read, having forgotten all my vocab over the past 20 years. I should look out a translation.

    Niranjana – that is extremely helpful, thank you. And another reason to get hold of the Schine – you spoil me! 🙂

  17. Dorothy – hopefully it will be fun, although it is nothing glamourous! And I’d love to know what you make of Boll – I find him a really interesting author.

    Pete – most certainly there will be podcasts if it all comes off. And how cool to have a friend working for the Boll foundation (which I didn’t know existed). I would love to read more of his work.

    Emily – I cannot believe how many Jane Austen spin-offs there are! It’s amazing, and not necessarily in a good way. I can see I will have to be especially intrepid tackling these novels… And I’d love to see what you do with this meme. It’s a noble task to bring forgotten authors back into the light of the blogworld! 🙂

    Gentle reader – yay! We would so love to have you join us Slaves! And I’d love to know what you think of Boll, too.

    Nicole – I’d very much like to know what you think of it – and I’m intrigued as to which other authors come under the ‘rubble’ heading, as I only know about Boll. And thank you for Parade’s End, this morning, you have already been introducing me successfully to forgotten classics!

    Danielle – you are so right, there are oodles of Austen spi-offs, many of them very dodgy-looking! I haven’t seen the Boll film, although ds mentioned it as being good and now I am intrigued myself. And I really enjoyed the Larsson – very gripping, very satisfying. I’m completely into Scandinavian crime now (we’re also going to to Henning Mankell, and I’ve become interested in Karen Fossum and Karen Alvteger!). I’d love to know what you think of any or all of them!

  18. Thanks for doing this! However, I’m not sure how to say this without sounding bratty. But… it’s not a meme! It’s a guest posting series on BookLust, so I kind of want all of the posts to be THERE, not all over blogosphere (mostly because I am very anti-meme and am slightly embarrassed now that I inadvertently created one). Please stop! 🙂

  19. Also, I’m sorry, but if people start doing this meme on their sites I will be a bit upset. PLEASE if you want to participate, contact me on my blog and I will set up a guest post for you!

  20. This sounds like a great book, kudos to you for posting about it. However, I think your post is missing some of the elements from Aarti’s original concept. “With Reverent Hands” is not really a meme, and is meant to flush out the hidden precious gems with deep emotional ties on our bookshelves. Your post was a great way to introduce a little known book to a wider audience, but a post “with reverence” might be more to the concept’s theme.

  21. I am really sorry, Aarti, but I had no idea that was the case. Let me think how best to alter this post and I will take down all references to memes and to your site.

  22. No worries at all- I know sometimes it can be confusing to know what is a meme and what is a feature. Would you like to just have this go up as a guest post on BookLust, as a With Reverent Hands book choice? I’d be more than happy to have you do a post on a book that clearly means something to you! It might be easier to discuss over email, so feel free to email me at Booklustblogger AT gmail DOT com.

    I didn’t mean to sound rude- I just do work hard on the feature and getting people to do the posts, so I’d like them all to be in the same place, if possible.

    Thanks so much for understanding!

  23. Sounds like a powerful read and dare I say it would make a good film? In any case, books like these are why I have always planned to read all of the nobel prize winners. There are so many wonderful books out there that I have yet to discover. Now thanks to your blog, I have discovered this one.

  24. I am so glad you wrote about this book. I found this book a few years ago totally by accident. There was a travel bookstore here in DC (sadly short-lived and now closed) that would mix fiction from a particular country into that section of the travel books. I was browsing through travel guides on Germany and came across The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum. Something about it intrigued me so I bought it. I ended up loving it. The story is fascinating, but I also found something about the prose style that I really liked. I have never been able to articulate what it is about the style that I loved so much, but I think you may have touched on it. Maybe it is the straight forward unsentimental nature of the prose that still manages to convey so much emotion that caught me.

  25. I know Wolfgang Borchert is another one, and Arno Schmidt. I haven’t watched much of the Trümmefilme, which I put in the same general category, but Fassbinder’s “Die Ehe der Maria Braun” is a later movie about a Trümmefrau. The rubble also plays a big part in 2666, which I just finished. Rubble, rubble rubble. It can certainly wear on a person.

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