Cold Smoke, Wet Rubble

Penelope Fitzgerald

This is Heinrich Böll’s apprentice novel, written between 1949 and 1951. Since Friedrich Middelhauve, who published his stories, was unwilling to bring out the novel, Böll put it by and with professional economy used passages from it in later books. For that reason it wasn’t published in his lifetime but has come out now, to mark what would have been his 75th birthday.

In this account Middelhauve appears somewhat the villain of the piece, but it seems that he gave Böll a small monthly allowance, and was already setting up his third volume of short stories, Where Were You, Adam? These were expected to sell well, and were war stories – that was not the trouble with The Silent Angel. Böll revised the novel twice, but Mittelhauve still hung back. It may have been that he did not believe his readers were quite ready to look at what Böll called ‘the generation which has “come home”, a generation which knows that there is no home for them on this earth’. Just possibly he thought the novel, moving though it was, didn’t hang together as a unified whole.

Böll himself had come home as a corporal from the Russian front, by way of an American POW camp, to ruined Cologne. In The Silent Angel (as in And Never Said a Word, 1953) the war is over and a soldier returns. Hans Schnitzler knows Cologne well, it is his home town, but even so as he approaches St Vincent’s Hospital and convent he can scarcely recognise them. His story is told with a precise and painful realism which takes account of every whiff of blood and soup, the hairs left on the wall by a paintbrush and the crunching of shards of glass underfoot. This directness was one of the aims of Gruppe 47 (which Böll joined in 1950), but it is also particularly well suited to Hans’s hazy condition. So, too, is his effort to keep a grasp on the everyday, which appears to arrange itself in unaccountable patterns. An overturned streetcar, for instance, seems to have a swollen body like a huge dead rat. The dirt is at war with humanity, and ‘would not retreat before the cleansing, but seemed instead to consider it a challenge, doubling itself, tripling’.

Hans, then, is in a state of shock. He goes into the hospital by way of the convent chapel and the sight of a figure in a dark recess terrifies him. When he sees that it is a stone angel he stares into its face ‘with a strange joy’. But as he begins to clean away the dust and filth he finds that it is not stone, but plaster, painted in staring colours. The angel is not only defiled, it is a mass-produced reproduction. Seven years earlier Hans had lived near here with his mother, who doted on her only son, although she could only express her feelings by loading his plate with cheese and sausage. He had passed his apprenticeships, and it was the first day of his vacation. ‘He looked at her in shocked surprise as she suddenly burst out crying ... “You mustn’t be angry. I wanted to make it so nice” ... He didn’t know what to do. He stammered: “My God, Mother, it’s nice, it really is.” ’ But a postcard had arrived, although she hadn’t given it to him, ordering him to report for military training to a barracks 180 miles away. On an un-explained, but very understandable instinct, he had made an excuse and left five hours early to catch his train. At the station he had rung up a girl he hardly knew and asked her to come to the cinema with him. ‘They kissed, and at certain moments he thought he felt a tenderness towards her, perhaps love as well, he didn’t know.’ This was the girl whom, without knowing her any better, he had married on his first leave. She had been killed by a bomb, or perhaps died from fright, in an evacuation train.

To Böll, flashbacks and timeshifts of all kinds are one of the storyteller’s greatest resources, making it possible to mark not only the passage of time but the shadow cast by the past on the present. In The Silent Angel he does this rather awkwardly, possibly to suggest the dislocation in Hans Schnitzler’s life, from which he has scarcely recovered by the end of the book. Then he returns us to the smell of cold smoke and wet rubble in the Cologne of May 1945.

You expect this physical destruction and squalor (‘cupboards crushed flat, with things hanging out of them’) to have a moral equivalent. Everything is for sale, including human identities, and for the poor everything is unobtainable. But Hans has been brought up as a Catholic, he was once a believer, and when he has time to think about it, still is. He turns now to the age-old human sources of healing, the priest, the doctor, the nun, to see how far their functions have survived.

In the hospital basement he finds a nun making up meals for the patients left in the wards. Her face is broad and foolish, but she moves ‘gently’ and ‘calmly’ and the salad dressing slaps ‘faintly’ at the bottom of the bowl. She looks up, startled, and says: ‘My God, a soldier!’ The nun is, in short, a stereotype, as much of one as Hans’s mother. She stands for simplicity and charity, which are felt to go together.

‘Bread,’ he said.

‘But I don’t have anything to put on it,’ she said.

He laughed.

‘Really,’ she said, offended. ‘I really don’t.’

‘My God, Sister,’ he said, ‘I know. I believe you ...’

She went to the shelf, took a loaf, placed it on the table and started searching through the drawer for a knife.

‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘I can break it with my hands. Don’t worry about it, thanks.’

The hospital doctor is the second representative of the corporal mercies. He is fairly young, sardonic, hardened rather than dulled. ‘The war’s over – over and lost,’ he shouts to Hans. ‘Take off those rags, throw away your playthings!’ (Hans’s rags are the uniform he is wearing.) The doctor is in a permanent state of extreme exhaustion, keeps his cigarettes and his instruments in his pocket, operates by candlelight with a torn sheet over the window and possibly makes a little extra on the side. Hans asks him for identity papers from the hospital files. The doctor finds some without difficulty, but says: ‘These things cost money,’ Two thousand marks are what he has in mind, as a guarantee against their return. Hans turns away, but the doctor puts the papers in his hand. The action speaks for itself, and I don’t think Böll needed the symbolic angelus which can be heard a moment earlier ‘in the stillness of the city which had once held so many churches’.

Hans’s apprenticeship, before the unimaginable gap of the war, had been to a bookseller, but this is not a useful profession in the Cologne of 1945 and he supports himself by stealing coal briquettes from the railway station. He calls on the priest – the hospital chaplain at St Vincent’s – to make his confession. Once again he has to start with the beggar’s formula. ‘ “Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me through my life,” he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years.’ (Böll, the sad expert on hunger, shows here another aspect of it, its tedium.) ‘ “I beg your pardon, but could you give me something to eat?” – “Of course,” he heard the priest say.’ In the vestry cupboard the chaplain keeps the parcels donated by the faithful, containing a few apples perhaps, or a pair of socks, and the unconsecrated altar wine. The priest does not condemn Hans for thieving. On the contrary, he accepts some stolen coal in exchange for a slab of homegrown tobacco.

In all these episodes charity is manifested against the rules. The nun’s supplies are strictly rationed, the doctor is responsible for his records and knows that ‘there is a check on these things,’ the priest has to reconcile his conscience with human extremity. To English readers, reared on The Power and the Glory and Brides-head Revisited, these people are acting just as might have been expected, but while Waugh and Greene are talking, somewhat eccentrically, about grace, Böll is interested in mercy. In The Clown, Schneider’s wife leaves him because she can’t live outside the fixed authority of the Catholic Church. In The Silent Angel, at the very start of his career, Böll proposes different rules. To be sick gives you the right to healing, to be hungry gives you the title to bread.

Hans also finds a girl – in fact, a danger which Böll perhaps doesn’t notice is that we may begin to feel he is luckier than he deserves. Through one of the dreamlike chances and coincidences of the disrupted city he meets Regina, whose baby has been killed by machine-gun fire. She has two rooms, and in one of them Hans rests in bed for three weeks while she comes home to him, like a mother bird, with bread, cigarettes and even jam. Finally, she exchanges her last possession, a camera, to get him a military discharge certificate. All this is delicately and touchingly done, but we don’t believe in Regina any more than we do in Hemingway’s Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls. She is what tired men think they want, the creation, perhaps, of the writer’s own exhaustion.

But Böll also wants to attack the murderous power of money, and this means introducing another set of characters who seem to belong to allegory, or even fable. In the last stages of the war Hans had been arrested as a deserter, condemned to be shot and locked up in a barn. The night before the execution, the clerk of the military court had come into the barn and asked him: ‘You don’t want to die, do you?’ This man, Willy Gompertz, changed uniforms with him, let him free and was shot in his place. But he entrusted Hans with a letter (in fact his will) which must be delivered to his wife in Cologne: Frau Gompertz is ill, there is no time to lose. Hans finds her in her luxurious flat, which is hung with family portraits, ‘dignified, pale faces above velvet collars’. Having delivered the letter, he feels a free man at last, and begins to harangue the sick woman: her husband, by choosing to let him escape, has robbed him of a ‘clean’ death, appropriated it for himself, just as the men in velvet collars have been making good deals for centuries. As it turns out, this charge is quite unjust. Frau Gompertz is not and never has been a ‘dealer’, and now, dying of cancer, she intends to leave everything to charity. The folly of this idea, however, infuriates her father, Herr Doktor Fischer. He is a wealthy collector of beautiful things, once well in with the Nazis, now the publisher of an upmarket religious magazine, the Lamb of God. And although Hans and Regina are frail survivors at the end of the book, we don’t doubt that Herr Fischer will inherit the earth. The last we see of him is at his daughter’s funeral, crushing the statue of another angel deeply into the mud of the graveyard.

Nearly all Böll’s preoccupations are in The Silent Angel, and all his integrity, humanity and obstinacy, enough to last him another 35 years. ‘I always wanted to write,’ he said, ‘and I tried to do it from the very beginning, but I didn’t find the words until later.’