A Word Like a Bullet

Michael Hofmann

Heinrich Böll was born in 1917, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972 (the first German writer thus honoured since Thomas Mann in 1929 – Hermann Hesse having adopted Swiss citizenship, and Nelly Sachs Swedish) and died in 1985. He was an early instance, an avatar, of the writer as right thinker, as influencer, like Rushdie, like Solzhenitsyn, like Pasolini: his was the public leftish decent voice of Germany, or rather, of West Germany. He was perceived to be a public figure first, novelist second. His collected speeches and interviews took up many columns and many volumes; his Catholicism exercised people who were indifferent to Catholicism, and to him; without being a controversialist, he was controversial. Böll’s decades were the 1960s and 1970s: it was then that he was elected president, first of West German Pen, then of International Pen; and when the novels The Clown (1963), Group Portrait with Lady (1971), The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) and The Safety Net (1979) appeared. Some complained: what did the German film industry have against him, churning out film adaptations of his books in its slavish way, but the way I knew him was through one of them – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum from 1975, with the unforgettably solemn Angela Winkler in the title role, two brown eyes, a sheet of brown hair and a dark mole on her upper lip. When I visited Ireland for the first time, someone on the deck of the ferry to Dun Laoghaire was reading the Irisches Tagebuch: somehow, I wasn’t even surprised. With Böll, it felt to me as though there were too many books to catch up with, and no one title had special prominence or appeal (though, just recently, I am hearing good things of Group Portrait with Lady). I didn’t know where to start, so I didn’t. I read younger writers, or dead writers; and when he died, I didn’t begin.

The Train Was on Time was Böll’s first novel – published in 1949, seventy years ago, the year of the post-World War Two settlement, the founding of baby Nato (with just 12 members) and the two rival German states. Even Leila Vennewitz’s English translation is half a century old now (it dates from 1970). Not that the story is at all forward-looking. Rather, it straightaway beetles back even further, back and away, to wartime, to late 1943 and the Nazi effort to prop up their sagging holdings in Eastern Europe. In 1949, few people wanted to be reminded of the war, and the book hardly sold. (Whether it’s Aeschylus’ Persians or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Kevin Powers’s Yellow Birds, it rarely takes less than ten years for a public to build up an appetite, curiosity or tolerance for discussions of recent conflict.) All Böll’s early writing is about the war and coming home from the war. In truth, he had little else to sell or tell. Having finished school in 1937, he did an apprenticeship as a bookseller for a year, followed by a year of compulsory labour; in the summer term of 1939, he was briefly a student of German and classics in his native Cologne; in the autumn he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. For six years, from 1939 to 1945, he was an infantryman, in France, in Poland, in Crimea, in Romania (Andreas, in the present novel, seems to be on his way there) and on the Western Front. The German scholar Klaus Schröter argues that Böll took two things from his wartime experiences: the abject helplessness, whatever the cult of masculinity says, of man in war, and the way everything in war becomes trade, opportunity, barter, scam. War is both crushing and disillusioning, unheroic and corrupt. The opening scene and sentence of The Train Was on Time – ‘As they walked through the dark underpass they could hear the train rumbling up to the platform overhead, and the resounding voice came over the loudspeaker: “The troop train now arriving from Paris will depart for Przemyśl via …”’ – even sounds like a dilatory persiflage of the stripped-for-action beginning of Ernst Jünger’s First World War memoir Storm of Steel: ‘The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out.’ The one a seasoned and reluctant conscript travelling back to the war; the other a young volunteer, breathlessly presenting himself for duty. Böll’s hero (hardly the word), Andreas, has forgotten to bring his rifle, leaving it behind next to the raincoats in the wardrobe of his friend the chaplain (like some pessimistic no. 11 going to the crease without his bat). Whichever way you look at it, war is a bad business. In April 1945, Böll was taken prisoner near Reims by the Americans; later, he was transferred to a British POW camp in Belgium.

Even more arresting than the dates are the places. Böll marches the reader straight back to the absurd moment of the vast extension of German power (and horrendous lines of communication). It’s not just that it’s 1943 or 1944, it’s that Andreas is trundling south-east through Poland, through the Ukraine, perhaps beyond. Time is measured in place names; his chances of survival depend on a front being defended or – preferably – given up in this or that place. The names were of course originally given in their German versions, and they recur throughout the short book: the provinces (Galicia, Volhynia, Bucovina); the towns (Lvov, Cernauti, Stanislav, Kolomyya, Nikopol) and finally the death-bringing Stryy – and not in a revanchist way, more tasting their remoteness, their perfectly unassimilable difference and indifference. As in: it can’t be doing me any good to be going to such places, when they were no longer being spoken of at the time of publication in 1949, certainly not in German. It’s a long way to go in order to die. There is something at once frightened and humble about the length and the direction of the journey. The rehearsal of the old names is a form of apology. Doubly so when Andreas curiously and creditably offers up prayers for the Jews of Cernauti and the Jews of Lvov.

When Andreas boards the train, he has an intimation that he doesn’t have long to go. The word ‘soon’ catches hold of him. It begins with months, he can’t imagine them. ‘January, May, December! Nothing!’ That sense jumps onto the places, some he can sense, others he can’t. Lvov, he feels, he will see again, Nikopol not, even Cernauti not, barely thirty miles behind Lvov. Psycho-geo-mathematically, he is zeroing in on his own death. On the train, he falls in with a couple of comrades, as passive and afflicted as he is. The unshaven Willi with his drink and cigarette, traumatised because on his recent leave he caught his wife with another man, a Russian, and all his plans for the future are in shreds; and an unnamed, taciturn, fair-haired soldier, who, it turns out, was raped along with the rest of his anti-aircraft platoon by their sergeant-major in a remote forward position in a Crimean swamp. Thereafter, the book is braided together using Andreas’s thoughts, prayers and memories; the soliloquies and histories of the three men; a small amount of action, usually limited to drinking, smoking and eating; and their slow advance through Poland, changing trains once at Przemyśl, once in Lvúv. It’s powerful machinery, capable of doing rather more than it does here.

The Train Was on Time doesn’t read like the book of a man who has written many books previously. What it most reminded me of was a facsimile I looked at of Orwell’s 1984 typescript, which seemed pretty blameless, but which Orwell went ahead and purged anyway. Böll’s novel has the blamelessness of that ur-Orwell text, a kind of mild excess, too much striving, too many sense impressions, too much authorial intention, too many similes. A ‘resounding voice’ – the voice of the station announcer – ‘hung like a cloud of mucus’; a word (it’s the word ‘soon’) ‘falls back on the speaker like a leaden wave’, and then ‘enter[s] him like a bullet, painlessly and almost imperceptibly, penetrating flesh, tissue, cells, nerves, until at some point it caught, like a barbed hook, exploded, and ripped open a savage wound, making blood pour out … life, pain.’ In a war book where there is at least a chance of actual wounds and actual bullets and actual leaden waves, this is a showy waste of sensibility and sensation. Later, the names of places stand in for the places themselves (a little like: ‘We’ll always have Paris’).

There is something strangely lax and uncoercive about the book, which in the end doesn’t persuade. It’s not that the situation on the train is charmed, one comes to think, or even fraught with meaning and intensity, so much as that Böll’s rendering of it is inadequate and perhaps untrustworthy: these three men, unsupervised, drinking, off by themselves in some rather theatrical pen, not really thinking of doing a bunk? Individual details sing, like ‘that accumulation of impersonal grime which every soldier seems to attract’, but then there’s the simile, ‘like a magnet’. For long stretches, one doesn’t even feel the train anymore; I couldn’t begin to make a drawing of the ‘vestibule’ into which the three of them barricade themselves with their luggage. One ends up shrugging at the rather black and white notations: the ‘air-raid sandwiches packed for him by his friend the chaplain, a whole package of sandwiches with plenty of sausage in them, and the terrible thing was that they tasted so good’, ‘the schnapps was excellent,’ ‘they were still drinking schnapps, the schnapps was good,’ or ‘crystal-clear, wonderful vodka’, or ‘she smelled penetratingly of that vile coffee.’ A pack wouldn’t suddenly become light because there weren’t any more sandwiches left in it (never mind how good they tasted) – much less when two bottles of schnapps have gone from it as well, provoking, strangely, no comment.

In 1951, Böll won a prize awarded by the recently formed Gruppe 47 of German writers, among whose tasks and hopes was to help German writing regain contact with writing internationally, after 12 years of poison and solitary confinement. This is something often specifically credited to Böll – that he helped German writing out of the ideological, material and stylistic wreckage of the war, that he made it salonfähig, or reputable, respectable. One of the odd things about reading The Train Was on Time is wondering: what is it like, what does it most resemble? It feels like a book almost without antecedents, by a writer who hadn’t yet been able to read much. Is it French existentialism, the men locked in the train and locked in their heads, like Sartre’s Huis clos? Or is it more like Soviet writing (Böll acquired a huge following in the USSR), the rather unindividuated, unreflecting characters, acquiescing in their fate, a small fragment towards some pacifist epic of war? Because it isn’t informed by Anglo-American realism (code for Hemingway, and therefore code for Gertrude Stein, and code for style), it feels dated – witness the impossible description of the soldier whose face looks very sad and preoccupied, ‘beneath the mask of coarse joviality’. It has that 1940s and 1950s drag towards abstraction, leaving the reader always aware that he is reading some constructed thing, and fearing he is probably even now being taught a lesson.