It’s funny how things work out.
I realise you’re probably not quite with me yet, so let me explain. Among my many plans for German Literature Month, several of which have fallen by the wayside, was an intention to spread my reading as widely as possible, and one reason for this was to avoid reading more than one book by any given author. However, after enjoying Heinrich Böll’s early novel Und sagte kein einziges Wort, I caved in (as I am wont to do) and bought a copy of his posthumously released work Der Engel schwieg (The Silent Angel) just in time for Caroline’s read-along.
Don’t worry – I am (albeit slowly) going somewhere with this…
Der Engel schwieg is a novel Böll drafted at the request of his publishers; however, they (in their infinite wisdom) decided that the tone was not what they, or their readers required at the time. It was not until 1992 that the book was published for the first time, in honour of what would have been Böll’s 75th birthday.
The main character of the novel is the aforementioned soldier, Hans Schnitzler, who returns to Cologne in search of three things: a new, safe identity; the wife of a man whose message he has promised to deliver; and, most importantly, a reason to actually carry on living. After disposing of the first two of his tasks, Hans decides on a whim to return an overcoat he borrows from a Catholic hospital he visits, and (in a rather sentimental twist) goes some way towards succeeding in his third task.
The war may be over, but the hard work of actually living is only just beginning. In the first third of the novel, the reader is repeatedly assaulted by the uncaring remarks of Böll’s weary inventions. The overall impression of the survivors of the war is that the dead are the lucky ones, as they will not have to deal with the pain and hardships to come. As the story progresses though, and Hans and Regina (the owner of the overcoat!) become closer, the tone grows more optimistic, suggesting that there is always a way forward, even if it is currently hidden from sight.
This idea is one of Böll’s central themes, and Der Engel schwieg is, as much as it is a novel, a repository for the ideas the writer was to develop over the rest of his career. One of Böll’s most successful, and certainly most substantial, works, Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady), is a more detailed, extended look at the time and issues covered here. However (and this is where I have been going since the start of the post!), the work most influenced by Der Engel schwieg is, of course, none other than Und sagte kein einziges Wort…
But there is more of a similarity than just a few recycled passages. In essence, the later book is a redrafting of Der Engel schwieg, with the action moved several years into the future. Rather than concentrating on the difficulty of moving on at the end of the war, Und sagte kein einziges Wort focuses on the day-to-day struggles of the poor in a time when the Wirtschaftswunder had yet to take hold. Obviously, the idea of a struggling working class couple was more acceptable than that of a couple living in sin in a bomb-damaged house…
“Ich bin sehr glücklich”, sagte sie langsam.
“Ich auch”, sagte er, “ich weiß nicht, ob ich jemals so glücklich war.”
“I’m very happy”, she said slowly.
“Me too”, he said, “I don’t know if I was ever this happy.” p.155 (2009, dtv)