German Literature Month – ‘Der Engel Schwieg’ Read-Along

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 reason for the rejection was quite simply that the Germans were apparently sick of stories about the war, an idea which seems a little absurd now, but was probably fairly accurate at the time.  Böll’s book then, dealing as it does with the experiences of a soldier gone AWOL right at the end of the Second World War, may have seemed a little unpalatable – which, of course, is not to say that it isn’t a good book…

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

On the very first page, as Hans is first startled, and then fascinated, by a dusty, grimy statue of an angel, I had an uncanny feeling of déjà vu (or perhaps déjà lu!), one which was quickly born out.  You see, once his novel had been rejected, the prosaic writer, with a family to provide for, cannibalised his story, sending parts off for publication in newspapers and recycling some of it in the later novel.  The angel scene is not the only one reused in Und sagte kein einziges Wort: both Hans and Fred have an impeccable memory for faces, while Regina’s battle with dirt is very similar to Käte’s experiences in her one-room apartment.  In addition, the sympathetic priest who helps Hans out has a more-than-passing resemblance to the clergyman Käte and Fred encounter.

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…

Useful as it is to the Böll scholar though, Der Engel schwieg is a fascinating novel in its own right.  The descriptions of the constant search for food, a pleasure which has become a need, a drive, can be painful to read, reminding us of our fortune in being able to open the cupboards any time we feel peckish.  We are stunned by Hans’ walks through the streets of Cologne, over piles of rubble, past houses with no roof (and walls with no house).  And, as is usually the case in Böll’s fiction, there is a villain – a rich man, well-connected and influential in the church.  Part of Böll’s magic here is in showing us how he too is actually a very unhappy person…
According to Caroline, Böll is considered to be a bit of a sentimental and romantic read by the Germans, perhaps not as heavyweight as certain other novellists, and I can definitely see where you could get that idea.  However, in his efforts to humanise the anonymous lives of ordinary Germans after the war, he also succeeds in creating real, flesh-and-blood heroes.  From depressing, hopeless beginnings, his creations do eventually see light at the end of the tunnel.  Hans and Regina, initially envious of the dead, later find happiness, a feeling they didn’t think would ever return:
“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)

Sometimes, it’s nice to just have a happy ending…
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13 thoughts on “German Literature Month – ‘Der Engel Schwieg’ Read-Along

  1. Very well captured and I agree, I had the same déjà-lu feeling. Und sagte kein einziges Wort is the better book from a formal point of view but I still like The Silent Angel a lot. I haven't read any other book in which the destruction and the struggle to live was rendered so well.
    I saw a recent biography yesterday and was a bit saddened to see that the debate whether or not he had deserved the Nobel Prize is still ongoing.
    I think we can see him in the tradition of writers like Remarque, Falada and also Zweig who didn't shy away from writing emotionally touching books. I often feel critics want to think and analyze but not feel. It's hard to read him without feeling anything. And religion makes people uncomfortable too.

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  2. Discovering how this novel resonates with his more accomplished later works is a discovery that still awaits me. It is some more reading to look forward to. I'm also wondering if the request of the publisher to expand the book (but still refusing to publish eventually!) affected its overall unity. I think the looseness of the plot may have the indirect result of giving spontaneity to the book.

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  3. Caroline – I think the early books can be like that, but later works are biting and scathing in their criticism of either the Catholic church or the media (Die Bild-Zeitung!). Now Remarque, much as I love his work, is definitely a lot more sentimental 🙂

    Rise – I agree (and so does the editor of my version!) that the sub-plot was added later and can detract from the whole. Compared to something like 'Gruppenbild mit Dame', this is a very lightweight affair… Not that this means it's bad 😉

    Gary – I haven't read that one yet, but I'll have to give it a go at some point. It'll be interesting to see the similarities and differences between Japanese and German reactions to the defeat in the war (actually, it would be a potential PhD thesis!).

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  4. Wow! I never found the remarks uncaring or the inventions weary. This is a passionate book in my view. I look forward to reading some of those other novels that borrowed from this one, so thanks for the roadmap. Interesting.

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  5. Fay – There are a lot of good books ahead – enjoy!

    Emma – Please do 🙂 I think 'The Clown' would be a good one to try, and his 'Irish Diary', a non-fiction account of his stay on the Emerald Isle was also a good one to read.

    Re: the e-mail feed, I have no idea what is going on… 😦

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  6. The title character is a clown (not from a circus…) who travels around and does shows for various groups, but the expression 'tears of a clown' definitely comes to mind. It's more about his messed up life and how unfair things (and some people) can be. Well worth reading 🙂

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  7. Since I'm reading this right now I'll wait to read the full post, but I don't mind knowing there is a happy ending to come. Not that I necessarily need a happy ending…but sometimes it's sort of nice.

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  8. Hi, Very interesting – thanks! I was wondering, did you read this in German or English, and how hard would it be for an intermediate German student to read? I did 3 years of German in high school (a while ago) and wanted to get back into reading literature. I've heard Boll is relatively easy, as German writers go…

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  9. I read this in German (as I try to do with all German-language books!). Böll is fairly easy to read, as German writers go, but I'm not sure a few years of high-school German would be enough. It might be a good idea to see if you can find a few pages somewhere (on Amazon.de for example) to see how difficult it is 🙂

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