HEINRICH BOLL is a protean and prolific novelist, essayist, playwright and short story writer, as well as the translator into German of works by George Bernard Shaw, J.D. Salinger, Brendhan Behan and Flann O'Brien. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1972, and is a past president of PEN-International, the organization for writers. He has held many other posts and honors. Among his works in English are The Clown and Billiards at Half-Past Nine, two highly praised novels, Absent Without Leave, a book of novellas, 18 Stories and Missing Persons, a collection of essays and reviews which appeared here in 1977. Boll's fiction provides an incisive, exhaustive portrayal of Germany after the war, and in his nonfiction he has written effectively about subjects as diverse as Solzhenitsyn, Czechoslovakia, Northern Ireland, arms control.

As The Safety Net, his most recent novel, opens, Fritz Tolm, a newspaper publisher in his sixties, has been maneuvered by a much-married industrialist named Bleibl into becoming "President of the Association," a post and title largely ceremonial, yet dangerous to Tolm's personal safety in terms of its visibility. Yet even before the last ballot has been taken, Tolm finds that his fear--fear for his own life, at any rate--has left him, and upon being elected he rises to the occasion, breezing glibly through the interviews, coming somewhat paradoxically to feel, amid the hullabaloo, that he is on the verge of rediscovering his own private life. As with most of Boll's inventions, this character's private life is embedded in a society, and in a family, and in this instance in a novel so many-tiered and and populous that Boll (or his faithful translator, Leila Vennewitz) has prefaced the story with a "List of Characters," some 85 names with brief descriptions of each, arranged under six headings: The Family, The Newspaper People, The Industrialists and Delegates, "They," The Police, and Friends and Neighbors. But despite the outsize fictional population, and the density of Boll's narrative, his artistry is such that the list is largely superfluous; at any rate, I found myself referring to it only after I had done with the novel, and that chiefly to prolong its pleasures.

Not that it is exactly "fun" to read about West Germany (and most of the rest of us) going to hell in a bureaucratic handbasket, but in a society as tense and polarized as the one Boll describes it is important to find out that Fritz Tolm loved the taste of his mother's milk soup as a boy (and, 50 years later, is still chasing after the recipe), and that even the coarse-grained Bleibl can feel something like remorse (separate from his fear of discovery) for blowing away a young woman, a stranger, who happened to appear while he was scooping up Deutschmarks from the rubble of a bank, in the war's aftermath. "A symbolic fiction must be provided with the most realistic of foundations," the late Richard Winston wrote in his recently published biography of Thomas Mann; Boll, in The Safety Net, creates such an underpinning.

The "They" referred to in the list above are left-wing radicals, at home with violence; yet even "They" is all in the family, their number including Fritz Tolm's oldest son, the former wife of his second son, and might, Tolm imagines, and not without reason, extend even to his pre-teen grandson, enlisted to carry out the fringe group's will. In a society where bicycles and birthday cakes are boobytrapped, paranoia becomes realism, and it is little wonder that a security contingent monitors Tolm's every move, and that of his wife Kathe, and his attractive daughter Sabine. And in a society rife with pornography and sexual confusion (with little guidance to be had or expected from the Catholic clergy, a great many of whose members are more or less openly cohabiting), it is little wonder also that Sabine, espoused to the priggish Fischer, who is often abroad pursuing women and the interests of his conglomerate (known as "The Beehive"), is presently five months pregnant by one of the security guards, results of a clandestine affair commenced and continued, of necessity, "on the wing."

"You could read about it in the papers," Hendler, the security guard, thinks self-disparagingly about his own painful situation, loving Sabine (and the child on the way), but also loving his wife and child. But the novelist's job is to make of those mind-numbing squibs that appear on the financial as well as on the metro pages something that coheres, that chronicles our disintegration. This Boll has always done, and continues to do.

There is a net, all right, and it is tightening, but offers little safety. We know, from the look of the villages, and the problem the characters have in figuring out the proper way to address each other, that The Safety Net takes place across the water, "somewhere in Europe," but there is no way to imagine that America is protected from the weather. "The air quality is unacceptable," our forecasters sometimes say, as if they might stamp their feet and send it back. "The truth of what was true was unacceptable," Boll wrote in his 1967 essay "You Are Now Entering Germany," referring to the refusal of many Germans--a refusal, he stated then, that was continuing--to admit that they had lost the war. If his message in this book--that we had best learn to live with the unacceptable, and, where possible, do what we can to reverse it--is not so different from what he has been saying all along, we can reflect along with another Nobel laureate, Andr,e Gide:

Toutes choses sont dites d,eja, mais comme personne n',ecoute, il faut toujours recommencer. (Everything has been said already, but since no one is listening, it is always necessary to repeat.)y