THE STORIES OF HEINRICH BOLL: Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz. Knopf. 688 pp. $25.
THIS GENEROUS selection from the late Heinrich Boll's shorter and medium-sized fictions forms an ideal introduction to one of the world's master storytellers. No German author has managed so consistently to arrest attention by a striking opening sentence, and few have so successfully cultivated the kind of short story which makes a strong point in just a page or two. Arranged in roughly chronological order, these tales add up to an inner history of Germany from the 1940s to the late 1970s, seen from a sharply defined point of view.
The sufferings brought on Germans as well as those they oppressed and invaded in Hitler's wars; the misery of defeated soldiers returning home to devastated and beggared cities; the black market which slowly but inevitably gives way to more "normal" trade; economic recovery, culminating in the much-discussed economic "miracle" after currency reform; sharp social divisions, in which some of the least admirable citizens shoulder their way to the top; the threat and reality of urban terrorism, and overreaction to it, including the denial of employment to those who help the victims of fascist regimes abroad -- all these are brought before the reader, not abstractly, but transformed into convincing scene and story. The point of view from which we are made to see these phenomena is that of the underdog rather than the man in control; the Catholic who takes his stand on the Sermon on the Mount rather than on dogmatic territory occupied by the Church establishment.
Capable of conveying, movingly, the plight and grief of the dispossessed, Boll is at his best when he can indulge his pawky Rhineland humor -- when he casts a sardonic eye on posturing establishment figures in Church and State and dramatizes the discrepancy he perceives in German society between human possibility and social opportunity, between what is necessary for full emotional and intellectual development and what it takes to succeed in the world of Organization Man. He unites Dostoevskian sympathies with the insulted and injured, Swiftian satire, and a spareness of narration that recalls, again and again, the Hemingway of "A Clean, Well- Lighted Place."
From the wealth of realistic detail with which Boll evokes his world, recurrent symbols emerge: the railway station and railway journeys; the gift of bread; the mass of papers, the avalanche of junk mail, fit only to be thrown away; the tape-recorder and what it feeds into the air-waves . . . But realism is frequently heightened into fantasy which (as in the world of Kafka) illuminates the life we all know: as when a broadcasting expert collects, splices together, and listens to moments of silence snipped from the tapes he edits; or when a character suddenly forces her all-too-compliant family to celebrate Christmas every day of the year.
The collection exhibits Boll's weaknesses along with his strength. "The Train was on Time" contains a brothel idyll, complete with Beethoven on the piano and golden-hearted tart doubling as spy, which becomes intolerably cloying. Presentation of Jewish victims of the Nazis, well-intended though it is, is vitiated by Boll's compulsion to Catholicize his sympathetic Jewish women -- a tendency taken to ridiculous lengths in "Where Were You, Adam?" The sharp division Boll constantly makes between his petit-bourgeois or proletarian heroes and those who administer their lives or rise in their society may have a good deal of justification, but he allows far too little room for compromise and for the give-and-take possibilities of democratic politics. Boll's frequent presentation, however, of the possibilities of tenderness and mutual commitment between human beings, and of the way in which these are thwarted by social climbers and unfeeling bureaucrats, is genuinely moving because of its concrete, unrhetorical embodiment in convincing characters and situations. Behind the narrators whom Boll deploys with such art, the reader constantly glimpses the concerned human being who seeks to show what places are still left for kindness, tenderness, and fully committed love.
THE VOLUME here reviewed surprises by the absence of some of Boll's most celebrated shorter pieces: notably "In the Land of the Rujuks" (1953) and "Metropolitan Journal" (1957). It does, however, include several longer works originally published in a volume of their own, as well as one splendid and representative story, "A Soldier's Legacy," which has escaped the anthologies that have popularized Boll's work in his native Germany.
In Leila Vennewitz Boll has found a congenial translator, who discovers convincing equivalents for his jokes and etymological games, and reserves his shifts of style, even if she occasionally gets a detail wrong (the "Fackeln" mentioned in "My Father's Cough" are paper-lanterns, not torches) or neglects such fine distinctions as that between the word Sie, which opens "My Expensive Leg," and the more dismissive and alienating Die, which opens "At the Bridge." For most of the time these versions remain faithful to Boll without ever falling into translationese. They are bound to win new friends for a compassionate and humorous storyteller who shows in concrete instances, again and again, what tragedy can result from insensitivity as well as wickedness in a fallen world, but who is able, at the same time, to convey to his readers some of his own faith in the redeeming kindness, and the capacity for love, which reside in ordinary, unheroic and unostentatious men and women.