Heinrich Boell, 67, a giant of postwar German letters who wrote more than 40 novels, short stories and radio plays and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972, died yesterday at his home in West Germany's Eifel Mountains. News agencies did not report the cause of death but said Mr. Boell had been in ill health and was released from a Cologne hospital only hours before he died.
The first German author to win the Nobel Prize since Thomas Mann in 1929, Mr. Boell wrote dozens of essays and translated such writers as George Bernard Shaw, J.D. Salinger and Brendan Behan into German. He was sometimes described as "the conscience of his country," as Mann had been, and many of Mr. Boell's literary themes -- the absurdity of war, the dehumanization of the individual in a materialistic environment, and the corruption of Christianity by ecclesiastical hierarchies -- evoked Mann's writings.
In awarding Mr. Boell the Nobel Prize in 1972, the Swedish Academy of Letters cited him "for his writing which, through its combination of a broad perspective on his theme and a sensitive skill in characterization, has contributed to a renewal of German literature."
Mr. Boell came into literary prominence as his country was emerging from the physical and spiritual devastation of World War II, and much of his writing reflected the war's legacy. The critic Paul Bailey observed that he wrote of "depressed innocents trying to live decently in an indecent world. Enemies loom everywhere, men and women who have surrendered their humanity . . . . "
Despite the "wounds and wrenchings in their lives," said critic Edwin Kennebeck, and a "milieu that is predominantly stultifying, dreary, cynical -- a defeated nation after a war of unspeakable horror" -- there are characters in Mr. Boell's novels who are capable of an extraordinary depth and range of human feeling.
In many respects, Mr. Boell's themes were similar to those of Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a fellow Nobel laureate, who wrote of the dehumanization of the individual in the Soviet Union. Mr. Boell was a friend and staunch supporter of Solzhenitsyn's, who was his house guest in Germany on the first night of his exile from Russia in 1974.
Mr. Boell was said by the critics to have been a master of the art of storytelling, and one who did not obscure the moral of his tales in myth or history. He wrote instead about contemporary Germans, many of them from lower-middle-class families like his own. His characters often were ordinary workers in run-of-the-mill jobs or romantics who burned out early and spent the rest of their lives in boredom.
Mr. Boell sometimes was faulted, however, for what some critics regarded as lapsing into acute sentimentality or introducing wildly improbable situations into otherwise realistic contexts.
Politically, Mr. Boell was an antimilitarist and a defender of the rights of West Germany's left-wing intellectuals. A 1975 novel, "The Lost Honor of Katherine Blum," was said to have been an attack on the West German press magnate Axel Springer, and it caused a controversy in West Germany when critics found similarities between the main characters in the novel and the Baader-Meinhoff urban guerrilla band. Mr. Boell's detractors said the book reflected his sympathies for the group, which was then on trial for a series of bombings and murders.
Born in Cologne on Dec. 21, 1917, the youngest of eight children, Mr. Boell received a diploma from the local gymnasium. With the support of his family he resisted pressures to join the Hitler Youth organization. He was conscripted into the Nazi government's labor corps in 1938, then discharged in the spring of 1939 to study at the University of Cologne. Reared as a Roman Catholic, Mr. Boell broke with the church in 1976.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, Mr. Boell was inducted into an army infantry unit. He fought on both the Eastern and Western fronts, was wounded four times and achieved the rank of corporal. Later, he recalled that his wartime experiences convinced him of "the total senselessness of the military life," and he found himself suffering "the frightful fate of being a soldier and having to wish that the war might be lost."
He was captured by U.S. forces near Cologne in April 1945, held prisoner in France until the following September, and then returned to Cologne, a bombed-out city.
He worked part time at a cabinetmaker's shop that one of his brothers had inherited from his father, enrolled at the University of Cologne -- chiefly to qualify for a food rationing card -- and set about trying to establish himself as a writer, which had been his ambition since childhood.
Mr. Boell's first short novel, "The Train Was on Time," appeared in 1949, and it told in detail of the last days in the life of a young German soldier returning to the Russian front after a brief furlough. A year later there appeared a collection of his short stories, "Traveller, If You Come to Spa," which dealt with the uprooted victims of the war and its aftermath.
Among his best known novels in the United States are "Billiards at Half Past Nine" (1962), and "The Clown" (1965). The former is the story of three generations of a family of prominent German architects from the years before World War I to the 1950s, with the Abbey of St. Anthony as the central symbol of the book. The abbey is built by the father, demolished by the son as a protest against the church's toleration of Hitler, then rebuilt by the grandson.
"The Clown" is a caustic commentary on contemporary German society and the Roman Catholic establishment through the monologues of its main character, a 27-year-old entertainer who has been jilted by his mistress, alienated from his relatives and frustrated in his work.
Mr. Boell is survived by his wife, Annemarie, and two sons, Rene and Vincent. A third son, Raimund, died in 1982.
When he received the Nobel Prize, Mr. Boell said, "The way here has been long for me. Like millions of others, I came home from the war with empty hands. But I had a passion to write and keep on writing . . ."