When Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize, this novel was singled out as his crowning achievement, even though writers win for a body of work rather than an individual book. The novel is a marvelous panoramic look at German society during and after WWII, conducted as a kind of investigation into the life of the central figure, Leni Pfeiffer, through research and interviews with the people surrounding her. They - all 62 of them - are listed and identified at the beginning of the book.
It is difficult to identify Leni as the book’s “protagonist.” She is present throughout, at least peripherally, and all the conversations and research have her at their core, though she has hardly initiated it, being a deliberate underachiever, and it’s not clear what the purpose of the investigation is. The author sets out to provide an objective study, but doesn’t. It is clear he is infatuated with Leni, as many characters seem to be. At 48, Leni is still an attractive woman (“if only she’d do her hair differently!”), extremely sensual, who, in her youth, was voted “most German girl.” The protagonist is much more “the Author” himself, referred to as “Au.”
The pages and pages about Leni’s ‘being and becoming’ -more interesting than it sounds- provide a backdrop to the central conflict, which is that Leni is about to be evicted from a building that seems to be rightfully hers, but which has come into the possession of sort-of relatives, the Hoysers, who represent “achievement-oriented society” (aka Christian Democrats). In general, Leni and her supporters are trying to wrest what can be saved from this ‘new’ Germany through resistance, much as others resisted, even if passively, the dehumanizing Nazis.
For me the Hoysers were also a hilarious send-up of Germans in general - materialistic and rule-based. There is a segment where the Au. goes to meet the Hoysers to discuss the Leni situation in their high-rise overlooking the Rhine. He wants to open the window because of the stuffiness and smoke but is not allowed because IT’S not allowed due to the cooling system, although the Hoysers confess that, yes, they would love to be like Leni, the kind of person who can just throw windows open at will.
“At this point the Au. would have dearly liked to speak a few conciliatory words, he would even have been prepared to admit the relative unimportance of the annoyance over the jacket in view of the weighty problems of these tormented people who were not even allowed to fling open the windows in their own building.” (p. 380)
I have read some reviews of this book lamenting how “dry” it is, how clinical. For me that was part of the book’s success. Pyrotechnics and more “action” would have superfluous. I thought the approach worked wonderfully. The one downside was the politics - that got kind of tedious for a stretch in the last quarter of the book, although the tedium is soon alleviated by some more lively input well before the story ends.
I read this first in college decades ago before I had an inkling that Germany would be central to my fate. I remember admiring and enjoying it, despite having little real interest in German society. Years later it’s still a great novel, and I come to it much more experienced than I was at 20. First, the professor who taught the literature course, which I took on a whim, was more a language than a literature instructor and had no idea what “post-modern” meant. In any case, the topic never came up in class. Schade! Secondly, having now lived around 20 years in Germany, the book epitomizes for me a certain attitude and political point of view that has deep roots here.