Classics Reissued: What’s to Become of the Boy?
by Heinrich Boll (translated by Leila Vennewitz)
Melville House, 2011
Last year the always-inspired Melville House produced a shelf’s worth of Heinrich Boll reprints in day-glo colors and minimialist cover designs, and I rejoiced. I’ve been slowly re-savoring those works, happy to have them in such sturdy, friendly volumes, happy to have readily-available versions to recommend instead of the rag-tag old paperbacks I’d have to scrounge up in used bookshops. The set is called “the Essential Heinrich Boll” and includes four novels, a big fat collection of short stories, a memoir, and a notebook of Boll’s stays in, of all places, Ireland.
The best of the novels have been reviewed by wiser heads elsewhere, but it’s particularly pleasing to see the memoir, What’s to Become of the Boy, or Something to Do with Books, back in print, almost thirty years after the smart little Knopf hardcover that first introduced it to the American reading public. It’s the story of Boll’s boyhood in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1937, the story of his quietly valiant pacifist family of bookworms and lively talkers, the story of his great old city of Cologne, which was first forced to welcome Nazi rule and then later flattened by Allied bombing. Boll and his family were extremely unsympathetic to the Nazi takeover, and in the book’s few pages, Boll swiftly and skilfully sketches some of the minor but memorable costs of that defiance:
Again and again our electricity was cut off, a harsh penalty for a family of such voracious readers: candles were expensive and quickly burned down, and my mother received such dire warnings on account of her tampering with meter seals that in the end she desisted.
(When he recalls his love of escaping into the movies, he can’t help remembering that part of the appeal was that when the house lights went down, even the Nazis had to be silent, and you couldn’t see them in the dark; the book is full of heartbreaking little details like that, still slick with remembered helplessness)
As readers might guess from the memoir’s alternate title (I’ve never been quite certain where that title comes from – a communication between author and translator, I presume), Boll principally recalls these years through the lens of books and reading. He was a slightly goofy teenager in a beautiful old city whose well-known streets were now swarming with SS, collaborators, and fearful residents, and in his memories he often finds himself taking refuge in books (in the memoir’s opening anecdote, he recalls that his high school graduation certificate designated him as destined for the publishing world), in the profusion of books and even in their ability to be transmuted temporarily into useful cash:
Then, without looking for it, I came across in a secondhand book bin a Juvenal translation with a detailed commentary, published in 1838. The commentary was almost twice as long as the text and made thrilling historical reading, besides being amusing for its Romantic vocabulary. I couldn’t afford that copious tome but bought it anyhow, and it is one of the few books I managed to bring safely through the war and did not sacrifice to the black market afterward. (In those days – a forbidden look forward to 1945 – there was a class of profiteers who had everything except books, which they urgently needed to decorate their fine walls, and we unloaded everything that we knew would be republished: an autographed copy of Buddenbrooks, for example, brought me a tidy little sum!)
Translator Leila Vennewitz (Melville House wisely chose to reprint her version rather than commission something needlessly new – the only new thing about this edition is the entirely perfunctory Introduction by Anne Applebaum) perfectly captures the herky-jerky almost stream-of-consciousness tone Boll gives to these reminiscences, the dreamlike quality in which misremembered facts blend and twirl into well-remembered inventions. Boll bumblingly, amiably confesses at the outset that his memory isn’t perfect, and he smilingly grants that this doesn’t overly disturb him (considering the fact that Boll was eventually drafted into the German army and sent to battle where he almost certainly shot and killed some of the Reich’s enemies, this is a very convenient comfort-level to have). He opens his memoir with a factual discrepancy – he remembers something that his own subsequent research has proven cannot have happened – and it has exactly the desired effect: we immediately feel somewhat foolish for expecting anything as gauche as a verifiable memoir. Those were terrible times, after all.
Instead, we get glimpses, one after another. Boll recalls being a cash-strapped teenager, over-smart, under-motivated, prone to little worries and little triumphs. Fans of his fiction will recognize that marvellous trick he has of weaving a perfect little fillip he tends to insert into peaceful little vignettes:
I found my first pupil through an advertisement, a nice boy whom I coached in Latin and math for fifty pfennigs an hour. I was more scared of his tests in school than he was; the result of those tests was the mark of success for which is parents were watching and waiting. I applied the method my brother had used with me: opening up gaps, closing gaps, and lo, he improved. An attempt at tutoring in French failed miserably, due to that boy’s mother’s excellent knowledge of French; she was quick to discover my gaps, graciously paid me off, and sent me home.
Boll wasn’t an old man when he died in 1985, but since What’s to Become of the Boy was published in English in 1984, he was nevertheless recalling the beginning of his life from the vantage point of the end of his life, and the book is full of the kind of out-of-nowhere segments we tend to associate with the memoirs of much older men:
There remained the irreplaceable, almost sacred bicycle, that swift vehicle of mobility, an escape-vehicle light of build, worthy of man a paean and, as I found out by 1945, the only reliable and the most valuable mechanical means of locomotion. Think of everything an automobile requires! How clumsy it actually is, dependent on a thousand minor factors, to say nothing of fuel, of roads: on a bicycle a person can go anywhere. And let us not forget: the Vietnam war was won on bicycles against tanks and planes. Repair kit, pump, lamp – easy to carry, almost no luggage at all. And how about all those things you can, if you have to, hang onto a bike or load onto it?
But Boll makes even this mannerism charming; time and again in this book, he interrupts himself with an outburst of pure remembering joy, exclaiming with delight when the story he’s telling suddenly reminds him of something small and sharp and shining in his past – a building, a kind of sweet, the look of a long-gone street, the last item a friend pawned for a bit of cash during the worst years.
At the end of his recollections, he’s still a very young man. He applies for a job at a bookshop, hoping for some quiet, peaceful place where the owner isn’t a Nazi. He gets his wish with unexpected ease, and the memoir sees him off on that first step into adulthood. It’s the very last thing we should expect of a book like this, a curiously upbeat ending. The whole amazing tale still lies before him.