You know when they make you read books at school and you hate them for the rest of your life? The University of Birmingham did that with Heinrich Böll for me. His writing is like bread and butter pudding to me - something forced on me at an impressionable age that I can therefore no longer stomach. Also, it's been very liberating to just go ahead and say, "I can't stand Heinrich Böll" for all these years.
So reading Jessa Crispin's conversation about the writer with Melville House publisher Dennis Loy Johnson in Bookslut has been a bumpy ride, exposing my own puerile prejudice. How can it be that two sensible people, one of whom I actually know and like and respect, can find such inspiration in the work of Heinrich Böll? That unsexy guy who wrote about German guilt and hung out with the Gruppe 47, a group so ridiculously male that it really only tolerated Ingeborg Bachmann and Ilse Aichinger within its ranks? (There's a wonderful photo of a Gruppe 47 meeting up at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, which I find myself gazing at during readings. Rows and rows of chubby men in ill-fitting suits.)
But of course literature isn't a nursery pudding. To some extent it certainly is a matter of taste - but then there are times when one has to stand back and say, "Well, Böll certainly knew how to layer his bread with his raisins, and he never left his books in the oven too long until they were all black on top." And if Jessa Crispin says his female characters are strong, I may have to have another wee taste in case I do actually like his writing after all.
So here, for all to read, is my painful admission: while I find Böll's earlier writing uninspiring and no amount of money will ever make me read his Irish Journal, I do grudgingly admire both The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Safety Net (Fürsorgliche Belagerung).
You lucky unfettered readers can now dip into Heinrich Böll at will, as Melville House are publishing eight of his books in English translation. First up: The Clown, Billiards at Half Past Nine and the Irish Journal.