Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Heinrich Böll: Irish Journal

Some time ago, I wrote that I’d rather eat my hat than read this book, or some such nonsense. As a British person, I have always been slightly envious of the Irish for occupying the number-one spot in all Germans’ mental charts of their favourite foreigners. And this particular book seemed to be the reason for – or at the least the main symptom of – that affection. Add to that a pointless truculence towards reading any author on my university syllabus, and it seemed unlikely that I would ever dip into Böll’s Irish Journal.

But Melville House has been re-releasing much of Böll’s work in English translation, and it seemed to make sense for me to review something I hadn’t previously read. So why not dive in at the deep end and go for a book I felt had been niggling at me for about twenty years?

In fact it was a revealing experience. Firstly because it reminded me that Böll was simply an excellent craftsman. He could be an angry polemicist making a point through fiction, something he did very well – and that is what we read as undergraduates. But what was obscured at the time, very possibly by my undergraduate-level German skills, was that he also wrote beautifully. Leila Vennewitz’s translation is genuinely pretty, bringing out all the sublime sentimentality of Böll’s language. One of many stand-out examples:

…this clear, cold light does not penetrate the sea: it merely clings to its surface, as water clings to glass, gives the beach a soft rust color, lies on the bog like mildew…

 And the other reason I found it revealing was that it does seem to have had a formative influence on several generations of Germans. I even found things in the book that people have been telling me for years:

…here on this island, then, live the only people in Europe that never set out to conquer, although they were conquered several times, by Danes, Normans, Englishmen – all they sent out was priests, monks, missionaries who, by way of this strange detour via Ireland, brought the spirit of Thebaic asceticism to Europe…

- something that the Germans find particularly fun to rub in English faces while still savouring their own sense of national guilt.

The journal consists of a variety of short pieces on Ireland that Böll wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine. His first visit to Ireland was in 1954, staying on Achill Island off County Mayo, and this is the time and place he describes – a country of extreme poverty, strict Catholicism and much rain. We see the place through the eyes of a 40-year-old paterfamilias, so there is a good deal of celebration of whiskey and cigarettes by the fireside. But he also appreciates the Irish sense of humour and the pretty women, and being a German he marvels at the way things run without the slightest bit of efficiency but still get done.

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the way Böll dwells on Ireland’s mass emigration. By the mid-1950s, the West German economy was in the midst of its miracle. Böll seems fascinated by the poverty he sees in Dublin and the rest of the country, focusing on details such as safety pins and then string used to hold clothes together. But that poverty seems to be an honourable one to him, resulting from overcrowding and a lack of resources. He sees the direct link to the widespread emigration, which he describes in very emotional terms, evoking many tearful farewells and abandoned houses. I was tempted to contrast it to emigration from Germany under the Nazis, although Böll never does so directly.

I would have found the book a fascinating and eminently readable outsider’s portrait, were it not for the epilogue that Heinrich Böll added in 1967. As Hugo Hamilton points out in his beautifully written introduction – in which he neatly balances interesting stuff about himself with interesting stuff about the book itself – he “records the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society” in the journal itself. Yet he does so entirely uncritically. And it was his epilogue that really opened my eyes to that complacent view, because here Böll comments with horror on the arrival of the birth-control pill in Ireland. While even admitting that it might free the women from having quite so many babies and the country from over-population, he writes, “…this something absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay.” How sad that a writer capable of such critical faculty when it came to his own country failed to apply that to Ireland.

So, read the Irish Journal to find out what clichés the Germans still hold dear about Ireland, and to some extent what Ireland was like in the mid-1950s. But do bear in mind that it’s all rather reminiscent of a BBC costume drama featuring craggy character actors as The Priest, The Doctor’s Wife, The Drinker, The Post-Office Girl and The Bus Driver. Delightfully nostalgic stuff, very well done, but perhaps not exactly educational.


Tony said...

I loved this book - it has all of Böll's trademark style and humour without the need to point the finger at anyone in particular, definitely one I want to reread soon :)

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