By Heinrich Boll.
184 pages
Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1977.

Comments of Bob Corbett
March 2001

A few weeks ago I commented on a book of "short stories" by Arthur Schnitzler, VIENNA 1900: GAMES WITH LOVE AND DEATH. The four stories of that volume were all very long, and the book more than double the number of pages of this Boll volume. In contrast with Schnitzler's four stories Boll presents twenty-six very very short stories, few over four pages in length and the longest only eleven pages. How long or short is a short story?

These are "early" Boll, written between 1947-1951, most of them are either World War II stories, especially at or near the Crimean front late in the war, or are stories set in the immediate post-war days of shortages and desperately hard times. These stories are overwhelmingly pessimistic and depressing, yet many are well written and gripping.

I was deeply touched by "My Pal With Long Hair," a story of a down and out small-time black marketeer who follows a woman he sees at the train station. With hardly a word spoken they join their lives, wandering off to where they know not where. The story brought tears to my eyes as Boll made their lives of hopelessness and meaninglessness so gripping and real. In desperation they clung together, less in love and certainly not in lust, but together to escape the weight of their loneliness and despair.

Boll experimented with a handful of war stores in which the first person narrator dies in the end. Another set had either that same theme or something close, but mixed with various supernatural or occult devices as well. I was never convinced by any of that set, though bits and pieces of them were vivid and powerful. For me these bits and pieces were wasted and would have been more satisfying in different settings.

More powerful and convincing were "Drinking in Petocki" and "That Time We Were In Odessa." Very similar stories, actually the same basic plot in two different settings, of soldiers ready to ship out to the Crimean front, virtually assured of dying, who, not knowing what else to do, seek food, drink, companionship and fun before going off as obedient soldiers to their deaths.

The last four stories seem to mark a significant break in the themes which dominate the bulk of the book. After 22 stories of unrelenting misery, despair and hopelessness there is a jarring last sentence to the story "On the Hook." Even this story seemed like a logical continuation of the main themes. It is a monologue of a madman who comes daily to meet the 1:30 train, expecting his beloved who, three months earlier, had telegramed she'd be on the 1:30. He's developed a theory of pure paranoia -- everyone is conspiring to keep her from reaching him. The crescendo builds to the crushing, and now fully expected, conclusion when he breaks and all come crashing down. But, Boll startles us with a surprise ending and the spell of the book is broken.

The third last story, and the most famous one to most readers, "My Sad Face" returns to the harsh meaninglessness, hopeless despair of the earlier stories except for the ambiguity that perhaps, just perhaps, the narrator hero himself has escaped the despair despite the objective situation of oppression.

This story has been widely anthologized and seen by many readers in the well-know volume, CONTINENTAL SHORT STORIES.

The penultimate tale "Candles for Madonna" again suggests a narrator whose objective situation might well call forth despair, but who, with a sense of whimsy is able to embrace the situation with grace and style.

And finally the complete break. The last story which simply doesn't belong in this volume is "Black Sheep," a hilarious tale which, while puzzling me to no end since I was waiting for the other shoe of despair and pessimism to fall, nonetheless had me laughing aloud throughout. And then a happily-ever-after ending? I was doubting Boll's authorship of the story.

Heinrich Boll is a brilliant writer. I've read several of his novels, even commenting on one THE SAFETY NET in these notes on-line. But the present volume of short stories was a mixed bag. Some of the war and post-war tales were among the most powerful war literature I've ever read. Others much less satisfying and obviously by an experimenting writer playing with ideas, several of which would have been better left unpublished.

The total weight of this volume was overwhelming: a battering ram of despair, pessimism and hopelessness, ultimately relieved in the last nine pages by "Black Sheep." Even that light and universal tale was damaged by its inclusion as the last story in a set in which it didn't fit. The lightness, hilarity and joy were dampened by the assurance of the logic of the collection that it had to all come crashing down at the end.

Nonetheless, I'd highly recommend anyone to search out this hard to find volume, and while being prepared to be disappointed here and there, settle in for some disconcerting, but extremely powerful and challenging fiction.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett