The first novel to be reviewed in our series of literary classics is Ansichten eines Clowns (The Clown) by the Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll. Published in 1963, the novel, labelled as a piece of anti-Catholic writing by the conservative press, sparked a fierce debate among critics that lasted for many months.
Against the wishes of his family, Hans Schnier, the 27-year-old son of rich parents who made their fortune with brown coal, has been working as a clown and pantomime artist for the past six years, touring various German cities with his girlfriend Marie. Yet when Marie decides to end their relationship because of his refusal to marry her and raise their children according to the Catholic faith, Hans’ world falls apart, he takes to drinking and ruins his career. In the novel we find Hans in his apartment in Bonn, looking back at his failed relationship with Marie as well as his childhood during and immediately after the Third Reich. Hans spends his evening ringing different people, including his mother, his father’s mistress, his brother who lives in a convent and various other acquaintances, unsuccessfully trying to borrow money from them. In between those phone calls he looks back at his life, his failed relationship with Marie and his family. A story of loss unfolds—Hans first lost his sister Henriette to his parents’ fascism and later Marie, the love of his life, to Catholicism. Whilst Marie only leaves him in order to marry a key figure in the Catholic movement, his sister Henriette died shortly before the end of the war because her parents sent her to support the German air-defence team. Unable to accept those losses, Hans goes on to criticise the Germans’ unwillingness to admit their fascist past and ability to just carry on as if nothing had happened (strongly symbolised by his mother, who, as a convinced fascist, hoped for the death of those “Jewish Yankees”, and is now chairing a committee for “Racial Reconciliation”) and the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy of proclaiming rules that no one ever follows. Indirectly, this leads him to a critique of the link between the Catholic Church and the fascist regime, and the willingness on the part of the Church to welcome former Nazis into the fold. At the end of the novel, we find Hans singing to his guitar outside the main station, begging for money and waiting for the train that will bring Marie back from her honeymoon.
With his relentless criticism of the Germany of the 1950s and ’60s, Böll remains very relevant for a modern audience. The atmosphere of those years really comes to life in this novel and offers new perspectives on the years of the famous “Wirtschaftswunder”. Currently out of print in English, we would really like this novel to be published again for an English-speaking audience.