Tuesday, February 22, 2011

06 The Bread of Those Early Years-Heinrich Böll

Böll is known for his simplicity. In its original German, his books are often taught to German language learners because of that simple precise style. Truly lovely:

I sat down on the running board of Wickweber’s van, but instead of staring at the doorway I closed my eyes and looked for an instant into the darkroom, seeing the image of the only person who I know has never shouted, never bawled out another person—the only person whose devoutness I have found convincing: I saw Father. In front of him was the little blue wooden box we used to keep our dominoes in. the box is always stuffed with memo slips, all cut by Father to the same size from waste paper: paper is the only thing he hoards. From letters begun and then discarded, from copybooks not fully used up, he cuts out the blank parts, from wedding and death announcements he cuts off the unprinted parts, and as for those impressive circulars, those requests on deckle-edged paper to appear at some rally or other, those invitations on linen paper to do something for the cause of Liberty—this printed matter fills him with childish delight because each one yields him a least six memo slips, which he then deposits as treasures in the old domino box. He is obsessed by bits of paper, inserts them in his books, his wallet bulges with them, matters both important and trivial are all confided to these slips. I was forever coming across them when I was still living at home. “Button on undershorts” was written on one of them, on another “Mozart,” on another “pilageuse—pilage,” and once I found one saying: “On the streetcar I saw a face such as Jesus Christ must have had in His Agony.” Before going shopping he takes out the slips, riffles through them as though a deck of cards, lays them out like a game of solitaire, and arranges them in order of priority, forming little piles just as one separates aces, kings, queens, and jacks.

From all his books they stick halfway out between the pages, most of them yellowed and spotted because the books often lie about for months before he gets around to making use of the slips. During school vacations he collects them, rereads the passages he has made notes on, and sorts the slips, on most of which he has noted English and French words, grammatical constructions, idioms whose meaning is not fully clear to him till he has come across them two or three times. He carries on a voluminous correspondence about his discoveries, orders dictionaries to be sent to him, chicks back with his colleagues, and with gentle persistence needles the editors of reference works.

And there is one slip that he always carries in his wallet, one marked in red pencil and being particularly important, a memo that is destroyed after each of my visits buy is then soon written out again—the slip that says: “Have a talk with the boy.”

This passage takes me into his father’s house and life, but Böll does this with ease throughout the novella.

Simply put, The Bread is a love story that takes place in one day. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy desires girl, girl acquiesces. Unlike modern writers, Böll doesn’t have his characters have sex or even kiss. They are proper post-war Germans, marriage is the only option. The flashbacks within the first person narration are digressions of beauty. Did I mention Bolaño was influenced by Böll?

Mr. Walter Fendrich is a washing machine repairman. He is completely afraid of famine and just as the title suggests, he loves bread because it was something he rarely had when growing (yes, it's a metaphor). In his search for his identity he has gone through several apprenticeships and quit all of them. He hates his current job but is excellent at diagnosing the problem, fixing it, and moving on. He can’t seem to do this in his real life. He makes good money, but still buys bread every chance he gets; he buys so much bread that most days he is forced to give it away.

Hedwig Muller is moving to the city to pursue a teaching career. They are united only by their hometown, but after finding her an apartment at her father’s request, he picks her up at the railway station. Fendrich decides right then, he is going to give up everything for this woman. It’s quite romantic really. He buys her flowers, postcards, cake, coffee, and of course, bread.

1 comment:

joe weintraub said...

One of my favorite passages in this book is when Ulla, the girl Fendrich is ditching for Hedwig, says something to the effect of, "Please, do me one favor. Never ever say that word 'bread' to me again." I was ready to applaud." Fendrich is really quite a damaged soul (and what little we see of Hedwig is not entirely reassuring, either), and I think that needs to be kept in mind as we make our way through this very somber portrayal of post-war Germany.