Seriously – I had time to start, enjoy, and finish reading a book recently. Wonders never cease. It was The Clown by: Heinrich Böll. During my freshman year in college I participated in my school’s quiz bowl team and tasked myself with learning the names and some of the better known (which in some cases means not well known at all in the United States) works by each Nobel Prize winning author. Böll won the Prize in 1972; his best-known novel is probably Billiards at Half-Past Nine. However, I have had a copy of The Clown sitting on my bookshelf for the past eight years after purchasing it second-hand (or, more likely, fifth-hand) for a dollar at a used bookstore in Montana, so I decided to give it a go, not knowing much about Böll other than his status as a Prize winner.
The story of Hans Schnier involves his reminiscing during a three hour period after a particularly bad performance as a pantomime/clown in post-war Germany. Most of the novel is a flashback, during which he smokes, drinks, bathes, and intermittently calls “friends” (they are more like acquaintances) to fill the time. His companion of the past ten years, Marie, has left him, he has no money, no motivation, and no hope for the future. He recalls events from his youth during World War II, being forced into the Hitler Youth Movement by his “don’t rock the boat” parents. He struggles with their hypocrisy as they construct ties to race reconciliation groups when joining these organizations became en vogue after the liberation. I felt like I was reading the German version of Sartre’s Nausea, of course with a different specific topic, but the same theme of an existentialism, with little hope for the future.
While the book was well-written and does allow a glipse into an unique historical setting, I had difficulty empathizing with Schnier’s character. He does not seem to recognize that he has driven Marie away with his on-the-road lifestyle, his lack of long-term perspective, and his never-ending poverty he brings on himself by continuing theatrics while failing to acknowledge Marie’s desire for stability. When his life falls apart, his father offers to send him back to school, but instead Schnier chooses to paint his face white while sitting in Bonn’s rail station busking, hoping for donations from passersby so that he can purchase cigarettes and cognac. I get that this is a demonstration of his suffering, but he is so self-destructive. He blames the Catholic church for all of his problems rather than taking responsibility for his own life.
Anyway, I imagine I will read more novels by Böll in the future, because it was a very interesting read. When I was younger I found the struggling, suffering, artist-type person intriguing and almost desirable, but time has convinced me that enlightenment can come with stability, having a family, being well-nourished, and sleeping in a warm bed at night too.