Interviews

Heinrich Böll, The Art of Fiction No. 74

Interviewed by A. Leslie Willson

After riding a streetcar through the green fields and meadows south of Cologne, the interviewer got out at the small station at Merten and gave a taxi driver an address: “Oh, you're going to see Böll,” was the immediate comment. The address was a three-storied, nondescript and unadorned brick building. After standing at a wooden gate with no apparent latch, the interviewer was hailed from a porch above by a balding, somewhat florid-faced man who called out: “Simply push the top board to the right.”

Once inside, Heinrich Böll welcomed the interviewer with a hearty handshake; he introduced Annemarie Böll—his helpmate and wife of almost forty years—and led the way into a dark living room filled with overstuffed chairs and couches. Böll recently sold his residence of many years in Cologne to move near the Lamuv Verlag, an enterprise of one of his sons, where Böll himself lends a hand as an editor and advisor to the fledgling publisher.

The writer, wearing a rumpled suit with no tie, moved slowly and spoke softly. When he and the interviewer had settled themselves, Böll leaned forward and said, “Let's simply talk with one another.” His remark set the tone for the relaxed conversation that followed.

 

INTERVIEWER

I think of surprises in your works which startle the reader, as in Adam, Where Art Thou? where the protagonist is killed on the last page. Or in Group Portrait with Lady, where the reader waits in suspense for the meeting of the narrator with Leni Pfeiffer, and when it does happen, there are only a few words about it. What kind of function do such surprises play? Did you contrive such surprises on purpose?

BÖLL

No, I don't think so. In Group Portrait with Lady the reason is possibly—I emphasize the possibly—that the narrator has been very aloof during the whole book. He has become a researcher, collecting impressions, facts, moods, and also events, and therefore he probably shrinks from the encounter. In Adam, Where Art Thou? there is very possibly an experiential component. I spent the last months of the war here in the western part of Germany before I became a prisoner of the Americans, and I observed that houses where a white flag had been put out were often shot at by the Germans. With the advance of the American army, villages and small towns between the fronts waited for the American army, and raised the white flag; that was prohibited, prohibited on penalty of death. Naturally, with the shifting of the fronts, the occupation of some villages changed; those houses with white flags hanging out were fired on by the German army or at least by certain units. Therefore, the white flag had a personal significance for me; possibly—I no longer know exactly what I had in mind at the time—it was the thought of being killed at the last moment that brought me to end the story that way. It happened to a lot of people. Here in the Rhineland there was a whole wave of executions of deserters, about which very little is known even yet. They were hanged from trees; they were shot to death on the spot. There was a kind of arbitrary jurisdiction. I believe there was a mandate by Hitler that anyone could shoot anyone else whom he considered a deserter from the colors. And I was myself, with my brother, a deserter in the last months of the war and lived in the constant fear: “Will we get away with it? Will we get out of this alive, survive it?” Then, in order to escape this peril—it seemed to me the safest way—I went back to the army. During that fortnight or so in the armed forces before I came into American captivity, I often observed what happened to the white flags. And certainly for me—a deserter from the colors who was frightened for his life—that was significant to me. It wasn't just a capricious ending.

INTERVIEWER

I was with that soldier in front of his door, where a white flag was flying, and when I turned the page there was the sudden, surprising moment. I almost collapsed myself.

BÖLL

I remember one young man, a noncommissioned officer, who left the front to go drink coffee with his mother. She lived only four kilometers or so away. He was shot as a deserter.

INTERVIEWER

But he wasn't one?

BÖLL

That was not clear. He wasn't militaristic or an enthusiastic soldier, but he had gone away only four or five kilometers to visit his mother, and they shot him. Such things happened. On a visit to Cologne in March 1945, after a heavy bombing I met hundreds and hundreds of deserters who were squatting in the rubble, many in the deep cellars left from Roman times. They had been hiding there after the retreat from France. They lived by selling cigarettes on the black market, by bartering, and so on. People like these, who fled the war and were nevertheless killed at the last moment, are indeed significant. The white flag is a very important motif. I still remember keeping my father from putting out the white flag too early. He always had his handkerchief and a broomstick ready and, long before the Americans came, he wanted to put them out; and we said: “Now watch it, that could turn out bad, don't do that too soon.” So you can see what the white flag means to me.

INTERVIEWER

For a long time I've noticed that throughout your works there is a considerable emphasis on arrivals and departures . . .the train station a focal point.

BÖLL

Oh, yes. I suppose that's also related to the war, to hundreds of departures and farewells which could always be final. Nobody knew: “Will we see one another again?” I experience this metaphysics of farewell even to this day when I leave someplace, when I change localities, which I unfortunately do very often. The farewell is always conceivably a final one. Even when I travel from the house we have in the country to this house, where we live officially, so to speak, I have to pack; I have to climb into a car or a taxi. It's always difficult to depart; the realistic aspect does not exclude the metaphorical one—the interpretation that here on earth we find ourselves in a waiting room.

INTERVIEWER

You could say: Meeting Place Earth, couldn't you?

BÖLL

Yes, you could say that. But I long for the time of no more departures. It has something to do with age probably.

INTERVIEWER

I think of Hans Schnier in The Clown—how he sits there on the steps.

BÖLL

Within the absurd events of war there is always a constant back-and-forth, a constant change from here to there. You get put into another train and shipped off; you arrive somewhere, stay only a couple of days, and then you are again shipped off—this absurd line of movement brought about by war. If you translate that into all the people, whether civilian or soldier, there's something like fugitive flight involved.

INTERVIEWER

Only in wartime?

BÖLL

It was there before. The threat posed by those in power, the Nazis, was always that of having to leave. You could be arrested, you could be taken away. Also the economics of the time meant that we moved around a lot. The fear of not being able to pay the rent was deeply lodged, very deeply. Just imagine a boy of ten or twelve who has no clear concept of economic matters but knows only: “Oh, God, I hope we can pay the rent or we'll be thrown out.” All of that is related. My father owned several houses—we had one that he had to sell because of the Depression. The deluge came a year later when a bank failed. We had to get out of our house. It was auctioned off. And with that the fear began: “Do you have a place to live? Do you have a bed?” Later, with my own sons, it has always been my main concern to have a home for them, and a bed, and a blanket. It's all connected with that. A train station is not a home, you know. Nor is a waiting room, and least of all the army barracks.

INTERVIEWER

You have sometimes been compared with Hemingway. Do you think that is justified?

BÖLL

Not entirely. I was influenced in regard to form, that's very obvious. His style was for us an enormous surprise, and we were fascinated because apparently—I emphasize apparently—he was so superficial . . . such a contrast to our famous German profundity. But behind this apparent, let's say almost journalistic, superficiality one can perceive a depth. Where I differ completely from him is in his trauma of masculinity—it probably was a trauma in his case—or this hero worship, virility worship! I never liked that. It had no appeal for me; it was distasteful to me. Nonetheless, his means of expression were so important.

INTERVIEWER

You and your wife had something to do with the success in Germany of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

BÖLL

Well, it had been translated, and indeed very well, but it wasn't a success. It hadn't even been noticed. It had been done by a Swiss publisher. We compared the translation with the English original, and discovered that, for reasons of censorship of one kind or another, some parts had been left out. The Swiss do a lot of censoring—especially references to sex and anti-militaristic things. So we looked for a new publisher, actually our own, and after convincing him—which was very difficult, he didn't want to do it at all—we redid The Catcher in the Rye, checking through it, correcting a bit, and adding what had been left out. And we did translate other works by Salinger, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters.

INTERVIEWER

Have you met Salinger personally?

BÖLL

No. It must be difficult.

INTERVIEWER

Could you have hidden yourself from society behind a wall, as he has done?

BÖLL

No. But I think that has to do with German history. I could imagine, if the Nazis, the war, and postwar political developments had not happened that I might have led a very secretive life. But as a citizen of the Federal Republic and as a German I could not manage that. Sometimes I try to do it, to become a kind of mixture of Irishman and Oblomov— an Irish Oblomov—but I can't do it. Of course, I can understand Salinger's reclusiveness very well. I also respect it completely.

INTERVIEWER

You once had very large printings of your works in Russia, even larger than in the United States. Do you know anything about the Russian translations?

BÖLL

There's a book about that by an American Slavic scholar, Henry Glade, who has written at length about the reception of my work in the Soviet Union. He checked the translations in part with a Russian-German scholar, a translator, and the results were awful. I become very anxious when I think about the way I was introduced there, and that now it's all been coarsened. So that the Russian readers must be to some extent bewildered, they can't understand: “My God, what's gotten into him?” It's a very sad story.

INTERVIEWER

Are you read in Russia as much today as you were?

BÖLL

Well, my books have not been published since 1972,** the main reason being the occupation of Czechoslovakia when I expressed my views very energetically.

INTERVIEWER

You weren't in Prague at the time?

BÖLL

I was there on the day the invasion took place, yes. I experienced it with Czech friends, and my viewpoint, in interviews and what I wrote myself, was so unequivocal that I was the “bad boy” for a long time. In 1972 a small volume of stories appeared in Russia, but nothing since then. My books are no longer for sale either, except on the black market in Moscow.

INTERVIEWER

And the fact that you welcomed Solzhenitsyn when he came out certainly didn't help.

BÖLL

Probably not. And others have come since then. But even after Solzhenitsyn was with us, I have been in the Soviet Union. I travel there occasionally still.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose you have money in the Soviet Union.

BÖLL

No, no, that's not a factor. And there isn't much, very little.

INTERVIEWER

You have been translated quite a lot. What is important to an author about his translator? Do you hear critical echoes?

BÖLL

The only ones I can judge are the English translations. And even in that case not accurately. My most interesting correspondence is with my translators. I marvel at their sensitivity over certain passages that just anyone, even if he knows German well, would not appreciate. Of course, the Russian translators never queried me about anything; but the French, the Italians, and the English correspond with me at times so that I can clarify certain expressions for them, certain situations; that gives me a lot of pleasure. I like that a lot.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose you learn something from that yourself.

BÖLL

Yes, of course. You have to explain historical things, especially small details, minute things. It was so complicated during the Nazi era. No, no, that's a lot of fun for me.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think is humorous in your works?

BÖLL

What do I think? What do you think?

INTERVIEWER

I find humor even in your serious situations and circumstances. For instance, do you smell things over the telephone the way the clown does in The Clown?

BÖLL

No, unfortunately not.

INTERVIEWER

Then how did Hans Schnier get the idea that he could smell over the telephone?

BÖLL

I don't know.

INTERVIEWER

You don't know.

BÖLL

No, really, I don't. Humor is really one of the hardest things to define, very hard. And it's very ambiguous. You have it or you don't. You can't attain it. There are terrible forms of professional humor, the humorists' humor. That can be awful. It depresses me because it is artificial. You can't always be humorous, but a professional humorist must. That is a sad phenomenon.

INTERVIEWER

That's not the same thing as being a clown.

BÖLL

Oh no, not at all.

INTERVIEWER

Humor for him is something superficial.

BÖLL

Yes, but that's an illusion. Basically it is the expression of deep melancholy. Many clowns end up in deep melancholia, too. I don't know what you're getting at—that you discover humor in my work?

INTERVIEWER

I have in mind Dr. Murke's silence from Murke's Collected Silences. It wasn't silence at all.

BÖLL

Yes, that may be.

INTERVIEWER

And the story, “The Throw-away Man.”

BÖLL

Yes, that's wicked.

INTERVIEWER

It may be wicked, but you aimed well. Certainly we live in a society where a lot is thrown away.

BÖLL

Paper mainly. I don't know whether “The Throw-away Man” is humor, I don't know. I had a lot of trouble making that story work.

INTERVIEWER

How does a work start? What is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it an image—or a character, or a social situation?

BÖLL

It begins with one person (at the most two) in a specific situation that produces conflict and tension. How much “breathing space” or length is determined by the number of persons who necessarily become involved.

INTERVIEWER

Does a work change from your original concept of it as you go along?

BÖLL

In my case, the work changes constantly, since I seldom have a firm plot or any idea at all about the ending. But there is a clear, almost mathematically conceptual idea that determines length—the length or brevity of a literary work being comparable to the size of the frame needed by a picture.

INTERVIEWER

For whom do you write? Do you have an imaginary reader?

BÖLL

My “imaginary reader” can be “uneducated,” but with a vacillating optimism that sometimes approaches pessimism. I still consider language to be a means of communication with this reader. Even complicated events—which form topics in essays or reviews—are communicable to the “uneducated” reader.

INTERVIEWER

What is the most difficult aspect of writing for you?

BÖLL

Well, considering my “imaginary reader,” it's being able to be understood without having to compromise by making something easy that isn't easy, or by making something unnecessarily difficult when it is easy in the first place.

INTERVIEWER

Did receiving the Nobel Prize change your life?

BÖLL

When I got the Nobel Prize I said to myself that it had made me neither smarter nor more stupid. I said, too, that we Germans have never been an unimaginative people, and so I was pleased about receiving the Prize. The Nobel Prize has not changed my personal life. Since it is generously endowed, it was very welcome financially. I bought a large prewar apartment in Cologne, where I no longer reside, however.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any rituals that get you going on a literary project?

BÖLL

When I am involved in an extensive project there is no ritual—I go to work and write until weariness forces me to stop. With shorter projects I shirk: I straighten up my desk and then straighten it up again, read the newspaper, take a walk, tidy up my bookshelves, drink coffee or tea with the lady I'm married to, smoke a lot, let myself be diverted with visitors, telephone calls, even the radio—and then at the last moment I am literally forced to begin, jumping on a train, if you will, that's already pulling out of the station.

INTERVIEWER

In your remarks at the acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm you described your table. Do you have the table in this house?

BÖLL

No, I have it in the study in my other house.

INTERVIEWER

Can you work without that table?

BÖLL

Yes. But not well. I work best at that table.

INTERVIEWER

Is it a large table?

BÖLL

No, it's very small. So big.

INTERVIEWER

And the typewriter you mentioned?

BÖLL

I still have it. “Travelwriter Deluxe,” manufactured in 1957. But it rattles a lot now, and I sometimes think it's not going to last much longer.

INTERVIEWER

Will you get an electric one?

BÖLL

I can't work with a motor around. The typewriter is for me really an instrument.

INTERVIEWER

Something like a pencil?

BÖLL

Well, I'd like to say, as terrible as it sounds, something like a musical instrument. I forget that I'm sitting at a machine.

INTERVIEWER

Do you type with all your fingers?

BÖLL

No, no, with six, seven. I never learned how, and I always make a lot of mistakes. They are corrected then by the lady to whom I'm married, or I do it myself. I have to have my hand on the actual writing till the end. I can't dictate. The process of writing on the typewriter is a productive process for me. I'm so used to this machine; it has a certain rhythm; I'll have a hard time bidding it farewell. But an electric one is unthinkable. I can't have a motor on my writing table, you know—it would buzz a little, no?

INTERVIEWER

Also in your remarks in Stockholm you said that language and the power of imagination were the same thing. What did you mean by that?

BÖLL

That behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined. Actually, every word has a great burden of memories, not only just of one person but of all mankind. Take a word such as bread, or war; take a word such as chair, or bed or Heaven. Behind every word is a whole world. I'm afraid that most people use words as something to throw away without sensing the burden that lies in a word. Of course, that is what is significant about poetry, or the lyric, in which this can be brought about more intensively than in prose, although prose has the same function.

INTERVIEWER

With your political and socio-critical stances—I am thinking of such militant radicals as Ulrike Meinhof* and the criticism you have expressed about the press—you have sometimes made yourself unpopular among your colleagues and . . .

BÖLL

. . .everywhere.

INTERVIEWER

. . .everywhere. Why have you done that?

BÖLL

I didn't do it to be unpopular, but rather because—it comes back to what we were just talking about—the unimaginative use of words upsets me. Put very simply: in the case of Ulrike Meinhof and her comrades, they were called murderers before murder was proven against them. I consider that to be outrageous. I remind myself that this kind of slander, practiced here recklessly, not only by some of the most prominent publishers, but by others as well, makes me think of the press campaign of the Nazis against Jews, Communists, and then, later, against church circles. Actually, my excitement or really my anger, was just my way of saying: “Hold on here!” All of this is linked with my attitude toward the word, toward words. It was always a matter of words. I picked out a word and showed what lay behind it and what can be caused by its misuse. Many of my colleagues did not understand; they thought: “My God, he's supporting the terrorists,” which was not the case at all; but they concocted it out of everything I wrote. Then some of my words were quoted falsely, which put me and my family into a very difficult situation. Always, it was a matter of words. I consider that to be the task of being preoccupied with language. Particularly in our own history. As a young man I read the Stürmer and that damned Nazi press here, which made not only the Jews the subject of their evil propaganda, but other groups in society as well—homosexuals, Catholic priests, and, it goes without saying, Communists. So I'm just as sensitive when a group of people is defamed today by being called names, especially in the light of our own political history; don't forget that many of the defamers were overzealous, quickly-converted democrats who—let's say—in March 1945 were Nazis and in October 1945 were already flaming democrats. I mistrust them. I believe that democracy is based on lengthy processes. You can't become a democrat quite so quickly. All of that is related. I don't regret it, don't regret it: well, some things I said, in my rage, and also because I felt alone, were stupid things, too, fine, but the process was necessary.

INTERVIEWER

Have you expressed an opinion about what has been happening in Poland?

BÖLL

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

I assume that has bothered you.

BÖLL

Yes, it not only has bothered me, it has upset me terribly, and it still does. I don't think it's all over yet. Oh, that will be bitter. I hope there's not a civil war, but I can't believe that such a development, such a movement, which proceeds not only from the Communist intellectuals but also from the workers, will be so easily suppressed. I have expressed my opinion about it, very energetically, and I was praised by people whom I find sinister, who give me the creeps. Such hypocrisy. Take that word solidarity: it has three dimensions, first a word, then a concept, and finally the name of a movement—all pointing to the fact that solidarity is not divisible. Yet I can't have solidarity with Poland, nor with the creeps, nor with Haiti, if you see what I mean. That's where the hypocrisy begins, right here. How many people here are suddenly for free trade unions who have always fought against free trade unions? Oh, well, all right. Then too, I naturally had trouble with certain leftist circles here. But the clarification was necessary.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of history as lies?

BÖLL

Always newly refined. Well, you must distinguish between history and the writing of history. History has a more or less verifiable course, which can almost never be reconstructed, never precisely, and that results in what can be called a lie, or better, an untruth, or an inaccuracy. Most historians rely too much on accessible sources. Of course, that's legitimate. What else is a historian to do? He goes to the sources, he looks into the files of the Reichskanzlei or the British Foreign Office, he inspects the correspondence of someone with someone else, compares this with what happened next, but at every point there is the possibility of making a mistake. After all, there are falsified facts. What cannot be ferreted out is what might be false or deceptive in an official document that Churchill writes to Stalin or Hitler to Mussolini or whatever, and that is already not true. I suspect that the writing of history is simply burdened with many mistakes of this sort, loaded, as it were.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that truth itself is hard to find, even when it exists? Well, then how does one find truth? Are there truths in a novel, for example?

BÖLL

Yes, there can be, human truths. Many novels convey more insight than scholarly works. Let me give an example: in South America, from Sábato in Argentina to Asturias in Guatemala, straight across the board, there are so many authors, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez and so on, hundreds of them—and it is through them that a mediated impression of this subcontinent comes very close to truth. Of course, I can't restrict myself to one author. Truth must be assembled. In Germany after the war, 1945 to 1960 or 1970, naturally, there's not just one novel that can give that to you, but twenty—Patterns of Childhood by Christa Wolf, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson's novels, Koeppen. We can't enumerate them, but perhaps all together they write the truth about that epoch. History and fiction must complement one another. And added to that is painting, music, especially architecture . . .indeed everything that the period produced is a part of it. Truth certainly exists, but it is very hard to put together, it's always an assembled truth; historical writing is a part of it, too, but I don't believe it can deliver the whole truth. I found one example very striking. Rolf Hochhuth wrote about the young Swiss, named Bavaud, I think, who wanted to assassinate Hitler. The people whom Hochhuth wanted to refute came forward with official documents of the Secret Police, which sounded very sober and clear, and said: “Look, So-and-so said this, he did this and that—it's all in the documents.” But how do we know that the documents weren't falsified? After all, in any court proceeding you find the judge saying: “That goes into the record but that doesn't.” Or is it different in America?

INTERVIEWER

Oh no.

BÖLL

If you can't even discern the truth in a petty theft or a divorce case, you're going to have the same problem with the sources when you sit down to write history.

INTERVIEWER

You have to be careful with sources.

BÖLL

Take an interrogation, a questioning. What does the official write down, how does he formulate it—the linguistic expression is very decisive—what does he leave out? Not much is left.

INTERVIEWER

Well, does truth exist?

BÖLL

Yes, there is, finally, a truth about this theft, or about that marriage that has gone to ruin. But it's not necessarily found in the documents. Maybe in a novel.

INTERVIEWER

You speak of the importance of a word's meaning and truth. Aren't words inexact at best?

BÖLL

Language is more solid than music and painting. Yet it is “inexact.” But the fact that a word has a multiplicity of meaning, not only within a language but also outside of it, makes it important to try to get to the root of words and language. That is the constant striving of literature. The absolute meaning exists somewhere; we just haven't found it yet.

INTERVIEWER

What induces you to set to work?

BÖLL

Well, first of all the desire to express something special in language. But there are various inducements, aren't there? There's the purely linguistic beginning. A sentence occurs to me, or a situation.

INTERVIEWER

Would you start with a title?

BÖLL

No. The title comes afterwards, usually with considerable difficulty. I remember that The Train Was on Time had a totally different working title; it was called Between Lemberg and Czernowitz. The publisher said, “My God, two place names.” I was persuaded to change it, but not against my will; I agreed to it then. A working title often changes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe your usual workday?

BÖLL

Mine? That's been difficult in the last few years because I was ill for a long time and actually still am. Normally I work mornings, from after breakfast until about half-past twelve, and then again in the afternoon, and in the evening as well, if I really get going. There are, unfortunately, quite a few interruptions—not unimportant ones, correspondence and the like—that make steady work difficult.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write without much revision?

BÖLL

Oh, no, I revise everything, very often. Even when I am writing a short article of let's say, two typewritten pages, it will have four or five versions.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write to the end and then read it through again?

BÖLL

Yes; then I make corrections or notes with a pencil or a ballpoint and work through it again, improve it, add to it. No, it happens very seldom, unfortunately, that I just dash something off. Of course, often the really decisive thought doesn't come until later. Sometimes, I start writing and suddenly the thought arrives, maybe on the third page, and then I throw away the rest and start with that. It's a good thing to keep on writing. A lot that happens at the back has to be moved to the front.

INTERVIEWER

Are the names of your characters important to you?

BÖLL

Yes, very. Very definitely. I can't begin, if I don't know the name. That's my problem at the moment. I have a plan in mind, something, a novel. I should have five or six names already, that I don't have yet. Certainly I can help myself out—and that's not bad either—just by calling them all Schmitz, just to get going. But I can't think about names too much.

INTERVIEWER

There are no names with meaning in your work? Where the name . . .

BÖLL

. . .refers to the occupation? No, I don't like that. I find that awkward, because you ought not mark a person's name up against him. It's an awkward mistake to try to make a name significant or characteristic of the person in question. The name of a person is really sacrosanct to me. A lot of things are ruined because I can't find a name. Sometimes I improvise on the typewriter, just as one improvises on the piano. I think, well, it starts with a D, then I put down an E, and then an N and so forth. So then he's named Denger or some such name.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever been blocked, unable to write, and if so, how did you get going again?

BÖLL

Inhibitions or blocks have recently become second nature with me. It has to do with the situation on earth. I live in a country which has the greatest concentration of atomic weapons on earth—and now more masses of new atomic weapons are to be added. That can take away your breath, and your enjoyment of life, and give you pause about whether writing makes any sense. For a time music, classical music, helped me to overcome a block—Beethoven's breath, for example, in which I sense something very West European and Rhine-like. The persistent problem with my writing is that I never know how something is going to come out; even when I write a short review, I always have to start all over. I have no mastery.

INTERVIEWER

But is that not a fatal realization to a writer?

BÖLL

It's actually beneficial—it prevents things from becoming routine.

INTERVIEWER

What would you like to see changed in the world?

BÖLL

In the world?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

BÖLL

One question that has concerned me very much is: To whom does the earth belong?

INTERVIEWER

Would you call yourself an optimist?

BÖLL

Me?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

BÖLL

I'm both.

INTERVIEWER

Pessimist and optimist at the same time?

BÖLL

Mine is the optimism of the survivor; the feeling of having survived is very often horrible when you realize how many didn't. I'm still whole, still here—that is one of my driving forces, the feeling of having survived. One of the difficulties for today's young people is that they don't have this feeling. But those who survived World War II, Auschwitz, and political murder have a certain optimism combined with a bad conscience as well . . .because surviving such things is not only luck and grace—it is even perhaps evidence of a brutal vitality. I don't know, I've just become very skeptical.

 

* Ulrike Meinhof led a terrorist group in the 70s which tried to effect social change through bank robbery and political assassination. She and several of her co-conspirators died in prison under mysterious circumstances.

** 1974