Heinrich Böll: The Silent Angel – Der Engel schwieg (1951) Literature and War Readalong November 2011 Meets German Literature Month

Written between 1949 – 1951 Der Engel schwieg  or The Silent Angel is unique in many ways. Unique for German literature but also in Böll’s work. I have already written about it in my post on Sebald’s The Natural History of Destruction. Böll’s novel, which is one of the rare to depict a German city after the massive bombings by the Allies, had to wait 40 years for its publication. For this reason many of the chapters have been re-used in other books and if you are familiar with Böll the one or the other scene or description may appear familiar. All the important themes of Böll’s work can already be found here. Criticism of post-war Catholicism, compassion with those who have nothing, with those who suffer. His books often circle around the same elements, motives and themes and although he doesn’t always use the same style, this gives the impression of a very organic work that, read in its entirety, gives an excellent panorama of Post-war Germany.

The Silent Angel is one of the most important works of the so-called “Trümmerliteratur” (the literature of the ruins). The story as such can be told in a few sentences. It’s May 8 1945. Hans, a deserter, returns from the war without a passport. He tries to find the woman of a comrade who died instead of him. While walking the bombed and destroyed city he meets a woman who lives in an appartment in a house that is almost a ruin. He feels a strong connection to her and asks her if he can stay with her. She has lost her baby in an air raid, his wife has died as well and so, like two castaways, they are stranded together in this apartment. At first they both envy those who died but slowly they find their way back to love, hope and some kind of livable future.

It isn’t said but we know that the city which is described is Köln, Böll’s hometown. The description of the despair of the people, how tired they are physically and psychologically is impressive. The way he depicts their struggle to find bread, their fight to survive in those ruins is powerful. There is one scene in which Hans tries to visit someone and to walk a distance which used to take him ten minutes, he takes an hour because of  all the debris and the rubble. As I said before, Catholicism is an important theme in Böll’s work and in this novel, in which the greed of some Catholics is shown in all its ugliness, the description of the bombed churches becomes a very significant additional meaning.

What impressed me the most apart from the descriptions of the ruined city is how tired these people are. They spend days and days on end in their beds, staring at their walls. Finding something to eat, moving about the city, coming to terms with was has happened, takes an unimaginable effort, drains them of all their energy. All they have left is exhaustion.

This must sound very depressing but Böll isn’t only a writer of despair. He describes hopelessness but his characters overcome it, they find hope and the courage to go on living. The negative people have their positive counterparts. The greedy Dr. Fischer who doesn’t care for anything but money and for whom Catholic artifacts are just collectible items finds his counterpart in the gentle priest who helps Hans. The priest is the embodiment of a pure, compassionate Catholicism.

I was wondering while reading The Silent Angel whether I thought it was well written. I think he could have improved the structure, some passages read like short stories, some elements could have been left out, all in all it feels a bit loose at times which isn’t the case in his later work. His later novels are much more condensed but Böll has a gift for description which is rare. And he represents a rare model of moral integrity, he is an author who wrote for those who have nothing, who tried to unmask hypocrisy and uncover everything that was fake and phony in post-war Germany. I don’t know all that many authors who are so humane.

I have read The Silent Angel before. It isn’t my favourite Böll novel but since it’s an excellent example of “Trümmerliteratur” it seemed a great choice for the readalong. I’m very interested to know what others thought of this book.

Other reviews

Christina (Ardent Reader)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Fay (Read, Ramble)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Rise (in lieu of a field guide)

Tony (Tony’s Reading List)

29 thoughts on “Heinrich Böll: The Silent Angel – Der Engel schwieg (1951) Literature and War Readalong November 2011 Meets German Literature Month

  1. It’s certainly an interesting one, if not his best. It definitely feels like an unfinished novel: there are some big gaps which really need filling, and the decision to introduce Fischer does feel like an incomplete afterthought. I was also a bit unsure of the way the action follows Hans for the first half before suddenly switching focus to other characters.

    Of course, I was lucky enough to have just read the book most closely related to this one… 😉

  2. I think the element he added and rewrote in the end was the one with the angel. The change of POV was very abrupt indeed. He desperately wanted to publish this book as he had financial problems. It’s still a great book because the way he describes things is amazing.

  3. Boll was one of the authors I enjoyed most when I studied German lit as an undergraduate. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is right up there in my personal pantheon. But there are also lots of his novels I haven’t read, including this one. He can be really hard to get hold of in the UK where most of his novels are out of print. But occasionally they turn up in my secondhand bookstore. I’m not sure this would be my first choice to read of his, but I would definitely like to read more.

    • My favourite is Ansichten eines Clowns followed by Und sagte kein einziges Wort and certainly Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. I like this one as well but it is flawed.

  4. I too admire the book’s compassion, a virtue that must be hard to communicate in something so heavy a subject. It could easily descend into bathos but Böll’s firm control of his style prevented that.

    I think it was the post-war weariness you noted in the book that the publisher was wary of. I imagine how it could easily discourage any reader who underwent the same experience. But fortunately an impression that did not stick by the end of the book. The “courage to go on living” was a kind of reward in reading it. Definitely not a downer.

    I don’t have yet a grasp of Böll’s treatment of Catholicism but it is something I look forward to exploring.

    • I find him an admirable writer for his compassion but it was criticized as well. Some critics did think he was too emotional.
      It’s possible that more even than the description of te ruins, the tiredness of the poeple wasn’t something they wanted to publish.
      In this second reading I was much more aware of the Catholicism in his many forms. I think bread, like the ruined churches, has a double meaning. I think his criticism is strongest in The Clown.

  5. Pingback: The Silent Angel – Heinrich Böll « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  6. Your descriptions of this book really make me want to pick up a copy. I’m always in awe of authors who can write effectively about a situation that is so close to them. I’m also thinking of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

    I love that you’re consistently introducing me to authors and titles I’m unfamiliar with. Thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jaquelin. He is a writer one should read for the craft. His descriptions are amazing. Of people and things alike. The way he describes those people they are palpable in their struggle, their pain. Rise has included a lot of of quotes, should you be interested. They are excellent and give a very good impression of his writing.

  7. This is one of your best reviews. I can’t add much to it.

    I enjoyed the book as a reading experience. I had never read a book by a German author. I have you to thank for broadening my literary horizons. I like books where you have to read each sentence carefully to soak up the symbolism and imagery. Boll is one of those authors. I am a big fan of similes and he is strong here.

    As far as the plot, the book should have been entited “Bread and Cigarettes”. It’s depressing to see where back in those days cigarettes were on a par with bread for survival!

    I found that the book peaked with the train station scene (which was a great chapter) and became less interesting afterward. I tolerated the romance and thought it was realistic if draining. The Fischer subplot did not work for me. Some of the sections dragged – the scrubbing the floors, for instance.

    I’m glad you mentioned the priest. Because of the nature of the book, I kept expecting him to be evil. This tells you something about the book.

    • Thanks, Kevin, I’m glad you liked the review and the book. I didn’t know this was your first German book.
      Yes indeed, bread and cigarettes… I wondered how they could take them on an empty stomach.
      The scrubbing the floor scene wasn’t my favourite. I also thought the romnace was realistic although Lizzy commented in her review she thought it wasn’t. His use of symbols and similes is very strong.
      I think Böll had a problem with a certain type of Catholic and Catholic priests but not with simple men like this priest with a very humble and down to earth belief. He was by no means an autor who painted a black and white world. His take on religion is nuanced.
      I found the character of Dr Fischer great as he is so typical for a certain type of fake piety.

  8. This is one of the several Boll novels I have sitting on the shelf. I picked it up used some time ago, but I think I’ll get to the ones I won in the give-away first, as they do, to be honest, look more interesting.

    • There is a unity of themes and ideas in his work but he is still quite versatile and those you won are different from The Silent Angel. I liked it for several reasons but it isn’t my favourite either. I like The Clown and And Never Said a Word best but this is unique in its description of the bombed city. I’m hope should you get to it you will still enjoy it.

  9. I have only read one novel by him, Group Portrait with Lady, however it was years ago and I really don’t remember much about the book. I did check and he has five novels on my list. This one isn’t on my list, but I am interested. My favorite part of studying history is to find out how every day people survived and lived through the war. This sounds like a good one for that.

    • I suppose The Clown, And Didn’t Say A Word and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum are on the list, no?
      I think The Silent Angel is one to begin with and it’s fascinating to see where he goes from here.
      For me it’s one of the really important works of German Literature due to it’s theme, a bombed city and the fact that he couldn’t publish it.

      • Ooops I was wrong. There are four on my list, not five. These are the ones on my list:

        Group Portrait With Lady
        Billiards at Half-Past Nine
        The Safety Net
        The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

        I’ll add Silent Angel to it since I am fascinated with this subject. Thanks for the suggestion. If I keep reading blogs about good books, my list will never run dry!

        • I’m surprised The Clown isn’t on it. It’s my favourite but I know the others are regarded as superior by critics. It’s already quite a result, I don’t think there are all that many authors with so many books on your list. I hope you will like it.
          My pile keeps on growing and growing.

  10. The link between Fischer’s venality and religious hypocrisy went past me, so i’m glad you mentioned it. An advantage of reading with a group. I responded to some of the same elements of the book that you mention here, the bread, the exhaustion. A beautiful first novel. The Clown looks like a good one to read next.

    • Reading it with others is a nice way of exploring a book.
      His criticism of Catholocism is even sharper in The Clown. And Didn’t Say a Word is very good to. It’s the novel for which he took most of the parts of this one.
      But I could imagine you would like The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, Rise and Tony, I think, have reviewed it.

  11. I wasn’t blown away by The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and this one isn’t available in paperback in French. So I skipped but after reading your review, I think I should have tried it.

    You REALLY need to read Slaughterhouse 5.

    • Yes, I know… I will but I will not include it in the readalong as it is an American book and I try to have books from at least 8 different countries. I think I found The Lost Honor interesting but didn’t like it like this one or The Clown or And Didn’t Say a Word. If you want to read another one, try And Didn’t… Rise has inlcuded quotes which give an excellent impression of the novel.

  12. Beautiful review, Caroline! I am adding ‘The Silent Angel’ to my ‘TBR’ list. I love the title – it is quite poignant and says so many things. The cover shows quite a devastating image – wish it had something resembling an angel.

    • Thanks, Vishy,.Fay included another cover
      It’s well done with the angel’s wing.
      The angel is quite important, it opens and closes the novel.
      It’s to some extent a sad book but it still has a happy ending.
      Those who liked the book – not all, I’m afraid, commented that it was like a poem. As I just “said” to Emma, Rise has inlcuded some wonderful quotes.
      I would love t hear what you think of it.

      • That cover is nice, Caroline. Thanks for sharing the link. Wonderful to know that some readers felt that the book is like a poem. I want to read it now! One of the wonderful things about German Literature Month has been that I have been able to discover so many new wonderful wrtiers 🙂

        • Yes, it’s true. i think I’m very familar with German literature still I found a few authors I hadn’t heard of and books I didn’t know.
          I love Böll for his humanity and for the way he can make us see that people are all equal in their suffering.
          Some of the passages really read like poems. I’m gratefult to fay and Rise for having been able to show it.

  13. I was hoping to read this over my break but I didn’t manage it–so am reading it now and will hopefully catch up by the weekend. I’ve only just skimmed your post and will come back and read properly when I finish. For some reason I was expecting the book to be hard going, but so far it is reading very easily.

    • It was a very quick read for me. His writing is very readable for a Noble laureate. I never thought he was hard at all. I liked re-reading it. I’m curious what think of it.

  14. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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