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Heinrich Böll - Biography

Heinrich Böll (1917-1985)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

Heinrich Böll was born in Cologne during the waning years of World War I, the son of a sculptor. He came of age during the tumultous years of Hitler's Third Reich, and with his parents' blessing avoided joining the Hitler Youth. However, he was drafted into the German army during World War II. After being wounded three times, he was captured by the Allies, with whom he seems to have been in sympathy from the start. Following his release, he returned to Cologne and began to write novels.

His work was, and remains, very popular in Germany; the German people felt that he perfectly captured the strange compromises and ironies of their lives, and he is often considered to reflect the evolution of the German moral conscience in the latter half of the twentieth century. This can be seen in the two short stories discussed here. In "Like a Bad Dream," the narrator's wife persuades her husband to entertain an important businessman in order to curry his favor in the awarding of a large contract. The narrator's wife knows exactly what needs to be done and how to do it, as does the businessman's wife; and the emasculated narrator feels like a pawn in a game of strategy he does not understand.

The second story, "The Laugher," concerns an actor whose specialty is laughing. He is hired to sit in nightclubs and laugh at bad comics to encourage the audience to do the same; he is hired to laugh on recordings and television shows. Consequently, he does not want to laugh when he comes home at night - not because he is unhappy at home - quite the contrary; but laughing is no longer a natural expression of pleasure for him. Laughing is his job, and in this capacity it is not enjoyable.

In the early 1960s, Böll's fame spread to the United States with the English-language publication of his novels Billiards at Half-Past Nine and The Clown. In 1972, thirteen years before his death, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is still regarded as one of the greatest and most influential of postwar European novelists.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

Like a Bad Dream

The Laugher

Both Böll stories will be found in the collection "The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll," available Dec. 6, 2011.

The paperback can be ordered from Amazon here:

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In the meantime, "The Laugher" can also be found in Irving and Ilana Howe's short story anthology "Short Shorts."

It is available in paperback from Amazon here:

It is also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here: