A young failed performer with an injured knee is holed up in his apartment and spends the afternoon making phone calls pleading for money from people with whom he has long since burned all bridges. Not the most promising plot for a successful novel. Yet Ansichten eines Clowns sparked a firestorm of controversy when it appeared in 1963. The novel managed to antagonize everyone: the Catholic Church, conservative politicians and even literary critics. Except for Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1974), no other book by the Nobel Prize winner caused such a commotion.
Böll himself later said it was all just a big misunderstanding:
«Ich glaube, dass kein Buch so missverstanden worden ist wie die Ansichten eines Clowns. Es war eigentlich nur eine Liebesgeschichte, wirklich nicht mehr.»
But the author was just being ironic, for it was not "just a love story." The young couple - Hans Schneier and Marie Derkum have been living as man and wife in an unconsecrated "marriage" - something that was certainly scandalous in the ultra-conservative Adenauer era. To make matters worse, Hans is a committed atheist while Marie is a devout Roman Catholic. But what enraged the Church more than the "immorality" of the out-of-wedlock relationship was that Böll took the sacrament of matrimony out of the hands of the priests and the Church and placed them in the hands of the lovers themselves. Hans and Marie consummate their marriage in chapter seven, alone in Marie's room. Hans is totally monogamous, despite his lack of faith, and has nothing but contempt for an institution that allows one to annul a marriage for a handful of Deutsche Marks. This is not the first time Böll dealt with the Church's hypocrisy on the marriage sacrament. In his first novel, Der Engel schwieg, the protagonist Hans Schnitzler "marries" his lover Regina by sharing a glass of wine in a bombed-out tenement.
But was not only Church doctrine that bothered Böll in Ansichten eines Clowns. By 1963 the Catholic Church was under scrutiny for its silence - some would say complicity - during the Nazi era. 1962 was also the year that Rolf Hochhuth published his play Der Stellvertreter which was a scathing indictment of Pope Pius XII for having failed to take action or speak out against the Holocaust. In Böll's novel the protagonist Hans Scheier rages against the Church for aligning itself with the CDU and offering its blessing to the crass materialism of the postwar Wirtschaftswunder. The Church's involvement in postwar German politics was a favorite topic for Böll. in his 1958 Brief an einen jungen Katholiken he wrote:
»…Sie alle sind einsichtig und intelligent genug, um zu wissen, daß die Fast-Kongruenz von CDU und Kirche verhängnisvoll ist, weil sie den Tod der Theologie zur Folge haben kann; es ist doch einfach nur peinlich, nichts anders als peinlich, wenn man Stellungnahmen von Theologen zu politischen Fragen liest; das ist stramm auf Bonn gezielt und spürt hinter jedem Satz einen Eifer, der aufs Schulterklopfen wartet.«
Much has been written about Germany's attempt to come to terms with its past - the Vergangenheitsbewältigung But for Böll and his mouthpiece in Ansichten eines Clowns the past seemed conveniently forgotten. The most ardent Nazis had become committed democrats; the Adenauer era was hardly a complete break with the past - rather, Böll saw it as a Restoration. The same people - including Hans Schneier's own mother - who took the nation down a path of total destruction were now comfortably ensconced in positions of power (the novel takes place in Bonn - the seat of the West German government). "Let bygones be bygones:" was the motto his mother lived by as well as the former Nazis who tormented Hans Schneier in his youth and sent his sister Henriette to her death. But Hans could not forget, every detail still fresh in his memory. He remembers his former Hitler Youth leader classmate Herbert - now a high-level CDU party official:
"Grosse Sachen zu bereuen ist ja kinderleicht: Politische Irrtümer, Ehebruch, Mord, Antisemitismus - aber wer verzeiht einem, wer versteht die Details? Wie Herbert Kalick... Götz Buchel am Kragen packte, und sagte "Seht Euch den an - wenn das kein Jude ist!" Ich habe zuviel Augenblicke im Kopf, zuviel Details, Winzigkeiten - und Herberts Augen haben sich nicht geändert."
Heinrich Böll, more so than any other postwar German writer, was instrumental in establishing an Erinnerungskultur - a "Culture of Remembrance", which would reach a climax just a few years later. And Hans Schneier, who at the end of the novel is sitting with his guitar outside the train station singing protest songs, is a forerunner of the youth revolt to come, a cultural explosion that would shake the German nation to its core.