domingo, 10 de marzo de 2013

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum OR: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead [Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, Oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie fuhren kann] (Penguin Classics, 2009)
by Heinrich Böll [translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz]
West Germany, 1974
 
Without exactly being bummed about my time spent with this celebrated novella--promisingly but not necessarily intriguingly structured as a 103-page murder mystery told in reverse--I still have to confess that I'm not sure I really understand all the fuss about The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum either.  In fact, I was more or less consistently underwhelmed while reading it.  On the plus side, the title character's story, presented by an unnamed narrator who claims to have inside dope on the confessed killer's reason for committing her crime(s), serves as a gritty enough parable about the dangers of politicizing the pursuit of justice in the Baader Meinhof year of 1974.  As an added bonus, the fictional but purportedly nonfiction text offers up an appropriately murky cautionary tale about the totalitarian state-like power of the news media to try a person in the press--in this case, a powerless domestic--before she's received her day in court (in a key scene, a star tabloid journalist explains away the utter fabrication of an interview quotation damaging to the suspect by bragging that "he was used to 'helping simple people to express themselves more clearly'" [76]).  Also, readers looking for a moral in all this will be happy to note that the destruction of private citizen Blum's public reputation as brought about by both invented attacks upon her character in general and repeated falsehoods about her sexual character in particular--the "lost honor" of the title if you will--will eventually be exposed as part of the hypocrisy of the 1970s West Germany social fabric.  So far so good.  On the negative side of things, though, I have to say that I was increasingly annoyed with the narrator's smug tone in asides about "our reportorial obligations" and whatnot (65).  Maybe this was just a personal disconnect between the character and me that other, less-cranky readers of the novella wouldn't mind so much.  However, I'm not at all sure what Böll hoped to gain from promoting such an "ironic," intrusive meddler as the author figure in his work when the political and social themes under discussion are far more interesting than the rather drab and uninteresting subversion of the text provided by both the heavyhanded narrator and Katharina Blum's equally ponderous subtitle, How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead.  An OK read all in all but a bit of a bore all the same.
 
Heinrich Böll (1917-1985)
 
I read The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum as part of a two-man, group read tag team with the mighty Séamus of Vapour Trails.  Will link to his post below once it's available.  In the meantime, here's a strong statement in support of Böll from a book blog titan who admired the novella much more than I did:
 


18 comentarios:

  1. I gave up on Böll's work years ago because, as you say, he's a bore.

    I remember showing this book to someone in a pub once (why, I have no idea) and him commenting that the first sentence was the most uninspiring he'd ever read.

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    1. I hope all of Böll isn't as drab or heavyhanded as Katharina Blum occasionally was, Obooki, but the themes definitely interested me much more than the writing itself here (that first sentence, as mentioned in your anecdote, is a splendid example why). Annoying narrator aside, is "workmanlike" all we expect out of Nobel winners today? Anyway, glad to hear we had similar reactions to the novelist since almost everybody else seems to rave about the guy!

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  2. I am one of the supporters, and I greatly enjoyed this book. It may be a case of his style dividing people - I enjoy Böll's intrusive, slightly laconic narrators ('Group Portrait with Lady' is another to intrude on the reader in this way)...

    ...or the German may be better ;)

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    1. I can see why you (and many others) liked this book, Tony, and I even think its positives outweight its negatives despite my grumblings. However, I suspect you're probably on to something regarding Böll maybe having had a divisive style or the prose just reading better in German because--my issues with the narrator aside--the writing just struck me as flat overall (which wouldn't have been a problem if the narrative was supposed to be written as a police report or something, but the chatty narrator just wouldn't let things be). Anyway, look forward to reading your post on the novella later on--had forgotten that Rise linked to it until after I reread his post last night.

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  3. I read this aged, oh 18 or 19, and was bowled over by it. I don't at all mind the use of an understating narrator - I thought it was part of that subset of books which narrate dreadful events in cold, distant ways so that the horror of them is paradoxically heightened. I also have a personal belief that the media are irresponsible and corrupt, so am pleased by any piece of creative work that agrees with me. I did read it at a time when I was just discovering European literature and had fallen quite heavily in love with it, and I was an inexperienced reader then, when so much struck me as exciting. I'm not sure what I'd think of it now as a novel, but back then, I was impressed.

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    1. I'm in the somewhat strange position of being able to appreciate the impact of the themes you talk about here, Victoria, without being able to connect with Böll's writing enough to imagine being bowled over by it. This includes his manipulation of the narrator figure, which I didn't enjoy, but I think you do a great job of explaining why the narrative might unwind in such a way--I just think your explanation is more sophisticated than Böll's execution of same! In any event, I'm actually looking forward to watching the film adaptation of Katharina Blum soon to see if it points to something I'm missing.

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  4. Oh divide opinon here I must admit the few by him I ve read I 've enjoyed ,I have this one on my tbr pile but after yours and simon review in recent days be leaving reading it til german lit month I think ,I feel the subject matter of this one still rings true ,all the best stu

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    1. Stu, I did like both the premise of the novella and the way it speaks to matters that unfortunately are still timely today. I just didn't find Böll particularly subtle, gripping or all that penetrating a writer considering the hype. That being said, I'll probably read Group Portrait with Lady or another title of his before I cross him off my list for good. I'm open to suggestions if you have a favorite by him.

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  5. To bad that this was disappointing as it sounds like it had the potential to be so good. I love the idea of a murder mystery being plotted in reverse among other things that you mention.

    I cannot stand smug narration so I am likely to agree with you on the book in general.

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    1. Brian, yes, a lot of potential but only a slightly better than average reading experience in my book--sort of like a high first round draft pick in US basketball or football who, if not a total bust as a pro, only earns his big signing bonus and salary by coming off the bench in garbage time in the waning moments of decided games. Of course, be careful of taking me at my word: all the other "general managers" except Obooki seem to think Böll's a first-ballot Hall of Famer because of this book!

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  6. Bah, it was an excellent, gripping novel. I don't remember anything of the style, and of the alleged flatness of the prose, but the themes an ideas expressed in the book, and the ironic critique of the media, touched me deeply.

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    1. Miguel, you don't remember anything about the style? Ha, that only proves my point about the flatness and non-gripping nature of Böll's prose! All kidding aside, Séamus has written an excellent appreciation of the novella I wish I had read over at his blog--to the point that I'm willing to concede that Katharina Blum might have a little more going for it than I had let on. I still didn't find it very exciting, though.

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  7. Hi Richard - a shame you found this uninspiring - I didn't like it as much as some of his other books I've read - Billiards at Half-Past Nine might be one to try.
    I find Boll's style intriguing - he distrusts narrative ease and deliberately undercuts it. I am also not fully convinced by the translation - but only have enough German to order beer so can't check it out.

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    1. Séamus, I feel like I should like Böll's style--the undercutting of the narrative, in particular--but just don't or at least didn't here. Given all the support he's received from everybody else not named Obooki, though, I'm beginning to wonder if my lack of appreciation for the novelist is a parallel to one of those real world situations where a good friend introduces you to another good friend and you just don't hit it off with the other person for some reason. Anyway, was happy to have read this with you and thought you wrote a great post that put mine to shame--will keep your Billiards at Half-Past Nine suggestion in mind when I'm ready to give Böll another shot. P.S. Your closing comment about your German skills have made me desperately thirsty for one of those 25 oz. Julius Echter hefeweizen beers served in a huge mug with a slice of lemon--ah, a foamy vacation in a glass. Damn you, I know I don't have any of those in the fridge--I'll have to settle for something lesser!

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  8. For my part, I found the ironic tone quite effective. But I can see why the narrator may be perceived as too "knowing", or that his voice can be grating to some. But I've early on developed a rapport with the speaker and his style.

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    1. Rise, I'm sure I would have enjoyed the novella more if I could have accepted the narrator as an ironist and not just this grating figure who was wearing on me throughout the proceedings. Hard to overcome that sort of "personal" animosity, though, you know? That being said, despite having a greater appreciation for what others enjoyed about the work after rereading your post and reading Séamus', I still think Leonardo Sciascia's nonfiction The Moro Affair about Red Brigade terror in Italy in 1978 is a much better introduction to the political turbulence of those years in Europe though naturally without the same focus on the abuses of the press or the plight of "working people" caught in the system. In any event, I'll give Böll another try at some point down the road.

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  9. I didn't see this review... so I'm a bit late.
    I love Böll, really love him but this was the only one of his books that did not move me at all. I found some of it interesting and valid but what I like most about Böll is the way he captures emotions, atmosphere, using mundane little things. He can bee too sentimental but he is never flat - with one exception- this book.
    So there is still hope.

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    1. Very happy to see this response from you, Caroline, because while I didn't dislike Böll necessarily, I didn't quite understand all the Böll love either. Not to rehash my post all over again, but your preference for other titles by him is encouraging insofar as it's more understandable to me. Hope to get to the film adaptation of Katharina Blum this weekend or next, but I've been on a Scandinavian crime spree on DVD lately, so who knows for sure? Cheers!

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