I’ve been reading books by the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature for a couple of years and have now reached the end stretch, where experience is plenty and commentary is possible.
So, let’s talk about a rare gem in 20th Century German literature, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972.
German post-war writers share a certain sense of loss and grief amongst them and often write about trauma, purposelessness and pain. The Melancholy of the German avantgarde is rather frustrating to consume, since it rarely has that charismatic element to help the reader mount complex mountains of technique and allegory and intertextuality.
In comparison, the U.S. avantgarde seems to be doing a much better job at this. It might be something about the English language being able to flow better, or the academical seriousness and dryness of German literature as a whole. (I see it in scientific articles on a weekly basis and it. is. bad.)
Along comes Heinrich Böll and wins over the reader with his seemingly very simple protagonist who tells a contemporary and a timeless truth on countless levels.
The Clown (Ansichten eines Clowns, 1963) is firstly a novel about a man who works as a clown. It’s also a story about someone who comes from a wealthy family but does not wish to compromise his integrity by following the rules and ideology of that family. In Hans Schniers case, this ideology includes catholicism, making The Clown a rather controversial novel for Germany.
Schnier is a clown on many levels though. Claiming to be someone he is just pretending to be, claiming to have emotions he really doesn’t have – or maybe being his true authentic self in his own mind at the very least.
Schiers lack of ambition contradicts his individualism, and his fearless artistry contradicts his social inaptitude – even on a morally neutral level there is nothing to like about him. However, one does want him to succeed, if just for the sake of rooting for the rebel.
The readers dislike of Schnier makes him even more interesting. On a metaphysical level he symbolises unfiltered truth and authenticity, and at the same time, he turns out to be a phony. Now that’s a complex character if I ever came across one.
German literature is a complicated subject on the whole, because there are many overcooked topics and overdone styles of writing to be found in 20th century german novels, but The Clown is truly a timeless masterpiece. A very simple allegory of the melancholy figure that is Schnier can be read in a simple manner, but there can also be so much more to it.
The Clown remains – today more than ever – a story about staying true to individual ideology, honing one’s art, authenticity, surviving as an artist in a world without empathy, and trying not to look like a clown while being one.
It’s also a beautiful portrait about the irony of the suffering artist stereotype, showing the real and the negative aspects and stripping him of likeability because 21st Century Cancel Culture is constantly on the prowl for fakers and posers. Also, who on today’s social media is really and wholly who they claim to be?
Heinrich Böll is still one of few German post-war authors worth looking into, while most can be justifiably overlooked by todays reader.