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The Nobel Prize in Literature 1972
Heinrich Böll

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Prose

 

Excerpt from The Clown

I

It was dark by the time I reached Bonn, and I forced myself not to succumb to the series of mechanical actions which had taken hold of me in five years of traveling back and forth: down the station steps, up the station steps, put down my suitcase, take my ticket out of my coat pocket, pick up my suitcase, hand in my ticket, cross over to the newsstand, buy the evening papers, go outside, and signal for a taxi. Almost every day for five years I had left for somewhere and arrived somewhere; in the morning I had gone up station steps and down again, in the afternoon down the steps and up again, signaled for a taxi, felt in my pockets for money to pay for my ticket, bought evening papers at kiosks, and savored in a corner of my mind the studied casualness of these mechanical actions. Ever since Marie left me to marry Züpfner, that Catholic, these actions have become more mechanical than ever, but without losing any of their casualness. There is a way of calculating the distance from station to hotel, from hotel to station - by the taxi meter. Two marks, three marks, four marks fifty from the station. Since Marie has been gone I have sometimes slipped out of the rhythm and confused the hotel with the station, I would start looking for my ticket as I approached the hotel porter or ask the ticket collector at the station for my room number, something - fate perhaps - must have made me remember my profession and my situation. I am a clown, official description: comedian, no church affiliation, twenty-seven years old, and one of my turns is called: Arrival and Departure, a long (almost too long) pantomime during which the audience confuses arrival and departure all the way through. Since I usually go over this number once more in the train (it consists of over six hundred gestures, and I have to know their sequence by heart, of course), it is not unnatural that now and again I fall victim to my own imagination: rush into a hotel, look round for the departure board, find it, run up or down a flight of steps so as not to miss my train, while all I have to do is go to my room and get ready for the performance. Luckily they know me in most of the hotels. Over a period of five years a rhythm develops with fewer possibilities of variation than one might suppose - besides, my agent, who is familiar with my idiosyncrasies, sees to it that there is a minimum of friction. What he calls "the sensitive soul of the artist" is fully respected, and an "aura of well-being" surrounds me as soon as I get to my room: flowers in an attractive vase, and, almost before I have thrown off my coat and tossed my shoes (I hate shoes) into a corner, a pretty chambermaid comes in with coffee and cognac and runs my bath, and the green bath salts she pours into it make it relaxing and fragrant. While I lie in the bathtub I read the papers, popular ones all of them, sometimes as many as six but at least three, and in a moderately loud voice I sing nothing but sacred songs: chorales, hymns, musical passages I recall from my school days. My parents, devout Protestants, subscribed to the postwar fashion of denominational tolerance and sent me to a Catholic school. I am not religious myself, I don't even go to church, and I make use of the sacred texts and songs for therapeutic purposes: they help me more than anything else to overcome the two afflictions Nature has saddled me with: depression and headaches. Since Marie went over to the Catholics (although Marie is a Catholic herself I feel this phrase is appropriate), the intensity of these two complaints has increased, and even the Tantum Ergo or the Litany of Loreto - till now my favorite remedies for pain - are not much use any more. There is one temporarily effective remedy: alcohol; there could be a permanent cure: Marie. Marie has left me. A clown who takes to drink falls faster than a drunk tile-layer topples off a roof.

When I am drunk my gestures during a performance become confused - their only justification in the first place is their precision - and I fall into the most embarrassing trap to which a clown is ever exposed - I laugh at my own tricks. A ghastly humiliation. As long as I am sober my stage fright increases till the moment I walk on (I generally had to be pushed), and what some critics have called "that reflective, critical gaiety hiding a beating heart" was nothing but the desperate icy control with which I turned myself into a puppet; it was terrible, incidentally, when the thread broke and I fell back on myself. I imagine monks go through a similar experience when they are in a state of contemplation. Marie always carried around a lot of mystical literature, and I remember the words "empty" and "nothing" occurred very often.  

 

Excerpt from The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Translated by Leila Vennewitz

Published by Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., London, 2002
Copyright © 1963 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
ISBN: 0-7145-0168-9
Reprinted by arrangement with Marion Boyars Publishers

Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.

 

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