Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Karl Ragnar Gierow, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy

Translation from the Swedish text

Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

He who attempts to seize in a single grasp the bountiful and very varied authorship of Heinrich Böll finds himself holding an abstraction. Through these writings – begun twenty years ago and culminating in last year’s novel Gruppenbild mit Dame – there runs, however, a twin theme that might serve as such a synoptic abstraction. This could be phrased: The homeless and the aesthetics of the humane. But Böll’s homeless are not ill-fated individuals or human wreckage cast up outside the bulwarks of society. He tells of a society without a roof over its head, a derailed, displaced epoch, standing on every street corner with hand outstretched, begging for the charity of a kindred spirit and human fellowship. This is the situation underlying Böll’s Ästhetik des Humanen.

He writes about what every human being seeks in order to lead a human life, in little things as in great, about “das Wohnen, die Nachbarschaft und die Heimat, das Geld und die Liebe, Religion und Mahlzeiten”, to quote his own enumeration. With its whole register from satire and high-spirited parody to deep suffering, this is a form of passionately engaged aesthetics and it also contains his literary program. He who sets out to portray the bare necessities of life keeps both feet on the ground.

Yet Böll has declared “Ich brauche wenig Wirklichkeit”, a word to note, coming from one who is regarded and who perhaps regards himself as a realistic narrator. The reality he needs so little is that of the classic 19th century novel, the reality that after a meticulous study of detail is faithfully reproduced. Böll is highly proficient at the method but employs it ironically; there is no limit to the superfluity of detail.

But the jesting with this conscientious form of registration is itself a demonstration of how little Böll needs such a reality. His mastery includes the ability to bring his setting and its figures to life with scanty, sometimes barely suggested lines.

There is however another reality which Böll’s writing continually requires: the background to his existence, the air his generation breathed, the heritage into which it came. That reality is the recurrent, intrusively observed subject of Heinrich Böll’s writing, from the start up to the magnum opus already mentioned, Gruppenbild mit Dame, which so far crowns his work. Böll’s real breakthrough came in the years 1953, 1954 and 1955 with three novels published one after the other – Und sagte kein einziges Wort; Haus ohne Hüter, and Das Brot der frühen Jahre. Although it was presumably not the author’s intention, these three titles serve to indicate the reality which he so persistently and forcefully depicts. His background was Germany’s years of famine, it was Das Brot der frühen Jahre, the bread that never sufficed and often was not there, the bread that had to be begged for or stolen if one was to survive, and that diet is an indelible memory. The heritage which he and his contemporaries had to administer was Haus ohne Hüter, house without caretaker, an existence in ruins, with time a widow and the future fatherless. The air he and his contemporaries breathed was inhaled with the heavy hand of dictatorship on their throats, Und sagte kein einziges Wort, because the hand smothered every sound.

It is not the smallest German miracle that after such years of destitution a new generation of writers, thinkers and researchers was ready so soon to shoulder their country’s and their own essential task in the spiritual life of our time. The renewal of German literature, to which Heinrich Boll’s achievements witness and of which they are a significant part, is not an experiment with form – a drowning man scorns the butterfly stroke. Instead it is a rebirth out of annihilation, a resurrection, a culture which, ravaged by icy nights and condemned to extinction, sends up new shoots, blossoms and matures to the joy and benefit of us all. Such was the kind of work Alfred Nobel wished his Prize to reward.

Dear Mr. Böll,

As a given consequence of the homelessness that is one of the main themes of your writing, comes the striving that you yourself have indicated with the words: “Die Suche nach einer bewohnbaren Sprache in einem bewohnbaren Land”. This implies an antithesis of homelessness, a writing in which everyone can feel at home. You reject a literature for an initiated circle, you have declared, adding significantly: “Eine Kirche wird eingeweiht, aber durch diesen Akt der Einweihung nicht geschlossen, sondern geoffnet”. It is this openness for the human aspect which gives space and raises the arches higher in your works. And it is works in that spirit which give us a certain right to set our hopes as well on a habitable world. With these words I express the congratulations of the Swedish Academy and ask you now to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1972

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