If Henry James was writing about 1970s West Germany: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum,’ by Heinrich Böll (1974)


This book is an example that power does not come from length.  At under 150 pages ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’ may look harmless, but it proves how much explosive force can be generated when a story is told with such virtuosic brio.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marques’s ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’, this book begins with a dramatic death.  Unlike Marques however, Böll is strictly realist and presents the story as a police report with no magic, no charms, only the forces of bureaucracy and hypocrisy swiftly and efficiently ruining people’s lives.  The report style is a large part of the book’s appeal.  In a desperate attempt to impose order on the events, the account highlights the inadequacies of a chronological narrative.

Throughout, the book exposes the futility of the structures society imposes on events in order to understand them. The matter of fact style is woefully inadequate for the job and much of my enjoyment came from seeing the narrator struggling, Henry James-style, with trying to convey meaning in a bafflingly complex world.  Every aside, every attempt to clarify facts, only leads to further obfuscation.  In an actual official report, this would be infuriating; in a novella, I found it sublime.

The story really shouldn’t be that complicated.  Katharina Blum met a criminal at a party during the carnival.  They spent the night together, after which he disappeared and she was arrested for somehow assisting his escape.  The murder with which the book opens is Katharina’s killing of a journalist who has been heading a smear campaign against her since the arrest.  It all seems straightforward, but somehow spite, procedure and human nature manage to prevent the truth from ever being pure, let alone simple.  Take Böll’s account of an interrogation:

The telephone conversation between Katharina and Ludwig had, moreover, been the cause of Beizmenne’s relaxed and pleasant mood of leniency; and although he thought he knew why Katharina had dropped all that standoffish attitude, she, of course, could not suspect that his cheerful mood stemmed from the same event, although not for the same reason.  (This notable and noteworthy process should prompt us to telephone more often – even, if need be, without tender whisperings – since we can never know who may drive pleasure from such a call.)  But Beizmenne knew the reason for Katharina’s nervousness, for he was also aware of a further telephone call, an anonymous one.

I haven’t given much of the context for the quotation.  This is because, though I’ve read the book twice now (once last year, before it got buried in the ‘to be reviewed’ pile, and once again when I despaired of my memory), I still don’t really understand all the details.  I don’t care.  It will just be more to look forward to on my next re-reading.  Until then, I’ll luxuriate in the complex and candid view of human nature it provides; what can I say –  Henry James would have been very at home in this wonderfully nuanced and rambling world.

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7 Responses to If Henry James was writing about 1970s West Germany: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum,’ by Heinrich Böll (1974)

  1. pigeonel15 says:

    That is an incredible story, and yes Jamesian, except he rarely does murder or shows blood. There is an excellent German film of the novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. A 1975 film adaptation of Böll’s novel was directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. These two directors are sublime. It exists in translation, or at least with English subtitles.

    • Interesting – it looks like a film adaptation to look out for. I’m pleased it comes so highly recommended, because so much of the joy of the novel is in the style and it must take something to translate that into film.

  2. I’ve yet to read this as part of my Le Monde’s 100 Books of the century reading challenge but you’ve made me move it up the list. Sounds wonderful!

  3. Ste J says:

    Márquez went down the route of symbolism, the genius of Chronicle was the excuses given, this one sounds like a great counterpoint with the realism. It does make one wonder what the truth really is…

    • It really struck me because the books are so different in tone, and yet they both make excellent cases for why backwards narratives can be just as compelling as traditional murder fiction.

  4. Pingback: Nobel Prize for Literature – Hmmm | Shoshi's Book Blog

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