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Heinrich Böll: Ansichten eines Clowns (The Clown)

This was Böll’s most controversial novel as it was deemed to be an attack on the Catholic Church, which took a strong stand against it. Hans Schnier comes from a well-to-do family but has fallen out with them as he has become a professional clown. He also blames his mother – a former member of the Nazi party – for the death of his sister, Henriette, and has never forgiven her. The events of this novel take place over the course of one day, after Hans has had an accident while performing and he is feeling very sorry for himself. His misery is compounded by the fact that his girlfriend, Marie, has left him (we and he later learn that she has left him to marry an official in the Catholic Church). The novel consists of a series of phone calls he makes, primarily to borrow money, and his own reminiscences about his life, his past, his family and Marie. He phones his mother but that does not go well, his brother but he is not there and a couple of friends, from whom he learns of Marie’s marriage and her planned honeymoon, which will probably involve seeing the Pope. His father visits him to offer him money but he turns the offer down. After finally talking to his brother, he sets off for the main Bonn railway station, to beg and sing religious songs.

For Hans (and, presumably, Böll) relationships between men and women should not be governed by the Church but only by the two parties concerned. In his court jester outfit, he represents the medieval jester whose role was not just to make people laugh but to criticise society and this is what he is doing. However, critics felt that Böll had painted himself and Hans into a corner with this story, for what is left for Hans? Marie has left him, he has no money, no future, while it is his parents, who have adapted from the Nazi world to the new, modern Germany, while he has not. Böll was, of course, influenced by Catcher in the Rye – he and his wife had translated it into German – as well as by the existentialist movement, for whom there was little salvation and certainly not in the Church. Despite this, this novel has remained one of Böll’s most popular novels, not least because many people can identify with Hans and his failures and there is no doubt that Böll’s portrait (the German means something like Views of a Clown) is very well done.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
First English translation 1965 by McGraw-Hill