Heinrich Böll was probably the foremost writer of post-war Germany. Sometimes dubbed ‘the conscience of the nation’ – an appellation he rejected – he led a group of authors who tried to address the memory and the legacy of World War II, Nazism and the Holocaust. Their work came to be described as ‘Trümmerliteratur’, or ‘literature of the rubble’.
THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM was published in English in 1975, in a translation by Leila Vennewitz. Subtitled ‘How violence develops and where it can lead’, Böll’s most famous novel is a damning account of tabloid sensationalism and its impact on innocent lives. It was written at a time when the German establishment was the focus of domestic terrorism by the Red Army Faction, and the titular character is hounded by the press over her suspected involvement with a leftist militant. The book was turned into a successful film, adapted and directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta.
Heinrich Böll was a lifelong pacifist who habitually challenged authority. He was president of the writers’ association PEN International, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (#TA60 1974), another Nobel laureate, was expelled from the Soviet Union after the publication of THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, he took refuge at Böll’s summer cottage near Cologne.
As well as writing his own novels and short stories, Heinrich Böll also collaborated with his translator wife Annemarie. Between them they are credited with more than seventy translations from the English – despite Heinrich’s admission that, although he enjoyed translation, it was ‘a hell of a job’ and ‘actually my wife did 90% of the work’. Authors whose books Annemarie and Heinrich Böll made available to German readers include Brendan Behan, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, John Synge, Flann O’Brien and Judith Kerr.