Growing up in Nazi Germany: Nobel laureate B"oll's memoir

What's To Become of the Boy? or: Something to Do With Books, by Heinrich B"oll. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 82 pp. $11.95. In 1972, Heinrich B"oll became the first German writer to receive the Nobel Prize since Thomas Mann won the award in 1929. B"oll's novels, notably ``Group Portrait with a Lady,'' ``Billiards at Half Past Nine,'' ``The Clown,'' as well as his collections of short stories, are imbued with bittersweet irony as they develop pictures of the once again ``good German,'' that amalgam of bad conscience and selfless toil characteristic of the ``German Economic Miracle'' following World War II.

Perhaps B"oll's most endearing quality is a tender honesty, not given to self-indulgence and not often found in much modern Western literature, particularly that written in postwar Germany. ``What's To Become of the Boy,'' a memoir of B"oll's life from 1933 to 1937, will be of particular interest to his English-speaking readers who want a glimpse of him before the war.

Although B"oll's best work obviously concerns World War II and its consequences, during the last decade he has written of the intrusions by the media into private life (``The Lost Honor of Katherine Bl"um'') and the insidious effects of terrorism on private and governmental life (``The Safety Net''). B"oll's Roman Catholic conscience, a byproduct of his upbringing in Cologne, and his attention to those few, delectable mysteries ordinary life offered in enclaves of Germany not gorged on idealist philosophy, zealous nationalism, or convenient amnesia, give his writing an appeal that transcends its usually provincial settings.

However, despite his fictional blending of public and personal life, this memoir is rather more private and limited: B"oll's parents struggling to make ends meet ``in the totally indefinable social situation'' in which they found themselves; a brother who lost the drawing of straws and had to be the family's nominal member of a Nazi Youth Organization (to have done otherwise would have been considered treason and, thus, fatal for the family); the books that carried B"oll through the four years in question; his affinity for classical literature (particularly the satire of Juvenal) and mathematics; and his inclination to become a bookseller's apprentice (a position not to be confused with that of a book salesperson in the United States).

In the middle of his memoir, B"oll interrupts a quaint digression on an uncle with the caution that the author will limit himself to the ``externals'' of the four-year period. A pity, because it cuts the reader off from what B"oll's fiction so nicely -- and laconically -- achieves: that sense of inner connection to a warm, humanistic Western tradition that advances the need for tolerance, winsome humor, and compassion -- as well as from what Saul Bellow described in ``Herzog'' as ``potato love,'' something doughy, something sticky, something that gives men and women cohesion in the older, inclusive sense of fellowship.

Kenneth Harper teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside campus.

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