A Gem from a Master: Absent Without Leave

Absent without Leave: Two Novellas
Heinrich Böll

On a visit to my friend Joan’s upstate home in August I found myself doing what I always do–perusing her bookshelves in hopes of finding something unexpected. As I trolled the shelves I found myself wondering why my shelves were laden with social science, history and the like and hers with  literature. And I found myself remembering a now decade-old conversation with a colleague who said to me in horror, “Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who has given up on reading fiction.” Sadly I was, perhaps still am.

I returned home determined to see what went wrong and could think of no better way than to dive right in. But I’m not an idiot (I just play one on this blog) and I knew that the most certain way to fail was to pick up, say, War and Peace. Luckily a slimmer volume was at hand.

Absent without Leave, by the late German Nobel winner Heinrich Böll, is actually two novellas and the subject of both is war, more accurately WWII and even more accurately what war does to people. It seems an appropriate topic for the age we find ourselves in.

In the title novella the narrator looks back at the early days of the war from a perspective of nearly 20 years on and tells us of how he came to be intertwined with–really married into–a family that the war ravages. In the second story we encounter a narrator just before and just after the war. He is searching for the woman whose voice he does not want to be married to (but he becomes so).

These are not plot driven narratives. They are atmospheric, lapidary portraiture. Them’s a lot of syllables so let me try it in plan English. These stories focus on their characters and their place.

This being Böll we can count on certain things recurring–the mindless automaton who believed in the promises of the failed state, a Roman Catholic clergyman dedicated to demonstrating hypocrisy, a narrator who seems benumbed but who might actually be enraged.

And we get place. Böll is always rooted in the Rhineland usually in Bonn or Cologne. Here we get both including a stunning set piece in which the narrator watches his family’s apartment be picked through by scavengers  who are methodically working their way through buildings that stand open to the elements (the front is missing from this one). The casting aside of items that have personal meaning as inconsequential to the enterprise at hand seems to me a wonderful metaphor for what ‘total war’ does to a society.

We’ll have to see if this fiction thing pans out. In some ways I think my reading habits reflect my reality. I haven’t the time to immerse myself in ideas and language and so I do the author’s a disservice. But in not reading them I may be doing myself a greater disservice.

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