A home on Achill

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

LITERATURE: JOHN F DEANEreviews Heinrich Böll and IrelandBy Gisela Holfter Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 200pp. £39.99

HEINRICH BÖLL is still not well known in Ireland, to our shame. In Germany, his reputation has suffered troughs and crests, but the journal he wrote, Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal), has remained popular in Germany and has suffered neglect in this country. This excellent study by Gisela Holfter should help clarify certain issues and, with luck, make us all look again at Böll’s fine work. I feel that new translations of all of the novels, and of the Irish Journal, should be undertaken; those in print now have a jaded feeling about them.

Böll was born in 1917. His family was Catholic, almost puritanically so, something that left a strong impression on Heinrich, though he remained suspicious of all structures of authority. In 1942 he married Annemarie Cech, through whose friendship with an Irishwoman Böll came to know of Ireland. During the war he served in France, Russia, the Crimea and Odessa, and he was a prisoner of war in 1945. His 1949 novel, The Train Was on Time, quickly established his reputation as a writer. He came to Ireland first in 1954, and returned with his family in 1955. He bought a cottage on Achill Island in 1958, and from then on the family came regularly to spend periods of time there, and Böll did a great deal of his writing in that cottage. In 1972 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 1985.

Böll’s cottage on Achill Island is now a residence for artists, thanks to Annemarie Böll’s response to a suggestion from the late Clodagh King and to the generosity of Mayo County Council and the Arts Council. Achill people are proud of their Nobel laureate and value his legacy. The cottage remains a place of pilgrimage for many German visitors to Ireland. Irisches Tagebuchis the reason for such pilgrimages, and Gisela Holfter’s book is timely in helping the essential clarifications about what this book set out to do, and what it actually achieved. As Hugo Hamilton writes in an introduction, between Germany and Ireland “the attraction is mutual, full of love and misunderstanding”.

Holfter points out that Böll’s view of poverty was a very old-fashioned one; a Catholic simplification of the “beatitudes”, that the poor have a closer connection to God. This is essential for an understanding of the sometimes bleak portrait of Irish people and places that Böll paints. He had read Irish writers, and translated some of them into German: Swift, Frank O’Connor, Brendan Behan. Arriving on Achill Island from a broken Germany, he also envied “the lasting impact of past generations on the present ones”. Holfter’s meticulous and comprehensive researches point out that the Journalbegan as a series of stories that eventually were worked into the artistic shape that became Irisches Tagebuch.

Böll’s affection for Achill Island and for Ireland does not prevent him from focusing on the themes of poverty, emigration and religion. The book is not a diary; if it is read as such, it is easily misunderstood. “Achill was very much a place where the whole family felt at home, where the sons as teenagers and adults accompanied their parents and later visited themselves, and where Annemarie went to visit after Heinrich’s death.” Such love for the place excluded the possibility that he would or could be negative; the themes of his great novels examine the themes of the journal in greater width and depth, work rooted in time present but aiming for permanence, for that still point TS Eliot sought.

Holfter states, “The happiness Böll found in Ireland was most probably due to the discovery of mutual tastes and aided by the general friendliness he encountered.” Achill Island was important to him and to his family, and he always felt at home there, even though his comment was that he felt at one with the unfortunate. He was sad about how emigration, which peaked between 1951 and 1961, depopulated the island.

Holfter’s careful analysis of the book is a classic of academic approach and genuine feeling towards her subject. She deepens and broadens the appeal of the Irish Journalwith sympathy and understanding. Her emphasis on seeing the book as a work of art, her comparisons of the Journalwith travel books by other German visitors, her analysis of how the book was received in Germany and its reception in Ireland, all of this makes the reader wish to go back to the Journal, knowing that it can be read again with greater insights. And this is surely the purpose of such a study. Irisches Tagebuchis a literary masterpiece, a sequence of thoughtful sketches; it is not a tourist guide.

Holfter touches on Böll’s other works on Ireland; his translations, his reviews, his essays; and on the black-and-white film Böll made, Children of Eire, a film that was very well received in Germany in 1961 but caused huge controversy when it appeared in Ireland in 1965. All in all Holfter’s scholarly work is excellent; the quality and clarity of her arguments are convincing. Irish readers should know that Irisches Tagebuchhas reached sales of some two million copies in Germany. Now we need a new, and up-to-date, translation of the work.

John F Deane was born on Achill Island and is currently editing Poetry Ireland Review. His latest collection of poems is Eye of the Hare(Carcanet 2011)