By Ray Greenblatt
Heinrich Boll (1917-1985) was a German novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. He wrote a collection of essays about Ireland in 1957; one might think it strange a German writing about Ireland. However, when staying with friends in Kerry in the 1960’s, I discovered that a number of German-run businesses thrived on the West coast; wisely the Germans employed local Irish workers.
Other than my personal interest in Ireland, what especially drew my attention to Boll’s book was his poetical flare, despite not publishing any books of poetry. He experimented with many marks of punctuation—colon, semi-colon, dash, quotation marks. He employed repetition of phrases like “throaty Celtic,” “lovely day,” “bog village bog,” “God help us,” in addition to other common poetic usage such as metaphor, alliteration, personification, etc. His style brings this book to life.
We would expect Boll to describe the vivid scenery. That is what so many visitors come for; the author does not disappoint, using many painterly techniques: “Darkness hung over Dublin: every shade of gray between black and white had found its own little cloud, the sky was covered with a plumage of innumerable grays.” (14) That was the capital; here is a major city on a river at low tide: “It almost looked as if Old Limerick were exposing itself indecently, lifting its dress, showing parts that are otherwise covered by water.” (46)
This is how Boll imagined a city at night: “I saw the street colored reddish-brown, as if smeared with unreal, stage blood: the piles of snow were red, the sky over the city was red, and the screech of the streetcar as it swerved into the loop of the terminus, even this screech I heard as red.” (18)
Then we move out into the thinly populated countryside. “The hills round about were covered with faded ferns like the wet hair of an aging red-haired woman.” (107) “In withered gorse bushes hung a yellow like dirty coins, shining quartz stuck up out of the moss like bones.” (35)
The coast is reached. “The coastline jagged and uneven like the cardiogram of an irregular heartbeat.’”(64) For some Ireland can become a mystical experience. “At this spot on the coast, whose beauty hurts because on sunny days you can see for twenty, thirty miles without a human habitation: only azure, islands that are not real, and the sea.” (66)
Being an island Ireland is dominated by the sea. “The sea was pale green, up front where it rolled onto the beach, dark blue out toward the center of the bay, and a narrow, sparkling white frill was visible where the sea broke on the island.” (29) “Harpooned sharks lie like capsized boats in the mud at low tide.” (31) “Azure spreads over the sea, in varying layers, varying shades; wrapped in this azure are green islands, looking like great patches of bog, black ones, jagged, rearing up out of the ocean like stumps of teeth.” (56)
Light can play so many tricks on vision. “This clear, cold light does not penetrate the sea: it merely clings to its surface, as water clings to glass, gives the beach a soft rust color, lies on the bog like mildew.” (70) A woman waits for her husband: “The naked coin of the moon that has traveled toward the western end of the bay; suddenly the headlight cones of her husband’s car: helpless as arms that find nothing to cling to, they writhe across the gray clouds, dip—the car has almost reached the top—shoot over the hill, landing first on the village roofs, dip toward the road.” (72)
Rain is more than plentiful in Ireland, often lasting for days on end: “When the first tongue of puddle licks its way under the door, silent and smooth, gleaming in the firelight.” (59) “Farmers were rowing outside across their flooded fields to fish up their hay from the water.” (103) “The train plodded wearily into the darkness, crawling as if through clouds of water.” (106) And then Boll uses some droll humor: “A barber was standing in his doorway, snipping with his scissors as if he wanted to cut off threads of rain.” (107)
One of the greatest tragedies of Ireland was the Famine of the 1840’s. Thousands died and thousands emigrated, leaving behind their homes. “Not a shred of material, no color anywhere, like a body without hair, without eyes, without flesh and blood—the skeleton of a village, cruelly distinct in its structure.” (31) “Everything not made of stone gnawed away by rain, sun, and wind—and time, which patiently trickles over everything; twenty-four great drops of time a day, the acid that eats everything away as imperceptibly as resignation.” (31)
Boll becomes almost possessed, as if he observed the ruins of his own city Cologne: “The main street, a little crooked like the spine of a laborer; every little knuckle bone is there; there are the arms and the legs: the side streets and, tipped slightly to one side, the head . . . Left leg: the street going up the slope to the east; a right leg: the other one, leading down into the valley, this one a little shortened.” (32) “Broad as shoulder blades were the two stone slabs sticking out of the wall where the fireplace had been.” (34)
An author—like a painter—is a close observer of what is around him in the environment. Boll can pinpoint minutiae, endowing them with poetic uniqueness. Let us first observe human elements: “Names were tossed back and forth like balls.” (8) “My hands were as empty as the church, just as cold and just as clean.” (13) “Men made of bronze, solemn, holding swords, quill pens, scrolls, reins, or compasses; women with stern bosoms plucked lyres, their sweet-sad eyes looking back through the centuries.” (114) These statues are dedicated to Man, like a museum: “As on a ghost train in an enchanted forest, we plunged headfirst into it.” (113)
Boll notices the animal life too: “Rooks were flying round the tower, clouds of rooks, and from a distance they looked like black snowflakes.” (107) “Donkeys bray in the warm summer night, passing on their abstract song, that crazy noise as of badly oiled door hinges, rusty pumps—incomprehensible signals, magnificent and too abstract to sound credible, an expression of limitless pain and yet resignation.” (58) A hint toward the humanness of Irish people.
A variety of objects strike Boll’s fancy: “Cyclists whir by like bats on unlit wire steeds.” (58) Something dredges up his earlier nightmares in the form of a truck: “ It was simply the ‘Swastika Laundry,’ which had painted the year of its founding, 1912, clearly beneath the swastika; but the mere possibility that it might have been one of those others was enough to take my breath away.” (21)
“Milk bottles in the doorways were white, almost too white, and the seagulls splintering the gray of the sky, clouds of white plump gulls, splinters of white that for a second or two joined to form a great patch of white.” (43) Like a painter he plays with the concept of colors. “The milk bottles stood gray, empty, and dirty in doorways and on window sills, waiting sadly for the morning when they would be replaced by their fresh, radiant sisters.” (46)
So many miscellaneous “tings,” as many Irish pronounce it, hold a fascination for this creative writer. “The suitcase locks clinked gently to the rhythm of the moving ship.” (3) “Where the button had looked like a full stop, put there by the tailor, the safety pin had been hung on like a comma.” (1) Here are another pair of objects juxtaposed: “Marbles roll against the step, snow-white drops of ice cream fall into the gutter where they remain for a second like stars on the mud, only a second, before their innocence melts away into the mud.” (47)
We will close this section with a sharp contrast of opposites. “In the slums dirt sometimes lies in black flakes on the windowpanes, as if thrown there on purpose, fished up from fireplaces, from canals.” (14) “A great rainbow arched over the sea; it was so close we thought we could see it in substance—as thin as soap bubbles was the skin of the rainbow.” (62) Heinrich Boll can span from the gross to the sublime.
I would conclude that Irish character is what fascinates Heinrich Boll the most. He has great respect and fascination for the average Irish working people. Boll is the first to admit that his English is not perfect: “Using the English words with care, like a novice juggler handling china plates.” (26) But he has to work hard to understand another culture. With another touch of humor he tries to be courageous: “I made up my mind to do something which is the basis of the myth of masculinity: I made up my mind to bluff.” (28)
Two very different Irish men he encounters. One is a beggar: “Epileptic twitching ran like lightning across his face . . . I almost felt as if I were furnishing a corpse with money.” (14) The other a simple farmer: “The oldest son has stayed home: from far off, when he comes in from the meadow with the cattle, he looks like a youth of sixteen; when he turns the corner and enters the village street you feel he must be in his mid-thirties; and when he finally passes the house and grins shyly in at the window, you see that he is fifty.” (35)
Similarly there is a great contrast between types of Irish women: “She was very tall, fat, and pale, and sat there with her child’s face like a great doll.” (103) In counterpoint a grouping of women at church: “Mouths like India ink, eyebrows like delicate forceful brush strokes. The thirty women were assembled at Mass, at tea, at the evening rosary.” (68)
Tea is a very important part of Irish culture, which Boll grows to love too. “If Continental tea is like a faded yellow telegraph form, in these islands to the west of Ostend it has the dark, glimmering tones of Russian icons, before the milk gives it a color similar to the complexion of an overfed baby.” (9) Jokingly, Boll names the lady who pours the tea “the tousled tea goddess.” (9)
And yet drinking, be it fine beer or aged Irish malt, is another important component of the culture: “The private drinking booth with the leather curtain; here the drinker locks himself in like a horse; to be alone with whisky and pain, with belief and unbelief, he lowers himself deep below the surface of time, into the caisson of passivity.” (14) Yet in a lighter vein, Boll learns that landlords in summer cater to the tourists: “We drank, and the clock hands still stood as they had stood for three weeks: at ten-thirty. And they would stay at ten-thirty for the next four months . . . So time stands still, and rivers of dark beer flow through the whole summer, day and night, while the police sleep the sleep of the just.” (40)
Boll wonders: “Are not all the Irish on the west coast almost like tourists, because the money for their support is earned elsewhere.”(72) Also about cursing: “His curses do not belong to the sexual sphere like those of the wine-drinking races, his curses are those of the spirit-drinkers, more blasphemous and cerebral than sexual curses, for don’t spirits contain spiritus.” (87) And the realm of make-believe: “Folklore is something like innocence: when you know you have it, you no longer have it.” (100) Likewise, “The man who has no time is a monster, a fiend: he steals time from somewhere, secretes it.” (54)
This highly intelligent German thinker arrives at the conclusion about the Irish, deciding they are people of paradox: “Strange mixture of passion and equability, to that temperamental weariness, that indifference coupled with fanaticism.” (10) He tells an Irish friend his conclusions: “You are happier than you know. And if you knew how happy you are you would find a reason for being unhappy. You have many reasons for being unhappy, but you also love the poetry of unhappiness.” (37)
In Limerick “we saw the skepticism flowering in hard, sad eyes: melancholy shining in blue eyes, in the eyes of the gypsy selling pictures of saints on the street, and in the eyes of the hotel manageress, in the eyes of the taxi driver—thorns around the rose, arrows in the heart of the most devout city in the world.” (46) “’It could be worse’ is one of the most common turns of speech, probably because only too often things are pretty bad and what’s worst offers the consolation of being relative.” (110)
I surmise that Heinrich Boll took a keen liking to Ireland because it reminded him of Europe devastated after World War II, but in fundamentally different ways. Ireland had never been directly involved in that costly War; in the past it had been invaded by Vikings, Normans, English. But a major point is that Ireland had never attacked another country. When Protestant landowners were finally driven out by 1920, the Catholic working people reclaimed their land. Boll being a German Catholic and always considering himself an average working man, could comfortably relate to that fact, too. I’ll leave you with a final statement by Boll: “The man who lives poetry instead of writing it pays ten thousand percent interest.” (50)
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Irish-Journal-Essential-Heinrich-Boll-ebook/dp/B004C43G88/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=Irish+Journal+by+Heinrich+Boll&qid=1681998855&sr=8-3
Ray Greenblatt is an editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal and for a decade now has taught a “Joy of Poetry” course at Temple University-OLLI. He spoke at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California. His most recent book—From an Old Hotel on the Irish Coast (Parnilis Media, 2023)—is a compilation of poems and fiction, with drawings by Philadelphia artist Michael Guinn.