Monday, 11 March 2013

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum - Heinrich Böll
(Translated by Leila Vennewitz)

"(since this is merely a report, not a judgement, we will confine ourselves to facts)"

I am delighted be posting on this book in parallel with Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos, one of the finest book bloggers out there. This is at the suggestion of Richard who noticed that I have been developing an interest in Böll - see my reviews of The Safety Net and Group Portrait with Lady. Being second to the punch I can tell you that Richard's three letter review on Twitter was 'meh', which will give you an idea of what his longer review is like.

The first thing to note about The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is that it is short, just 116 pages in my edition. I read it in two sittings.
The narrative technique is very similar to Group Portrait With Lady. Böll once again sets up a narrator who is not omniscient but has built the story from "a few minor sources and three major ones". He creates a strange middle distance from which to tell the story, which is probably the key element of the book. The whole act of storytelling, and reporting is totally suspect. A slightly strange stilted passage at the very start talks about "the concept of 'bringing together', of 'conduction', a concept that should be clear to anyone who as a child (or even as an adult) has ever played in, beside, or with puddles, draining them, linking them by channels, emptying, diverting and rerouting them until the entire available puddle water-potential is brought together in a collective channel to be diverted onto a different level or perhaps even duly rerouted in orderly fashion into the gutter or drain provided by the local authorities."

We also get the outline of the story at the beginning:
"The first facts to be presented are brutal: on Wednesday, 20 February 1974, on the eve of the traditional opening of Carnival, a young woman of twenty-seven leaves her apartment in a certain city at about 6.45 p.m. to attend a dance at a private home.
Four days later, after a dramatic - there is no getting around the word (and here we have an example of the various levels that permit the stream to flow) - turn of events, on Sunday evening at almost the same hour (to be precise, at about 7.04 p.m.) she rings the front door bell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at that moment engaged, for professional rather than private reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh, and she declares to the startled Moeding that at about 12.15 noon that day she shot and killed Werner Tötges, reporter, in her apartment..."

So we know, in outline, the story from the off. We know it and some totally unnecessary facts - in a parodic reportage style. The times and dates are given as if they are relevant, or will be, but no, the are simply dry facts. Böll seems to distrust the very act of storytelling, and is constantly undermining it. Flow is seen as a necessary evil, one in which, perhaps, the facts will get lost or mutated to serve best the "flow" of the story.

The narrator seems averse to the normal elements of a crime novel - "Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to be regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and the movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood."

The event that starts the story remains largely off the page. At the dance mentioned earlier Katharina meets Ludwig Götten, a man on the run from the police and he comes back with her to her apartment. He is being trailed, and once Blum leaves the party with him, wires are placed in her apartment. (The use of wiretapping inspires the narrator to ponder the effect that listening to the misdemeanours of miscreants will have on the minor civil servants who have to do the job of monitoring wiretaps, and the responsibility of the government for any hurt and distress they might suffer.) There is a meeting of minds and bodies between Götten and Blum after which she shows him a way to get out of her apartment building without being observed by the police. Ludwig Götten is called a bank robber in the headlines (with information clearly being leaked by the police) and the paper talks of a conspiracy and of Katharina's involvement. The paper plays out the story for all its worth and talks about gentlemen visitors in a way which is suggestive of something quite different to the same phrase in The Glass Menagerie.

The venal, sexually voracious Blum who appears on the front page of "The News" is far different from the determined, organised and reserved woman who appears in her friends and employers testimonies.  The pieces of information that the reporter has got his hands on are stretched out by twisting the words of Katharina's mother, former husband and ex-employers to give a picture of a woman who is thoroughly disreputable and without honour. Her current employers, the Blornas, he a high flying lawyer, she an architect, are sucked in too, knowing Katharina as they do they believe her innocent of all but helping Götten escape. He takes on her defence and she intuits immediately who at least one of the gentlemen callers was, a powerful friend of theirs. Trude Blorna will have her leftist sympathies brought up and is tagged Red Trude. Indeed, in some ways they suffer the most, their support for Katharina over powerful friends driving a wedge between them and their comfortable life.

During the police interrogation Katharina shows herself to be very deliberate in her use of language, and her insistence in going through the typescripts word for word contribute to the interviews taking a long time. "Similar arguments ensued over the word 'gracious', as applied to the Blornas. The record contained the word 'nice to me', Blum insisted on the word 'gracious', and when the word 'kind' was suggested instead, 'gracious' being considered somewhat old-fashioned, she became indignant and declared that 'niceness' and 'kindness' had nothing to do with 'graciousness', and it was with graciousness that she felt the Blornas had always treated her."

Her meticulous weighing of words highlights the divergence between her and the newspapers who seem to weigh nothing but the desire for a 'good story". It also prepares us for the dismay she will feel when she sees the newspaper.

The book reflects a the time it was written, the hysteria which then reigned in Germany over the activities of the Baader-Meinhof group / Red Army Faction. Böll himself was tagged as a sympathiser. It also pre-empts the even greater power of ever smaller numbers of newspapers to set the agenda and make or break people's reputations.

It also reflects many of Böll's other interests, the manipulation of the papers and due process in order to protect the powerful and connected, including an old Nazi. Also the pre-eminence of the economic over the individual. Here's the mayor of this unspecified town when he hears about the killing: "If it gets out that fancy dress is being misused for criminal purposes, the whole mood's done for right there and business is ruined. That sort of thing's a real sacrilege."

The book also examines how Katharina has had to deftly avoid the unwanted 'advances' of many men due to her attractiveness. It makes some quiet feminist points about the difficulties for a self-employed woman. Indeed we find that her current employer has really only avoided making advances because he knows how hard she has worked to get where she is but also how hard it has been for her to build herself up after a difficult childhood, with her father damaged by his time in the war - "he had been afraid of destroying her or her life - she was so vulnerable, so damn vulnerable.."

The book asks a question which Katharina herself asks, what can we do to protect individuals from being damaged by the type of reporting we see in Katharina's case? "Only now did Katharina take the two issues of the News from her handbag and ask whether the government - as she put it - could not do something to protect her from this filth and to restore her lost honour." It suggests also that people who are painted into a corner will react, possibly violently. In this way he perhaps puts forward his views on what drove disaffected people to embrace terrorism and form the Red Army Faction.

Links to other reviews:
Richard @ Caravana De Recuerdos
Rise @ In Lieu of a Field Guide
Tony @ Tony's Reading List


  1. Very provoking closing statements, Séamus. That really ties up well with the book's subtitle. I'm glad you and Richard had this read-along. I'm seeing new aspects of the book from your reviews.

    1. Séamus, your post is so well-argued and convincing that you almost have me ready to concede that I've massively misjudged and underestimated The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. However, I'll stand by my lukewarm opinion about the novella until I compare it to the film adaptation and at least one other book of Böll's. I'm glad we read the book together, though, not least for your comments about the role of wiretapping in society (another plus for Böll I should have mentioned in my own post) and the work's feminist views on Katharina's trajectory (ditto). For me, I really wish I could have had more of both of those sorts of things and less about the annoying narrator drawing parodic attention to the untruthfulness of the text. Anyway, fantastic post, my friend!

    2. @ Rise - Thanks, I enjoyed your review, too. The more Böll seemed to insist (through his narrator) that the book was simply some collated facts the more I felt/feel tempted to read it as a fable about the rise of fascism, with Germany (in the 20's) as the country whose reputation lies in tatters and what came after the result of that. I know that this type of argument has been proposed to explain how the rise of the Nazis could have come about.
      I might just be stretching the puddle water-potential but it all seems to flow together in my head.
      Provocative enough?

      @Richard - Thanks. Shame it didn't work for you.. The particular narrative style used in Katharina Blum is also used in Group Portrait with Lady so I'd avoid that if you are going to read another Böll. As I said over on yours I'd recommend Billiards at Half Past Nine from the few I've read. I can understand your response. The way he undercuts the narrative flow is risky and if it doesn't work for you I can see how the whole book would feel flat.

  2. Unlike Richard, I enjoy the interfering narrator (Anthony Trollope fan, take a bow!).

    The theme of the right to a private life in the face of omnipresent media coverage is one that really hits home - an issue I'm glad not to have to face (and unless the blog suddenly becomes a *lot* more famous, one I'm unlikely to have to face either...).

    I have to go back to the foreword though as it's soemthing that has stuck with me. It's just so cutting and unmistakeably true - "...these similarities are neither intentional or coincidental, but unavoidable."