Analysis of Heinrich Böll’s Absent without Leave

The post–World War II novel Absent without Leave represents something of a change of literary pace for Heinrich Böll (1917–85), at least in terms of its formal and stylistic strategies. Although some thematic concerns persist from his earlier work of the 1940s and 1950s—years that established his reputation as one of Germany’s most important writers—Absent without Leave was written in a self-consciously playful avantgarde style until then unseen in Böll’s prose fiction, which tended to offer a demanding, retooled form of modernism. This change of stylistic direction, however, is well suited to the overarching thrust of the work: The formal changes match the content’s focus on aggressive nonconformity. The German title of the text, Entfernung von der Truppe, emphasizes, instead of mere absence, an act of deliberate distanciation, or distancing (the Entfernung), from some kind of group (the Truppe). This deliberate self-isolation from the masses or pack references a literal desertion as well as the moral lesson of more general nonconformity.

Heinrich Böll

Heinrich Böll / Pinterest

The text is a first-person narration by Wilhelm Schmölder, who declares that his humanity began when his state service ended, a declaration likewise applicable to Böll’s own nonconformist attitudes toward the maturing 1960s West-German society as well as toward the literary establishment in the wake of a controversy about his novel The Clown (1963). Absent without Leave was not well received by critics at the time of publication, but it remains unique in Böll’s canon of work, admirable for its rigorous critique of society, intriguing for its unprecedented experimentation in form, and important for its “almost autobiographical” (as he put it) insights into Böll’s evolving attitudes.

In an ironic and colloquial tone, Wilhelm Schmölder (whose full name has to be cobbled together by readers) playfully relates a series of flashbacks to the late 1930s and 1940s from the narrative present of 1963, by which time West German society had consolidated the breathtaking material gains of its 1950s “Economic Miracle.” These flashbacks focus, in particular, on September 22, 1938, the day on which Schmölder entered the house of his wife’s family, the Bechtolds, and also the day he recognized that humanity starts when one decides to reject unrefl ective conformity. To understand this particular moment, Schmölder has to explain his previous work in the Reich Labor Service, how “service” (literally for the state, but also more generally) always filled him with anxiety. After his marriage to Hildegard Bechtold, Schmölder does not return to his service, eponymously distancing himself from others, but after a week he is arrested, sent to prison, and then mustered into the army. Among other episodes, he reports how his wife and two brothers-in-law died in the Allies’ bombing of Germany, leaving only his wife’s younger brother, Johannes, a staff sergeant turned successful businessman and a poster child for the economic miracle of the 1950s, whose selective memories allow him to disown his brothers who died for family and country.

This surviving Bechthold brother is despised by his own mother, Anna Bechtold, Schmölder’s mother-in-law and an inspiration in the text. An “instinct Catholic” who does not allow the pope to dictate her faith to her, Anna was the leader of a communist cell during the war and had been imprisoned for attacking an officer who had come to search for her deserter son. The heroic figure of Anna also represents a bit of a change of tactics for Böll, one that anticipates his direction in his celebrated Group Portrait with Lady (1971), for she offers a positive and female model for opposition at a time of high social, political, and cultural conformity (late 1950s, early 1960s). Schmölder writes that she and he are like “Neanderthals,” out of time, rather like the unearthed statue he feels himself to be before his estranged daughter and son-in-law.

Out-of-time, nonconformist, distanced—all also describe the stylistic and formal approach of Absent without Leave, which deliberately departs the modified modernism that Böll had been cultivating since the 1940s and that had culminated in his much-lauded Billiards at Half-Past Nine. In Absent without Leave, the ironic tone of the first-person narration of memory creates an unusual hybrid of memoirs and fiction: The narrative is constantly interrupted, digressing, and adamantly nonlinear. The drop-out attitudes of the narrator are thus reflected in the form of the work itself. Many critics have highlighted the unorthodox (ungrammatical) sentence structure, the subversive manipulation of narrative verb tenses, and especially the contradictory intertextual references to both Nazi propaganda and literary forebears that are like fairy tales. The text also applies documentary sources (like newspaper articles pasted into a journal) as well as, for Böll’s work, rare direct address to the reader (at one point the text suggests the reader take a break to make a wish list). But even these kinds of postmodern games fit the thematic agenda of the text in encouraging active participation and energetic engagement on the part of the reader. Schmölder—like Anna Bechtold and, one presumes, Böll himself—cannot forget the repressed past or reconcile the compromised present, so he demands, aggressively and mischievously, that readers do not either.

Böll, Victor and Jochen Schubert. Heinrich Böll. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2002.
Butler, Michael, ed. The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Conrad, Robert C. Understanding Heinrich Böll. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House 1992.
Crampton, Patricia, trans. Heinrich Böll, on His Death: Selected Obituaries and the Last Interview. Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1985.
Prodanuik, Ihor. The Imagery in Heinrich Böll’s Novels. Bonn: Bouvier, 1979.
Reed, Donna K. The Novels of the Nazi Past. New York: Peter Lang, 1985.
Zachau, Reinhard K. Heinrich Böll: Forty Years of Criticism. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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