Wednesday, January 23, 2013

the day tanks from here

It's hard to explain Heinrich Boll's The Clown to someone and expect them to like it. For one thing, it's about a clown, and a lot of people claim to be afraid of clowns. A few actually are, but I think coulrophobia is a quirky affectation for a lot of people. Whatever, screw them. They aren't important.

The Clown's plot is also daunting, because it's essentially about this clown (Hans Schnier) who's moping over a bad review of his latest performance, and who just got dumped by his very Catholic common-law wife for some also-Catholic bourgie dork, and who hates his rich ex-Nazi Protestant parents and all their hypocrite friends, and so the whole novel is him drunk-dialing people from his apartment in Bonn and wailing about how unfair society is.

Sounds like a pretentious bore, right? Well, it isn't. It's honestly really good. The prose is very smooth, for one thing, and the pace is such that nothing is dense or tedious on the page. And for all his moping and angst, Hans is a lively and funny narrator; his observations about post-war Germany's delicate moral position, organized religion (a frequent target of his), and the extent to which social mores interfere with unity are equally hilarious and depressing.

More than that, this book deals with intimacy well. What could have easily been a series of aggravating rants and shallow, fuck-you-Dad churlishness instead becomes the portrait of a man who is losing his grip on the things that tethered him to society; his work, his love, and his sense of place. Feeling like an outsider sucks, but actually knowing you're an outsider is much worse. Hans shows great tenderness (and bitterness) in his remembrances of Marie (his ex) and the bohemian artsy lifestyle they shared, which counters his barbs against his family and their social circle rather nicely.

I guess the central irony of the book is that Hans lashes out at the comfortable because he has been shaken from all of his comforts, basic though they were. God, there really is no way to explain this without making it sound terrible. Just read it, it's good, I promise.