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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Book Review: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) by Heinrich Böll

Book Review:
 The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974)
 by Heinrich Böll

    Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, so The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum came when the author was at the top of his game, so to speak.  Böll had impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, and in this way he was the right type of writer to help recover the German literary tradition from Nazism.  Like  Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Böll's first title to make it into the 1001 Books List, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum combines personal narrative with technical innovation and timely social issues.

 Here, Katharina Blum is a self-employed domestic from a troubled family, living in a small town in Western Germany.  She spends the night with a criminal being followed by the police, she helps him escape, and the police make her a subject of their investigation.  Then the newspapers get involved, and it is the conflict between the freedom of the press and it's impact on Ms. Blum that lies at the heart of this short novel/novella.

  For an American reader, the idea of a critique of the freedom of press almost sounds radical.  Germany, where pro-Nazi speech has been illegal since the end of World War II, is a much different society in that regard. Böll's Katharina Blum is an existential heroine in the mode of  French novels from the 1950's.   This combination of a trenchant critique of freedom of the press and a generally sympathetic attitude towards 70's leftist radicals in Germany may make modern readers uncomfortable.  On the other hand, you could say these attitudes of the German left from the 1970's are in vogue again, so maybe Katherina is due for a revival.

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