The Safety Net

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HEINRICH BÖLL In 1972, Heinrich Böll became the first German to win the Nobel Prize for literature since Thomas Mann in 1929. Born in Cologne, in 1917, Böll was reared in a liberal Catholic, pacifist family. Drafted into the Wehrmacht, he served on the Russian and French fronts and was wounded four times before he found himself in an American prison camp. After the war he enrolled at the University of Cologne, but dropped out to write about his shattering experiences as a soldier. His first novel, The Train Was on Time, was published in 1949, and he went on to become one of the most prolific and important of post-war German writers. His best-known novels include Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959), The Clown (1963), Group Portrait with Lady (1971), and The Safety Net (1979). In 1981 he published a memoir, What’s to Become of the Boy? or: Something to Do with Books. Böll served for several years as the president of International P.E.N. and was a leading defender of the intellectual freedom of writers throughout the world. He died in June 1985.

Salman Rushdie is the author of ten novels: Grimus; Midnight’s Children (which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981 and, in 1993— and again in 2008—was judged to be the “Booker of Bookers,” the best novel to have won the prize in its first forty years); Shame; The Satanic Verses; Haroun and the Sea of Stories; The Moor’s Last Sigh; The Ground Beneath Her Feet; Fury; Shalimar the Clown; and The Enchantress of Florence. He is also the author of a book of stories, East, West, and four works of nonfiction: Imaginary Homelands, The Jaguar Smile, The Wizard of Oz, and Step Across this Line.


The Essential

HEINRICH BÖLL The Clown The Safety Net Billiards at Half-Past Nine The Train Was on Time Irish Journal Group Portrait with Lady What’s to Become of the Boy? Or: Something to Do with Books—A Memoir The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll


To my sons Raimund, RenÊ, and Vincent— in gratitude


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Shortly before the conference came to an end, before the balloting, during the final, crucial session, the fear had suddenly left him. It had been replaced by curiosity. By the time he faced the inevitable interviews he was cheerful, surprised at the ease with which he trotted out the phrases: growth, expansion, conciliation, tariff autonomy, correlation of interests, looking back, looking ahead, the common ground of the early days—which allowed the sprinkling of a few discreet autobiographical details, his role in the development of a democratic press—the advantages and dangers of bigness, the invaluable role of both work force and unions, struggling not in confrontation but shoulder to shoulder. Much of what he said had actually sounded quite convincing even to his own ears, although Rolf’s trenchant analyses and Kortschede’s gloomy predictions were beginning to acquire more and more credibility in spite of the fundamentally different premises on which they were based. He had enjoyed weaving in allusions to history, even to art, cathedrals and Menzel, Bismarck and Van Gogh, whose social (or perhaps even incipient socialist) energy and mis5


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sionary zeal had found their outlet in art; Bismarck and Van Gogh as contemporaries: brief, thoughtful observations on this theme added color to the purely economic statements expected of him. He had been able to recapture a seemingly off-the-cuff elegance which, more than forty years earlier, had proved so useful in Truckler’s seminar and which he had later been able to exploit at numerous editorial conferences but until now had never been able to bring off in public. What he was saying, ad-libbing, came out almost automatically, prefabricated, allowing him to think of other things, to determine at what point his fear had suddenly left him: most likely at the moment when he realized the inevitability of being elected. This would hoist him into a position where his fear should have been intensified, and—so his thoughts ran while he gave yet another interview—instinct had told him that the better course was to have no fear at all rather than more. No fear at all, merely curiosity; the fear that had weighed on him for months, the fear for his life, for Käthe’s life, for Sabine’s and Kit’s lives, was gone. Of course they would get him, probably even kill him, and there remained only the suspense of wondering: who, and how? And what he felt for Sabine had been transformed from fear into concern. He had reason to be concerned about the child. During these last few months his fear had been directed almost entirely toward technical matters, security measures. Concern had been supplanted; now it was no longer fear of something but fear for: for Sabine, and for Herbert, for Käthe’s follies, least of all—and this surprised him—for Rolf. Sabine’s extreme religious devotion had always troubled him, he had felt envious too, and that fellow Fischer, his son-in-law, whose boyishness had fooled them all—but not him, even Käthe admitted that, not him—was not the right partner for her. The craftiness with which he was using Sabine and their child for his own purposes must surely have opened the eyes of all of them. As for Käthe, a trustee should simply have been appointed to look after her money: she gave to all and sundry while denying her-


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self nothing, and someday—soon, he feared—she would come a fearful cropper. All this was going through his mind while they were holding microphones to his mouth like hand grenades, while the glaring spotlights were trained on him. Amplanger had coordinated and timed the interviews with great precision, made sure there was mineral water and coffee on hand, kept eau de cologne in readiness—all this moved through his mind on double tracks, and even awkward questions concerning his family failed to disconcert him. While “on the rear track of his thoughts” he continued to mull over the worries lying behind his technical fear, in the foreground he was wondering whether it was possible to speak of “concerned cheerfulness,” as they questioned him without regard for his feelings about Rolf, Veronica, Holger, and even Heinrich Beverloh (didn’t they know yet that he now had a second grandson called Holger?). He displayed sincere and deep distress over Veronica’s chosen path, would not be lured into dissociating himself from Rolf (although they all tried more or less to put the words into his mouth), did not deny Rolf’s offenses, stressed the fact that his son had paid the penalty, also admitted his serious, his deep concern for Holger (the older, they obviously still knew nothing about Holger the younger). This double-track function, which might also have been called media-induced schizophrenia, was beginning to amuse him: it was possible to reel off answers even to awkward questions while thinking about Sabine, who had obviously been shocked—probably by Kohlschröder, how else?—and was now pursuing her Madonna cult more fervently, more intensely, than ever. What he found difficult, while seeming to ad-lib into the microphones in a staccato laced with discreet little throat clearings, was to abandon the dream he had been cherishing for so long: Kit as a girl or a young woman in the manor house, in the park, in the corridors, feeding the ducks, in the orangery—and he couldn’t bring himself to cut this film once and for all—this dream, this game which, accord-


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ing to Kortschede’s devastating prediction, would now never be played; never would Kit—even as a ten-year-old—wander through the manor house, live here, never. In the background the conference was breaking up, people were having their last drinks, chauffeurs were carrying suitcases out into the courtyard, board members were sipping the cold remains of their coffee, applauding when, in their view, he happened to have successfully concluded a major interview. Between two interviews, his predecessor Pliefger insisted on rushing up to him. With his usual condescension (steel condescending toward publishing, nothing personal, merely a matter of different branches of industry) and an expression of such surprise that it was almost insulting (as if they really had taken him for a senile half-wit), he said, pumping his hand up and down: “First class, my dear Tolm, positively outstanding, we have every reason to congratulate ourselves on your election.” And Kliehm, the Zummerling supporter, displayed such astonishment at Tolm’s eloquence that it really came very close to being an insult. Was there actually something like envy in Bleibl’s expression? Surprise, certainly, at the ease with which he discharged these duties, at the unexpected cheerfulness when Bleibl must have expected dejection, nervousness, and inarticulateness, after having succeeded in “hoisting” him—that’s how he had openly phrased it himself—to exactly where he wanted him: to the most endangered place, the most dangerous position, which no one expected to suit him, a role that no one expected him to play so well—he, the rapidly aging, ideologically somewhat insecure Fritz Tolm, the “swaying reed,” the weakling, the pushover, the extemporizer among the board members, “somehow” obscurely linked through his family with “them”—as open to attack as he was vulnerable. No doubt about it: Bleibl was surprised, probably wondering whether it had been wise after all to nominate him, to toss


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his name into the meeting, which, after three hours of debate, was now totally exhausted—after the rejection of so many who would not have refused: Tolm, of all people. More cars drove up, more suitcases were carried out, chauffeurs hurried back and forth, security officials took up new positions, TV and radio crews packed up, dishes rattled, bottles were stacked in crates; and at that moment, when the media had had their fill, it occurred to him that during the whole press conference he had never been quite that relaxed, almost lighthearted, quite that casual in his statements, the two tracks had never run so smoothly side by side, they had collided—but now he had to have a cigarette; voluptuously, hungrily, for a few moments he felt young, as in his old student days after a particularly boring seminar, or as a young officer after a successful withdrawal, when he had reached for a cigarette. And promptly a young puppy of a photographer who was still hanging around had snapped him: just as he was taking the crumpled package out of his pocket, fishing out a cigarette, lighting up with his own hands without anybody rushing over to offer him a light. And he foresaw—that much he did understand about journalism, that much he had learned, although it was generally held against him that, while being “in the trade and controlling it, he neither was of the trade nor knew anything about it”—he foresaw that these pictures would eventually make the front page: the white-haired, dignified new president, known for his charm and courtesy, this seemingly easygoing old gentleman who lacked some of the ingredients of a truly stable and serious-minded character, hair slightly tousled, clothes correct yet with a dash of casualness, relaxed despite his extreme jeopardy, standing there with a cigarette between his lips, not entirely consistent with his dignity, not at all with his new status, holding the crumpled package, the scruffy matchbox, the conqueror—whereas in fact he had been conquered by Bleibl. Now Bleibl had him where he had always wanted him: right at the top, where there was to be no more rest, no pause,


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no relaxation, no private life for him, where he was to be hounded to death, protected to death, exposed to the utmost risk, yet he had just discovered the double-track function, just in these last two hours rediscovered his private life: his children and grandchildren and Käthe, no longer afraid of speeches to be made, of press conferences to be conducted, of interviews to be granted. There was much more stored up in him than even he would ever have expected: thoughts as yet unuttered, insights he could draw upon, prefabricated formulations lying in readiness. They could ask him whatever they liked, the aggressive journalists; and the fawning ones, those who were both fawning and aggressive; and even if he wasn’t a member of the trade and had never been really part of it, journalists were people he knew something about, and he had always preferred the aggressive ones to the fawning ones. After all, he had been boss of the newspaper, his “little paper,” for the past thirty-two years, and he had seen them come and seen them go, had seen them rise and fall, had got along reasonably well with them, although he had never quite grasped what journalism was all about, no matter how often they had dinned into him at conferences that jour means day. And to chat away pleasantly into microphones for one day, for one day, on his front consciousness-track, faced by cameras and sharpened pencils, for the day: that’s what he had learned in those moments when the fear for his own life had so suddenly vanished. So once again, as always, Kortschede had also been mentioned as a candidate, Kortschede who hadn’t shown up this time; and once again there had been some pretty direct allusions to his “leanings” which made him unfit for this office, “totally unfit, though there can be no doubt about his capabilities.” Inevitable that Bleibl should now come up to him, while Amplanger stayed in the background; Bleibl, who really did have a coarse face, a regular “mug,” actually, and coarse manners too; old now yet still with the lusty youthfulness of the man who, while never a woman’s ideal he-man, nevertheless had many affairs. Strange, for the first time in thirty-five years


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to see Bleibl verging on embarrassment, surprise at any rate, giving an appreciative nod; but then the arrow from a quite unexpected quarter: “So the Fischers are expecting? And I had to see it in the sports section of one newspaper and the social column of the other—you never told us, even Käthe, when I mentioned it, was surprised.” Bleibl was watching closely, discovering instantly, of course, that he knew nothing about it either. Sabine pregnant? No one had told him, and there was some mystery about it, some whispering going on, none of the reporters seemed to have known, no one had asked him: “How do you feel about the new grandchild expected in the Fischer family?” He sensed that behind this remark, behind this question of Bleibl’s lurked something he didn’t know about. “Congratulations, on both counts: your performance here, which was brilliant—I see I shall have to read the literary section more often to keep up with you in future—and on your grandchild: in four months’ time, I understand. Take care.” It was all over sooner than expected, Käthe was not yet back from Sabine’s. When there were meetings or conferences, she always withdrew, presiding only briefly as the lady of the house over afternoon tea or coffee, offering homemade cookies and little cakes, she happened to have a weakness for petits fours, which she produced herself in her own delightful kitchen—and she did all this so nicely, so graciously, that it didn’t seem like a mere duty, and she chatted with the men, looked after the secretaries, who appeared genuinely to like her and asked for recipes and advice. “No, really—what fantastic things you always make!” When wives were admitted to the male sanctuary for a few hours, she would ask them upstairs for tea, a chat, a drink, sometimes even showed them her wardrobe to the accompaniment of “Ah’s” and “Oh’s,” talked about children, grandchildren, travel plans, entertained without discrimination even the men’s girlfriends, referring to these openly to her husband as mistresses, doing this so nicely, inspiring immediate confidence, even reassuring these girlfriends—former steward-


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esses, secretaries, or salesgirls—when they seemed a bit out of their depth in these unaccustomed surroundings. Maintained her dignity and wouldn’t tolerate any snide remarks if someone tried to malign Rolf or Katharina, Veronica or Holger I; defended Herbert, who was decried as a visionary, would not rise to vicious remarks about their seven-year-old grandson, whose present whereabouts were unknown. “Your son’s current girlfriend, Katharina—she’s a Communist, isn’t she?” And she would reply: “Yes, I believe she is, but I’d rather you asked her personally—I greatly dislike defining other people’s politics.” Comments on the extramarital affairs of her son-inlaw Erwin also did not seem to upset her. Hints about Sabine’s life—she remained completely unruffled, while security guards in the corridor, on the balcony, and in the rambling storerooms were watching over her. He missed Käthe now. If Sabine was to have her child in four months, she must soon be in her sixth month—and had said nothing to anyone. One thing was safe to assume when it came to Bleibl’s pointed remarks—whether he was talking about Rolf, Katharina, Herbert, or Holger I: he always got his facts straight. If he said “in four months,” then it was four months, even if Sabine herself might not be that sure. Such things all came from Zummerling sources, and they had their ear not only to the pulse of the times but also to the abdomens of prominent women; they knew better than the lady herself when a period was missed, they were abdomen researchers of a special kind, no doubt they questioned housemaids and pharmacists, rummaged through garbage cans, snooped around in medical files, perhaps even monitored phone calls, all for the benefit of the public. Surely Käthe would have told him if she had known, and he couldn’t fathom why Sabine hadn’t told them. If Bleibl had read it in the sports page, it must have something to do with riding; he didn’t want to give way immediately to his urge to rush to the phone and call. He was longing to go upstairs to Käthe and have tea with her. He was sure she would refrain


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from facetious remarks about his election, if—something he would probably never find out—she felt like being facetious at all. She would hear it on the radio, of course, or see it on TV at Sabine’s, and she would be more likely to feel alarmed than facetious since she knew that Bleibl was out not only to make him deeply afraid but to destroy him. At last the clatter in the conference room had stopped, all the media people had left, and he could sit down for a moment without being photographed; he felt fatigue settling over his face like a cobweb, actually felt the creases spreading, exhaustion after the amusing and tiring game of his double-track function, but he mustn’t smoke another cigarette just yet. He hated these confrontations with Grebnitzer, his doctor, and no doubt Amplanger would report: three during the session, one after lunch, a fourth one after the interviews. Amplanger had been re-elected secretary by acclamation, without lengthy discussion, and although he was from his own stable—hadn’t he won his spurs on the paper at his father’s side, built up a career in it and on it?—he was never quite sure whether Amplanger wasn’t really a Bleibl or even a Zummerling man. Pleasant, well educated, skillful, he rarely revealed his streak of ruthlessness, and then most clearly when he smiled: he had never seen a harder smile, you could almost hear his teeth grinding. All the Amplangers smiled, his wife, his four children, and malicious wags claimed that soon his dog, his cat, and his parakeets would start smiling too. Amplanger’s smile was notorious and feared—as the head of personnel on the paper he had been feared; there were still a few people left from the paper’s early days with whom he could talk on familiar terms, and they had told him there was a saying: “When Amplanger smiles, you’ve had it.” Now presumably Amplanger was tired too, too tired to smile? He seemed almost human as he sat down beside him, looking out over the park, seemed even a bit rumpled about his white shirt collar as if he had been perspiring, his hair slightly


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untidy—he seemed almost a “real human being” as he said: “Have another cigarette, sir, I won’t tell.” But he shook his head and merely asked: “What’s all this about my daughter and the newspaper report about her being pregnant?” “It seems your daughter Sabine has withdrawn from training for the championship, and this has led to some speculation, I’ll have it thoroughly checked out—I was surprised myself by Mr. Bleibl’s news. But now—if I may say so—you ought to lie down a bit. This has been a wild day, I’m worn out too, and as soon as I can be sure you’re upstairs in your own domain, I’ll be on my way. Fantastic, if you’ll allow me to say so, the way you coped with the media, simply fantastic.” “Must I start work tomorrow—I mean, go to the office?” “No, not till the day after, we’ll have a little ceremony then, a sort of reception for the whole staff—you know most of the department heads, of course. No, not tomorrow.” “I’ll sit here for a while, you might as well go home—give my regards to your wife and family.” “I’m sure I needn’t spell it out to you that all the security measures taken so far for Mr. Pliefger will now be transferred to you. If you wish, Mr. Holzpuke will give you the details— he’d like to do it himself, though of course I’d be glad to, only I don’t want to tread on his toes. So if I may assume that under these circumstances you will be able to reach your apartment without my help, which you might possibly find bothersome, I’ll say goodbye.” “Thank you, goodbye—see you the day after tomorrow.” What he really wanted was to go off right then, walk, across the courtyard, the bridge over the moat, along the avenue into the village, slowly from house to house, as far as the church. There he would have sat down, maybe even said a prayer, later knocked at Kohlschröder’s door, invited himself for coffee and a chat, about the world, not about God, about whom he was less inclined to speak with Kohlschröder than with anyone, probably because he was a priest. He would have stopped