My Best Book Ever
My best book ever is Murke’s Collected Silences by Heinrich Böll.
Böll was a Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1972. He was an enemy of Nazism, refusing to join the Hitler Youths although he was conscripted in the Wehrmacht and was wounded in action.
Murke is a Psychology graduate who starts working at the Cultural Department at Broadcasting House, at a job he finds intensely irritating and dull. He begins his day by riding in the paternoster to the empty space at the very top for what he calls his panic breakfast, gripped by terror that the lift would be stuck mid-way with dire and unforeseeable consequences. Only after this gruelling episode does he feel able to confront the day.
In his office, at first he collects bits of discarded tape containing silences where the speaker had paused. He splices them together and finds it relaxing to listen to these silences at home in the evening. In need of more fix, he follows this up by recording his girl friend’s silences.
Enters Bur-Malotke. A character Murke hates with all the fibres in his body. He is a successful author and intellectual figure and his two lectures on the Nature of Art are being edited by the psychology graduate. The word “God” features 27 times, together with a large number of adjectives and metaphors for embellishment, and Bur-Malotke, not wishing to be thought responsible for contributing to religious overtones in broadcasting, wants the “Gods” replaced by something less pious, like “that higher Being whom we revere”. As a result, the length of the lecture has much shortened, and when the silences are removed, Murke splices them together and is thus able to enlarge his precious collection.
I understood that this was a satire on the attitude of many Germans who wanted to dissociate themselves from their Nazi past.
Fifty years on, I remember many of the details and twists and turns of that story, although I have never read the book.
Not irrelevant to that tale is Wittgenstein’s epigram: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
On our honeymoon, in St Petersbourg (then Leningrad) of all places, my new wife relaxed by reading Doktor Murkes gessammeltes Schweigen und andere Satiren, and then kept me posted of all the developments. I do not read German, and had no need to read translations, as I felt that I already knew the full story.
Readers might like to read “My Best Film Ever” also on Medium