The Clown was written in the early 1960s, and set in post war Bonn primarily, where Germany was struggling to create a postwar identity. It was a country still coming to terms with the Nazi legacy while bourgeois values were beginning to come to the fore, overshadowing the long-dominant Catholic morality.
When I began reading this book, I had been used to reading the kinds of books in which the story was all; the kind where you go tearing through them, line after line, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, in hot pursuit of what happens next.
I took off down the first page of this book in the same vein, but soon was brought up short. This is not the kind of book where ‘what happens next’ is the holy grail. It is a character-driven, introspective work, with wry and sardonic observations on religion, (Catholicism in particular), Protestantism, atheism, and his own belief — can we call it ‘nothingism’? It ranges over politics in general, the mundanities of daily life, love, emotion, leisure, and art.
This, for me, is the kind of book where you savor the observations, the insights, the thoughts. The storyline is simply a cart upon which to pile and carry along these notions.
It is the story of a young man willfully living on the margins. Hans Schnier is a professional clown, or perhaps more of what we would call a comedian or comic, rather than a circus clown. He is fairly successful, and has lived in sin with the love of his life, Marie, whom he met as an older teenager. The two travel around together to the venues where his agent has booked his act.
Marie is a staunch Catholic, and agreeing to live and travel with Hans is a big deal. She has a couple of what we are given to know as miscarriages, but after an incident much later, we might suspect they were abortions about which the besotted Hans is clueless.
Marie starts pressing to get married, and he is not against a civil marriage, but she wants him to sign a paper that their children will be brought up in the Catholic faith, which he is adamantly against. Eventually, Marie leaves him, and marries a mutual friend, a good Catholic at which point Hans pretty much falls apart.
It is told in first person narrative, and we learn of his stingy though wealthy family, his various acquaintances, and his deteriorating romantic situation with Marie, and now his overwhelming and paralyzing grief in bits and pieces.
He has finally reached the place where he cannot go on with his act, and fakes a stage accident, damaging his knee, so that he can go back to his apartment in Bonn and wallow in his grief at losing Marie, and now being penniless (or should I say pfennigless), starts a series of phone calls to beg for money, each call being the opportunity to reminisce about their shared history.
At time poignant, at times frustrating, at times really quite funny, it is at bottom the story about the outcast against society, and about personal choices for the good or the bad.
How about a few quotes:
Life goes on, or something of that sort, but I knew very well; that wasn’t so, it isn’t life that goes on but death.
Kalick was nothing but a political scandalizer, and wherever he appeared he left scandalized people behind him.
They failed to grasp that the secret of the terror lay in the little things. To regret big things is child’s play: political errors, adultery, murder, anti-Semitism – but who forgives, who understands, the little things?
I am afraid of being spoken to by half-drunk Germans of a certain age. They always talk about the war, think it was wonderful, and when they are quite drunk it turns out they are murderers and think it wasn’t really “all that bad.”
There’s nothing more depressing for people than a clown they feel sorry for. It’s like a waiter coming up in a wheelchair to bring you your beer.