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Between Camus, Sartre, and Genet, Americans rarely escape the educational system without some exposure to French postwar fiction. But when it comes to Germans, it tends to be Sebald or bust. An excellent place to dip your toe in the literature of the Bundesrepublik is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown. Written in the early ’70s about the early ’50s, The Clown evokes that surreal and largely forgotten moment when the German intellect, battered by defeat and riven by Stalin, gave over its Western pole to a resurgent Catholicism, one of the few sources of ethical authority left after 1945. German Catholics, unlike Italian, Spanish, or French ones, enjoyed an initial presumption of innocence when it came to fascist crimes; collective memory in the West managed to Prussify Hitler, collective memory in the West managed to Prussify Hitler, falsely banishing the Nazi legacy to the Protestant North-East (which had conveniently fallen under Soviet control). The novel’s title refers to its narrator, an impoverished professional clown estranged from his coal mine-owning, NSDAP-cum-CDU-supporting parents. The Clown’s life is marked by regret, complaint, and sexual hopelessness. Ferociously intelligent and hauntingly voiced, Böll’s novel lays bare the pathologies of the Adenauer era while exalting the principled abjection and lonely charisma of its sanctimonious narrator. Böll’s jester chafes against the deranged conformism of his ideologically fragile society, repaying his country’s and his family’s big lies with his own weary madness.