In 1958, when he was forty and an established author, Heinrich Böll undertook to write what to this day remains the "official" autobiography of his life up to the time the Nazis came to power. The sketch of his early life is a full two pages in length; yet, despite the title "Über mich selbst" the first third has seemingly little to do with the author. It is an attempt to characterize his native city, Cologne on the Rhine. This characterization takes place before Böll even announces the specific day of his entry into the world on 21 December 1917, the darkest day of the coldest winter of the war. Only then does he commence his biography proper. Actually, this delay in the account of his early years serves to emphasize what he regarded as one of the quintessential factors of his biography, the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional ties than have bound him to a city and region of Germany, to a provincial tradition, if you will, hundreds of years old that has shaped his world-view; and imparted a remarkable sense of consistency to his ethos. This tradition is in large measure responsible for Böll's determination from the outset to devote his literary talent to the cause or causes of the underdogs of history, to become, as it were, a mouthpiece for those who have been kicked in the mouth, to become a voice for the perennially voiceless and inarticulate, to become, in short, what would later be fashionably labelled an engaged or committed writer.



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