Seeking the Slant

Marina Warner traces the origins of a lifetime’s curiosity in the power of stories.

The writer Heinrich Böll, recalling his childhood in Nazi Germany, described a schoolteacher who taught Mein Kampf, as he was obliged to do, but had the idea of setting his pupils passages from the book to précis. To some extent, this wasn’t a hard task, since so much of the writing was guff; but it was very difficult for the schoolchildren to produce a summary that was cogent, convincing, or in any way thoughtful, let alone appealing. In this way, Herr Böll helped them see the fascist text for what it was – not by means of heroic resistance, but through covert enlightenment. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant - /Success in circuit lies.’

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