Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Heinrich Bőll’s “The Laugher”

Read the story.
Or read it in Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories. Edited by Irving Howe and Illana Wiener Howe. Bantam 1982.

Laughter by Umberto Boccioni

Laughter is something we all engage in. But what is it, really? How does it work? Why does it work? Where does it work? What can it signify? Questions such as these are explored in Heinrich Bőll’s tiny powerhouse of a short short, “The Laugher.” For the story Bőll presents readers with an expert on the topic of laughter—a professional laugher.

Bőll begins his three-page monologue with the nameless narrator’s personal experience with his profession. This man of poise excels at his profession, is the best laugher there is. But he is also seized with embarrassment when someone asks him what line of work he is in. Such a question causes him to blush and stammer. That strong ambivalent opening works because it surprises and urges the reader to read on and learn about the cause of the man’s embarrassment and discomfort.

The tone, language, and attitude of this character speaks of someone not usually thought of as a laugher by profession. His overall demeanor is serious, from the beginning of the story until the end, and is definitely not humorous or funny. Bőll provides a highly useful writing technique by immediately defying reader expectations. He defies those expectations for good reasons, to make a fine point, and those good reasons become clearer as the story plays out.

At first this ambivalent attitude is puzzling– embarrassment and pride at the same time. Then the narrator explains it. He is embarrassed because his professional title is not clear like some other titles are (such as a bricklayer or a bookkeeper, etc.). Other professional titles speak for themselves and require no further explanation. But his own profession does require lengthy explanation and results in discomfort when he is asked. So it is not a sense of shame that causes him to redden and stumble. It is a matter of imprecision with his job title.

At the same time he also asserts that he is the best at what he does. He views himself as one who has mastered the finer points of his art. In this confession and display of ambivalence, readers are given an intimate look at this character and a peek into a large segment of his life.

At this point in the narrative, the laugher inserts a back story. In the past he tried to avoid long explanations by calling himself other things. While other occupations might seem similar, they are not the same so he is not comfortable calling himself an actor or a clown or a comedian. Calling himself those other things would not be honest and he claims to love the truth.

He insists that he portrays gaiety but does not himself feel gaiety. He then mentions the various types of laughter he has mastered. All he needs to portray gaiety is a direction from a director. He compares the skill he has acquired to the skill of shoe repair.

The comparison to shoe repair is also surprising and once more defies reader expectations. Shoe repair is a skill most of us could likely acquire. But the narrator also explains that his laughter is so diverse, so far-reaching—he even claims to be an historical laugher who understands laughter from almost the beginning of recorded time and understands laughter from all over the world. It is surprising that he claims his ability is simply a skill like shoe repair rather than an art.

Then he brings the reader back to the present. He acknowledges that he has become indispensible, sought after, and well compensated for his skill.

Then the narrator explains that his specialty is “infectious laughter” and that type, he claims, is the most draining kind. His job requires that he infect others with laughter—he must infect them and lead them into thinking and responding as if what is taking place is exceptionally funny and that they, as followers, are also full of glee—even when and especially if what is taking place is not particularly laughter producing. It is for this “infectious laughter” that he has become indispensible. He no sooner ends one job when more urgent requests pour in.

As done earlier in the story, the character works hard trying to compare his profession to other professions. Just as those in other professions do not indulge in their professions at home, neither does he. He never laughs when off duty and he views this as natural. His natural state is solemnity and those who know him view him as a pessimist.

Then he offers more surprising confessions. He admits he can laugh at a director’s request but cannot laugh for his wife. Home, he claims, is for relaxing and for forgetting his career– a place for shedding his professional cloak and for donning his more natural personality. His career is fatiguing and at home he can relax his “tense face muscles” and relax his “frayed spirit” in “profound solemnity.” Plus, he does not like other people’s laughter either. It reminds him of his profession. He understands perhaps too well the sometimes exhausting nature of social laughter.

The most he or his wife can muster at home is a smile once in a while. They never laugh—which is another surprise and a confession readers might usually associate with trouble. But in this couple’s case, it is not a troubled marriage at all. The marriage seems to be a good one, a solid and peaceful relationship. At home they speak in low tones, not in the gay and loud and raucous tones of many social settings.

The narrator ends his story by wondering if he has ever himself really laughed– another surprise in that he laughs all the time when he’s on duty. He claims he is viewed by siblings as a serious boy and laughter and seriousness do not necessarily go together. He admits that he wears an impassive expression most of the time.

Then comes his final and highly surprising line: “So I laugh in many different ways, but my own laughter I have never heard.”

This is a surprising admission from a professional laugher. It is a “twist ending” in the best sense of that phrase in that the clues to the surprising ending are all there and the story has been carefully building to that end.

But then the reader is left with that information and many readers will wonder about the possibility that none of us have heard our own genuine (non-directed) laughter. Maybe it is a socially manufactured and socially acceptable and socially required skill that is at work when we laugh. Maybe the skill of well-timed laughter really is a manufactured event.

When I think of my own expression when alone, it is likely mostly impassive too. It requires the presence of another person to kick-start my own friendlier social behaviors. The truth the narrator mentioned earlier comes into strong play here at the finish. He loves truth. So it as if he is confessing who he really is–that the professional persona is far from the truth as he lives it and feels it.

We do encounter so much fakery in our culture, in the forms of canned laughter, made up and sculpted movie stars passing as real people, paid-for political propaganda, downright lying advertising claims, faked orgasms, faked flirtations, faked love affairs, etc. We also have large industries to help ensure our perhaps artificial gaiety– the alcohol industry, the illegal drug industry, the legal drug industry, and others. The narrator wants and values truth most of all and he delivers it.

After reading this interesting story, I do wonder if I’ve ever heard my own laughter or was it all manufactured from social expectations? Maybe it is a skill I’ve picked up along the way to ensure that I will play the social game well, too, led, perhaps, in different forms, by this professional type person who is paid to elicit a certain type of response from me.

As I came to the end of this story I was reminded of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In that interesting novel, Kundera’s narrator explores ideas about laughter and claims that to laugh is not always a good or desirable thing. He claims it is one of those too many areas of incontestable meaning in the world. Such a notion surprised me because it is something I had not considered before. Then the notion surprised me again as it played out in Bőll’s story.

Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s most acclaimed writers, adds to Kundera’s ideas on laughter and what he finds interesting about laughter in Kundera’s novel is the similarity between totalitarianism and “the immemorial and fascinating dream of a harmonious society where private life and public life form but one unity and all are united around one will and one faith…” A group laughing together is a form of harmony . . .

At first thought, laughter seems natural, social, even innocent. But this short-short gives readers plenty to think about and try to understand on the topic. Outstanding and memorable flash fiction such as this can linger and set off thoughts in all sorts of directions. The best flash fiction encourages and helps create new or different ways of thinking about any topic, just as art of any kind is able to do. This piece fulfills its important role as carefully created and memorable art.


About the writer:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Heinrich Bőll:
Heinrich Bőll was one of Germany’s pre-eminent writers of the post-WWII period. Bőll won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972.

Image: Laughter by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916). Oil on canvas. 43.3 x 57.2 inches. By 1916. Public domain.