The German author Heinrich Böll’s (1917–85) Group Portrait with Lady is widely considered one of his most important novels because it was likely the deciding work in his selection for the 1972 Nobel Prize in literature. Though the text reaches back in history to address the war—and is therefore often regarded as the summation and completion of his long engagement with World War II—it also lodges a trenchant critique of postwar Germany, deepening Böll’s concerns with continuities from the Nazi time in the German psyche and society.
With the novel’s fictional biographical account of Leni Pfeiffer between the 1920s and 1970–71, Böll is able to reconsider and recast German history in those crucial 50 years. Leni is another of Böll’s nonconformists whose lonely distance from society highlights the inhumane character of institutions, including family, state, and church. For the first time, however, Böll foregrounds a woman protagonist in this nonconformist role. Leni extends the series of renegade protagonists that Böll developed in The Clown and Absent without Leave, but the hopes of such social rebels are now placed in a woman, anticipating The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974), in which Böll would concentrate more specifically on contemporary society. In Group Portrait with Lady, the 54-year-old Böll continued to develop his literary interests and style to create a watershed work that both completes his fiction until that point and sends him in surprising new directions.
The novel, set at the beginning of the 1970s, is narrated by an unnamed researcher who is piecing together information about the adamantly silent, elusive, and even mystical Leni—that is, Helene Maria Pfeiffer (née Gruyter). Because Leni resists talking to this researcher, he relies on reports, meeting minutes, memories, and interviews with people (friends and those who are not friends), which are presented in the novel in a quasi-documentary style. In a series of chapters narrated from varying perspectives, the novel offers important elements of her life in retrospect, as document, memory, and trauma. Leni’s father was a successful builder during the Nazi years, a time during which Leni was sent to a convent school and came under the intellectual and moral guidance of a Jewish nun, Rahel Ginzburg. This relationship points her in a nonconformist direction, but her life otherwise fits other female biographies under the Nazis. With her father’s encouragement, she joined the Nazi girls’ group, married a soldier who was killed on the eastern front soon thereafter, and was left a young widow when Germany was filled with women in black. The darker side of the Nazi years becomes increasingly clear along with this seemingly banal biography: Leni’s brother and cousin are shot for desertion, her father is sentenced to life in prison for alleged fraud in Denmark, and Rahel dies in hiding, concealed but also neglected in an attic by her fellow nuns.
Leni’s life takes a radically different turn when, working during the war, she makes a small gesture of charity by offering a cup of coffee to a slave laborer, a Russian prisoner of war named Boris. This strictly forbidden but fundamentally humanizing moment changes both of their lives: They fall in love, meet during air raids in a “graveyard-paradise,” and eventually conceive a child, Lev, who will follow in his mother’s nonconformist footsteps by rejecting postwar society. At the end of the war, Boris, carrying German identification papers, is arrested by forces from the United States and handed over to the French; he dies soon thereafter in a coal mine.
Since the end of the war, Leni has remained a “statue,” working as a gardener while refusing to join the capitalistically competitive and materialist postwar society. She prefers instead to rent out cheap rooms in her house to people whom society has mostly rejected or forgotten. Relatives of hers, excited by the real-estate opportunity, are trying to remove her from the Gruyter family house, but a Help Leni Committee has formed, and local garbage men, with whom her son works, helps obstruct the eviction.
By the end of the novel, the narrator who has offered this varied and variegated material has joined the Help Leni Committee, and it is clear that he has fallen in love with his subject. In this relationship and in these materials, Böll is both building on and parodying the documentary style that had been popular in 1960s literature. In Group Portrait with Lady, Böll emphasizes how all documents are selective, subjective, and fictional and how the researcher has his or her own agenda, interests, and affective attachments. The narration is episodic and fragmentary, pointing to a complex relationship between reality and fiction, particularly concerning a figure of whom readers never receive a direct picture.
Certainly an important aspect of this elusive and quasi-mystical portrait is its religious overtones: One critic has called Leni a “subversive Madonna,” and the indications are there in her middle name, her social importance, and in the form of a holy family with Boris. Typical for Böll, however, his Madonna leads an emphatically sexually free life and otherwise resists the dictates of the institutionalized church, which was, after all, at least partially responsible for the death of her Jewish mentor. Even as he hints at the importance of a refigured Christian humanism, Böll undercuts its realization in institutions, preferring instead a character who leads her own life and a reader who cultivates his or her own image of this renegade and the history that surrounds her.
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Butler, Michael, ed. The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Conrad, Robert C. Understanding Heinrich Böll. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House 1992.
Crampton, Patricia, trans. Heinrich Böll, on his Death: Selected Obituaries and the Last Interview. Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1985.
Prodanuik, Ihor. The Imagery in Heinrich Böll’s Novels. Bonn: Bouvier, 1979.
Reed, Donna K. The Novels of the Nazi Past. New York: Peter Lang, 1985.
Zachau, Reinhard K. Heinrich Böll: Forty Years of Criticism. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.