Group Portrait with Lady, the comprehensive novel that earned for Böll the Nobel Prize, is written as the report of an investigator, identified only as the Author (“Au.”), on the lady, Helene Marie (“Leni”) Gruyten Pfeiffer, forty-eight in 1970, who has lived in but not with the Third Reich, the occupation, and the growth of the Federal Republic in Cologne. Au.’s informants and others whose lives touch Leni’s constitute the 125-member group in the portrait. Although Au. professes to be an absolutely objective seeker of facts, he appears instead to be an advocate of Leni as a contemporary humanist saint, an alternate to the ambition-driven heroes of “Christian” capitalism.
Although the first half of the book recounts Leni’s life chronologically from 1938 to 1945, it is distractingly composed of short testimonies from the informants and the longer analytic commentary of Au. Named “Most German girl” in her elementary school for her blondness, Leni, mystically sensual but not cerebral, leaves convent school in 1938 at sixteen to work for her father, a building contractor. In 1940, when her brother and her sweetheart, Cousin Edward, are executed for selling an antitank gun to the Danes in reaction to serving in Hitler’s army, Leni grieves terribly. Yet the next year she marries Alois Pfeiffer, a crude soldier whose lewd dancing she has mistaken for sensual love. When he dies in battle, she does not grieve but renews her association with the sensual, mystical Jewish nun from her convent school, Sister Rahel. In 1942, Sister Rahel dies of malnutrition; Leni’s father is imprisoned for defrauding the government and distributing wealth by means of a dummy company, and all of his property, except Leni’s...
(The entire section is 714 words.)