Group Portrait with Lady

by Heinrich Boll
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

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.

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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 house, is confiscated. Making an easy transition from middle class to proletarian, Leni in 1943 takes the job that she will hold for twenty-seven years. Indifferent to social class, race, or nationality, Leni makes wreaths in a microcosm: Pelzer, the nursery owner, is an opportunist forgivable because of terrible memories of childhood poverty; Leni’s fellow workers include Nazis, neutrals, a disguised Jew, a Communist, and a Russian prisoner of war.

The structural and thematic center of Group Portrait with Lady recounts the love of Leni and Boris, the joyful Germanophile Russian prisoner. It begins with Leni’s spontaneous act of humanity: On his first day in captivity, she offers Boris a cup of her precious coffee. The ecstasy of their first touch, hand on hand, illustrates spiritual sensuality. Their lovemaking in the cemetery during air raids demonstrates the power of life in the face of death; their fidelity, the true marriage that occurs when the lovers offer each other the sacrament.

With the birth of Boris and Leni’s son, Lev, during the Allies’ nine-hour raid on Cologne, the mode of narration changes. Au. records fluent accounts of 1945 in the words and voices of the informants: Boris in German uniform is captured by the Allies and dies in Lorraine; Leni, a natural communist who instinctively shrinks “from every form of profit-thinking,” wants to join the Communist Party, but the institution cannot understand her.

Having sold her house for a pittance to Otto Hoyser, her father’s old bookkeeper, Leni from 1945 to 1970 rents an apartment in it and sublets rooms to old acquaintances and foreign “guest workers,” each according to his needs, and charges each even less than his ability to pay. When the Hoysers try to evict Leni in the name of progress, a committee sends a blockade of garbage trucks to delay the evacuation until the eviction order can be reversed. A model of classless solidarity, the committee includes a music critic, civil servants, a small-business owner, German and foreign laborers, and Au. himself.

Although in the span of the book Leni and members of the group portrayed have suffered dictatorship and war, and capitalism and evil have often triumphed, Au.’s report ends as a saint’s life should: with a miracle. Leni’s lodgers are secure. Leni herself is pregnant by a Moslem guest worker. Her brilliant son Lev, a garbage collector who practices “deliberate underachievement” to combat capitalism’s excesses of ambitious overachievement, will soon join her. Even Au. has found happiness with a former nun. At least temporarily, “that which society has declared garbage” has triumphed over capitalistic exploitation.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

Heinrich Böll’s massive novel manages to integrate its in-depth portrait of a woman into a broad picture of postwar German society. Organized like a collage by the unnamed, imaginary author, “the Au.,” the novel is a vast collection of impressions, reports, and interrogations that, at its best, transcends the voluminous mass of facts and presents precisely what its title suggests: a group portrait with a particular individual at its center. The novel unfolds much like a detective story, except that its “crimes” are not sensational or lurid but rather deep and fundamental wrongs against the universal values of justice and charity. The novel’s painstaking dating of material is augmented by the fragmented recollections of numerous characters who give the reader a sense of social, political, cultural, and moral texture.

Leni Pfeiffer, the protagonist, is a forty-eight-year-old woman whose striking physical attributes are in marked contrast to her tainted reputation and her economic straits. Having been an unskilled worker for most of her life, she is now without large financial resources, so she rents rooms to lodgers. Her old-fashioned dress marks her as someone out of place in a world that requires male protection. The novel is composed of the testimony of those who have known her; what emerges is a picture of a survivor. Leni lives in the house where she was born. Enormously sensual, she is laconic, though not bitter, about her troubles. Life has brought her many tests, and she has survived them all, though the emotional costs have sometimes been great.

Böll’s picture of German society contains several factors that account for the peculiarities of Leni’s story. Swept by the political climate into joining a Nazi organization while still young, she lacks awareness of its political dimensions and finds its “den evenings” reminiscent of the oppressive convent piety that plagued her as a girl. Her brilliant older brother is killed in Denmark, and this tragedy is coupled with a family atmosphere riddled with anomalies. Her father, Hubert Gruyten, a mason by trade, becomes a successful construction manager but remains a pathological brooder. Her mother, Helene, a highly literate woman, lacks conjugal harmony and dies in pain.

Leni yields to her cousin, Erhard Schweigert, a nervous and inferior person, but Erhard is shot by a German firing squad. Leni loses weight, turns tearful, and appears to be in an irreversible decline. She does marry Alois Pfeiffer, a man plagued by his own unrealistic expectations, but this marriage abruptly ends with Alois’ death. Leni, however, refuses to mourn for him because he had forced her to have sex against her will just prior to his recall by his army division. Leni experiences two and a half years of tranquillity: She goes to films, practices the piano, takes loving care of her mother, and visits Sister Rahel, the brilliant nun who imparts to her near-mystical notions of sex. Leni learns to think of love as a laying-on of hands and develops a passion for enlarged drawings of human organs, particularly genitalia. She devotes years of effort to a large, uncompleted picture titled “Part of the Retina of the Left Eye of the Virgin Mary alias Rahel.”

The heart of her story is her love affair with Boris Lvovich, a Soviet prisoner of war. She meets him while working for Walter Pelzer’s thriving wreath business, and, ironically, the devastation of war gives birth to their intense passion. Daylight raids allow her a chance to get away from her supervisors and escape into the fields with her lover. She runs enormous risks in sharing food and intimacy with a potential enemy of the German republic, especially as Boris is far from reticent about his behavior. The provocatively fun-loving Boris acquires a taste for German authors and songs. Ironically, his taste incriminates him one day when he is mistaken for a German by American soldiers and captured. The legacy of his love for Leni is a son, who is born in catacomb-like conditions under the municipal cemetery.

A strong narrative pattern becomes quite evident: the continuation of existence amid destruction and debris. The novel is like a kaleidoscope of minibiographies. Although Leni is the main figure, she is by no means the only important one. Her difficult romance with Boris is, perhaps, the most heartwarming section, but there are so many other figures who also suffer and who also compound the question of the inhumanity of postwar German society. By the end of the novel, Leni’s son is a deliberate rebel, and Leni struggles with a quirky, unresolved enigma. She is made pregnant by a Turk, and her life is still without a coherent shape.

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