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.)
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...
(The entire section is 780 words.)