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.
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...
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