Group Portrait with Lady

by Heinrich Boll

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Critical Context

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Heinrich Böll, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, built a reputation for realism and satire. Böll’s links to Ernest Hemingway are evidenced by his interest in character and in prose of unvarnished plainness. His work is also close to that of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, among English-language writers, for he was a notable satirist of a victimizing society. His Catholicism was not as explicit as Greene’s or Waugh’s, for he used religious symbols to explore their effects on character rather than for any overt theological significance. His moral universe often has a Dickensian simplicity in that his good and evil characters are easily distinguished by stereotypical virtues and vices. The good stay together in a homogeneous world because they fear contamination. Consequently, they are removed from direct political activity, which accounts for their ostensible passivity in the face of broad political events.

Böll is most aptly linked to postwar German writers who have found it difficult to deal with the past for both factual and literary reasons. Oppressive memories of suffering and destruction often make it difficult to write with clarity. Moreover, what literary technique to use becomes a problem. Böll allied himself to the movement known as Gruppe 47 because of its express purpose of attempting to use language as a straightforward instrument. Along with members such as poet Gunter Eich, fiction writer Hans Werner Richter, and playwright Peter Weiss, Böll attempted to use clean, nonvisionary language for his realism. He began as an exponent of Trummerliteratur, and his satire is notably critical of materialism and the high-pressure economic competitiveness of modern society.

Böll assumed that the reader has an insatiable interest in facts, and implicit in his approach is the belief that the same story should be able to be told numerous times and in various ways. His arduous attention to details gives his fiction mass and weight, but sometimes the result is a negative one, a blurring of the outlines of his story. Moreover, his long-winded attempts to present all the available evidence dissipate some of the suspense. His satire and wit, however, leaven the heaviness and sharpen his moral directness.

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Critical Evaluation