Heinrich Böll Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 3) - Essay

Böll, Heinrich (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Böll, Heinrich 1917–

A distinguished West German novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and translator, Böll takes as his principal themes the Christian ideal, and individual and social morality. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

[There] is … an exemplary moral directness to Böll's writing. He has been a steady and prolific worker for 25 years: he was the first to struggle out of the ruins of the German language (as Ernst Pawel put it) and he has continued to strike out at the corruptions and fatuities of postwar Germany with the same clear strength that was so attractive years ago. Like Joseph Heller, who is almost the only major American writer to have praised him, Böll is an expert on wartime jargon and bureaucratic stupidity seen from the bottom up. Böll, too, is an ironic realist who sacrifices a smooth surface for a blunt "comic" truth; he has a very sharp eye for social detail and a fine ear for actual speech; and he is unashamed to talk of good and evil, love and hate.

His new book, "Group Portrait With Lady," was rightly singled out by the Nobel Prize committee as "his most grandly conceived work"; it is as warm and rich as any foreign novel published here in the last few years, and it surely deserves the popularity of "The Tin Drum," "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The First Circle." It … is full of strong human feeling [and] it surveys nearly all of German society over 50 years, and no less than 60 people surround the "lady" of the title.

One must add immediately that Böll is remarkable for his sensitivity to his women characters: among American male writers only Updike approaches him in this. Böll's decision to put a woman in the center of his new novel seems to have freed him from the earnest anecdotal simplicity and the ponderous impacted irony that marred many of his earlier books. It may be that the more direct expression of his strong erotic and moral affection for women has released literary energy blocked by the anger he so often feels toward German men and masculine society. Böll may run on too long in this book, but he isn't struggling with form: for once the many flashbacks don't drag the present action to a halt. The book flows freely; it isn't jammed up—as were the "The Clown" and "Billiards at Half-Past Nine," for all their acclaim….

The charm of Böll's novel lies in the loving accumulation of mundane details, [a] mixture of the commonplace and bizarre. By tracing Leni Pfeiffer's life through half a century of German history, Böll has written a novel celebrating common humanity—or as he puts it, "natural human innocence," which remains unbroken by the weight of politics, war, depression and boom….

It is true that Böll can be too sentimental; at times he indulges in a kind of labored whimsy, and he does unfortunately force a too easy, optimistic conclusion to the plot. He obviously loves his characters more than art, but he has created them so well that we cannot judge him harshly—we read on. In fact he often wins affection for his faults: he tends to overqualify himself ironically, but this is always in the service of truth, not vanity; and he slows his narrative at points to make a further distinction or add another voice with more "evidence," but in this too he is mocking his mock-sociological method and gently drawing attention to the artiface of his novel….

This anticlerical, Roman Catholic novelist has … written a secular story about the workings of grace in a venal society. Seldom in recent years has such a society been so carefully and patiently portrayed. Böll's mundane heroine moves through this fallen world with something of the unselfconscious moral beauty of Faulkner's Negroes and Solzhenitsyn's prisoners. What is especially attractive is that Böll achieves all this without cant; he does not wear his morality on his sleeve. He has indeed epitomized his life work in this book: It reminds us of the virtues and the charms of old-fashioned European Catholic humanism, and it gives old-fashioned pleasures.

Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1973, pp. 1, 20, 22.

One comes to this new and much-touted novel [Group Portrait With Lady] thinking Böll will go down in history with an A+ in pastoral care (and cure), an A in history and conduct, but a C in fictional audacity. Still true, but there's much more to be said.

Group Portrait With Lady is that, but almost as much is Lady With Group Portrait, or Portrait of Group Lady, so vivid and dominant is Leni Pfeiffer, and so various that she seems not one woman but half mankind's epitome….

The further Böll goes, the more he reveals; the more he reveals, the more she becomes a multifaceted Ur-mother, a female Figaro trapped in linear time, a Tess of the Über-Alles, unwilling to talk about herself and in quest of whose story a fictitious author, who throughout dubs himself "Au.," plods from person to person like Father Brown spot-checking the Almanac de Gotha, the amassed West German telephone directories and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Densely elaborate, often to its cost, Group Portrait is a novel that brings to mind the notion that he who collects enough chamber-pots will eventually find the holy grail. The physical leg-work is only a come-on for the nudging, shuffling patience required to fit together the pieces of the Leni Pfeiffer puzzle. It's almost as if Böll has taken a hint from Uwe Johnson's Speculations About Jakob, about a signalman who is killed and about whom numerous people speculate in parochial obliquities. Leni is at least alive, and her taciturn presence gives the novel a structural slyness. Will she, won't she, speak out? No indeed, otherwise Au. couldn't get so vexed and so grubby, or be able to mount inquisitiveness into a mnemonic possession which in the long run leaves him better informed but none the wiser….

Böll's swarm [of characters] includes eight Pfeiffers, six nuns, four other family groups, as well as 12 "other informants" and seven "other characters." Some come into immediate focus and remain in the mind as idle roomers, even when Böll has shelved them; whereas others never in focus obtrude fuzzily and might easily have been treated eclectically and through allusion: a splinter where a wedge is, a wedge for a monolith. But this isn't Böll's way, and such is the penalty of his merits. For him, character is almost all, and his tribute to Dickens in an early essay tips us off….

As for Au., the encyclopedia-addict and expense-account fanatic, he's refreshingly square, haunted by a caricature of himself, of, say, losing all his buttons while smoking too much at the Clay-Frazier fight. His prim civilities frame the swarming group which, more than a photograph, is a mosaic of ants on the move. With so many characters, and with such an appetite for Jonsonian humors, the telling has to be conventional, so the plethora can transcend it.

Paul West, "Late Bulletins from the German Front," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 13, 1973, pp. 4-5.

How can one describe Heinrich Böll's new novel [Group Portrait with Lady] further than its (as far as it goes) apt title does? To begin with, one might suggest that it seems more like a new novel by Günter Grass. Or even a new novel—and, if corporeality is to be expected of this literary form, more of a novel than his earlier ones—by Uwe Johnson. Perhaps, in a period of consolidation, these novelists are merging one into another, eventually to form the definitive German Novelist? In which case the German Novelist will be less grotesque than Grass, less disembodied than Johnson, and less staid than Böll. This might be an excellent recipe….

The form the novel takes is that of a closely researched report, in which the author, tongue in cheek, uses the most extreme procedures of bureaucratic memoranda. He states early on that "important informants will be introduced with exact data as to height and weight." At moments the reader is bound to wonder how the author can keep his tongue in his cheek so long without choking to death. To some extent the sense of artificiality is alleviated by the fact that the author, or "the Au." (as the book has it, in or out of parentheses), comes to take an active if minor part in the action and even falls in love with Sister Klementina, a rather fetching nun who throws off her habit with small reluctance….

Most of Böll's "Group" are survivors, some of them persons of integrity, others not notably so; none of them is a monster. The "Group" is a varied one (the reader would welcome an index to eke out the List of Characters), and the way in which each informant becomes in turn the subject of other informants relieves Leni [the lady of the title] from excessive scrutiny and saves the reader's sense of voyeurism from growing to unbearable proportions….

[It] could be argued that if in this novel Böll has moved in Grass's direction, then in Local Anaesthetic Grass had already moved in Böll's direction, moderating his old flamboyance in favor of a new sobriety. What does matter is that the result is intelligent, inventive, humorous, touching, everywhere humane, and at almost every point eschewing the easy opportunities. In spite of its etiolated style, mixing the bureaucratic with the scientific, Group Portrait with Lady gives off the mixed smells of humanity undegenerate, unregenerate, and, for better or for worse, unremitting.

D. J. Enright, "Cracking Leni's Case," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), May 31, 1973, pp. 35-6.

Heinrich Böll is one of those writers who can win the Nobel Prize without losing anonymity…. The choices—and they do appear to be choices—which have made Böll a private rather than a public personality are the very presuppositions upon which his work is also based. Taken as a total intent, Böll's writing is an act of scrupulous recoil before the horrors of self-assertion, before the whole German love affair with the will…. Böll characters tend to tiptoe in the opposite direction from all the grand Siegfriedian motifs. They are protagonists of withdrawal, of abstinence. Almost passionately passive, they seek some primal stillness, some sublime monotony, some final ceasing, some blessed ultimate peace known only to God….

Women play an all-important part in Böll's stories. In fact, the feminine will as he idealizes it—loving, nursing, forgiving—may represent for Böll the only sanctioned self-assertion. Again and again his scenario reads like this:

Act I: Böll men, tuned to the marching songs of greed and hate, happily sell their souls—their private selves—to the state and go to war, go to hell.

Act II: If not damned, Böll men are certainly defeated. Shocked, mutilated, they wander across crepuscular landscapes exclusively composed, one begins to feel, of abandoned railroad stations and gutted cathedrals: spires in the rubble.

Act III: Almost ceremonially, women, strangers, materialize by the roadside with a crust of bread or a cup of coffee—the stuff of need, the stuff of communion—and offer their gift to the lost soul as he limps by. If these women cannot save him, they, and they alone, Böll implies, can perform rites of atonement. They alone can bring him back into the human race.

In Group Portrait With Lady, the completest statement of what he believes, Böll at last has put woman-the-redeemer at the center. Unlike another Böll title character—see The Clown (1963)—Leni Pfeiffer does not mime a case for the counterculture, striking an antic posture against the "economic miracle" of Germany. Unlike the protagonist of Böll's short novel Absent Without Leave (1964), she does not preach desertion (from the army and, presumably, all institutions) as the highest morality in an immoral world. The genius of Leni is that she neither has to shed a uniform nor assume a mask in order to become herself. She has never ceased being a private person, not even now in the seventies, not even then under the Third Reich. A fantastically youthful forty-eight-year-old about to become a mother for the second time, Leni has survived all the deadliest corruptions of the twentieth century to remain—can one believe it?—an innocent….

What a hard time Böll has suffered up to now from his mad age! An eighteenth-century pastoral poet by disposition, a man given to Eden myths of green and comely primitivism—he made a Gaelic love song out of his Irish Journal (1957)—Böll has been compelled to bear witness in nearly forty volumes of novels, short stories, plays, and essays to something more like Sodom and Gomorrah. He is a twentieth-century artist precisely to the degree that he has written about what he does not like: Hitler's Germany; World War II …; the double degradation of his native Cologne, by the bombing raids of 1945 and by the affluent slag that now pollutes the Rhine as that river flows through….

[The] reader can now like Böll—as this reader does—for "having heart" or dislike him for "being sentimental." But he can no longer fail to put him quite in focus, the favorite past excuse of the lazy. Böll's lines of argument—all his subtle strengths, all his obvious flaws—have found their culmination in Group Portrait With Lady. He has finally disclosed what he had to say all along, and that may be as close to a public performance as Böll wants to come.

Melvin Maddocks, "Heinrich Böll's Song of Innocence," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1973, pp. 95-7.

Group Portrait With Lady is full of fine, small things … and yet it falls short of being the magisterial overview Böll intended—the working through to an unsentimental sense of value redeemed from a dirty past in the personage and body of one middle-aged woman. Böll's failure is not so surprising, for the most recent books of Nobel laureates are rarely their best. It is in his earlier short novels, and especially his short stories, that Böll has excelled. The immense novel does not seem to come as naturally to him as it did to his predecessor, Mann, or his younger contemporary, Grass. Which is not to say that he does not deserve the prize—a dubious blessing for a living writer anyway. It is true that Böll has not written a Magic Mountain or gotten down into the pit, like Grass, to wrestle with the German language in order to remake it. But he has done his part, and sometimes quite artfully, to dispel amnesia, brutality, pedantry. Sporadically he has done it, too, in his dossier on Leni and her acquaintances.

Edward Grossman, "Women, Kindly and Unkindly," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 31, 1973, pp. 33-4.

Group Portrait With Lady, which had been published in Germany before Heinrich Böll won the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, is in a sense the summation of all his work. For although Böll is a very prolific writer he has created a unified fictional world sustained by a consistent moral vision. Born in Cologne in the year of the Russian Revolution, which was also the last of the Kaiser's reign, and becoming a writer only after he had himself fought and been wounded in Hitler's War, almost all his stories deal with the tumultuous era of his own mature life, from the Hitler years to the present materialistic Germany of the so-called 'economic miracle'.

As an outspoken though highly unorthodox Catholic moralist he has been an acute observer and merciless critic of his own society, building up a satirical indictment of its guilty conscience under Hitler and of the spiritual emptiness and hypocrisy of the prosperous industrial wasteland that is West Germany today….

[The] characters who blow up abbeys, burn military jeeps, desert from the army, and even shoot at politicians, are of course images in a fictional world, images of resistance whose equivalent in the real world is not violence but an attitude of critical scepticism. Böll questions conventional attitudes to reality by exposing them to the force of an outsider position which may itself be not without absurdity, but Böll's opponents have however insisted on seeing him as a purely destructive attacker of state and society….

This is really the key to Böll's later work. His early stories and novels deal with retreating armies, shattered cities, and the dazed re-emergence of life from the ruins. Yet despite the chaos and suffering this was paradoxically a time of hope, because the total destruction of the old order gave the opportunity to create new values and build a more humane society. But these hopes eventually founder in a morass of materialism, a glittering facade of neon-lights and prosperous shop windows which fails to conceal the spiritual emptiness beneath. As a Catholic moralist Böll sees this as a failure of the Church: 'fundamentally the whole problem is religious, a life view. But the churches are so closely wrapped up with the success ethic that we can't expect them to challenge the idea.' In fact he sees the Catholic church in Germany as simply one of the triple pillars of the Establishment, which stands as firmly as ever on its base of Church, State and Army, a formidable trinity of vested interest.

For Böll West Germany is the archetype of modern industrial society, which he indicts as greedy and undiscerning, seeking the shadow rather than the substance, with only hollowness as a substitute for genuine values: 'In an oversatiated world the shell is more important than the kernel, which gets thrown away; everything is scraped out of the shell which could possibly hint at content or purpose, and then the shell is polished, because it looks so beautiful.'…

Love between men and women is at the heart of Böll's work. Love helps the individual to find an end to isolation, and even in its basest manifestations it is never totally devoid of a sacramental element. There is in Böll something of the inverted romanticism of Graham Greene, a leaning towards the drab and sordid, a belief that it is in failure and in squalid surroundings that faith can best flourish. There is also a concern with innocence, and one of his basic symbols is the grouping of characters into Büffel (buffaloes) and Lämmer (lambs)—the beasts and lambs of God, the apostles of violence and their innocent victims. Those who have 'partaken of the sacrament of the buffalo' are materialists, fettered to the physical world, literally soulless. It is among the 'lambs', the meek in spirit, that Böll finds genuine spiritual values, and his women, far from being idealised, represent in their very fallibility the humane qualities that he admires….

Böll's increasingly radical criticism of society is intimately bound up with his religious beliefs, the concept of loving one's neighbour becoming a call to active social commitment in resistance to all the pressures which threaten to dehumanise modern industrial societies.

Konstantin Bazarov, "Heinrich Böll: Enemy of Materialism," in Books and Bookmen, October, 1973, pp. 42-5.