Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Boll

by Robert A. Parker

Heinrich Boll won the Nobel Prize in 1972, soon after publishing this novel in Germany. I bought this copy shortly afterwards, not least because I knew the author was Catholic, and believed he would write from a frame of reference that I was familiar with. However, on checking out other novels of his, I found them difficult to relate to. So this novel has been on my shelf for a long time.

Another reason it sat there was my understanding that it did not probe the interior of its characters, neither the psychological nor the spiritual side. But given Boll’s enduring reputation, I finally decided to give it a try.

And immediately discovered that here was quite an unusual novel, one that broke a familiar rule: show, don’t tell. For although this seemed to be a story about Leni Pfeiffer and her family and friends, we were not directly watching her or her friends as they lived through World War II in the Rhineland region of Germany. Instead, we were observing them at a distance, because their story was being told to us by an Author, who, in turn, has earlier interviewed these characters and is now relating to the reader how each of their lives had intersected with the life of Leni.

And yet, even with a major rule broken, I found myself fascinated.

As I recognized that I was in the hands of a master. Who had given this work a very appropriate title. It is indeed a portrait. In which the focus is on the group, even as it pretends to focus on Leni. That is, the novel has the feel of a documentary, as if an objective portrait of Germany during and after World War II is being conveyed through these personal narratives.

However, Richard Locke in the New York Times has cited a much grander achievement. “By going into biographical detail, Boll dramatizes the impossibility of generalizing about people, makes us feel the vast gaps that exist between political slogans and moral actualities, between those who slyly ride with the times and those who, like Leni, may lose their wealth, their family, their social position in the world, but gain their souls.”

The Author opens this work with Leni at age 48 in the 1960s. He describes her circumstances. She is indeed in debt, under threat of eviction, and her son is in jail. The Author then introduces the people who will tell her story, family and friends, co-workers and professionals, all of whom will become part of her life—especially during World War II, but also after.

But, fascinated as I was, I did not find Leni’s story that interesting. Overall, she is too passive, accepting rather than resisting her circumstances. She is far from a rebel—more a romantic focusing internally on love in order to survive. Indeed, a commentary in Kirkus Review calls this work “an elaborate dossier-type anti-novel all about a somewhat dreary heroine suffering pangs of the Zeitgeist.” On the other hand, Locke cites Leni as “a figure of beleaguered virtue shining in a world of vice, misery, destitution, a world vigorously portrayed with comedy, bitterness, sorrow and tenderness.” My only reaction: to each his own. I prefer characters who react to their fate, not a detailed portrait of the circumstances they are reacting to.

Nor did I find interesting the interactions between Leni and those she lived among—even though this novel attempted to offer a comprehensive portrait of life inside Germany during World War II, with all its contradictions, and with its citizens struggling for survival amid the madness and destructiveness of war. The Kirkus review, however, is more critical: “Leni’s school days with the nuns, Leni’s bad days with the Nazis and the Russians, Leni’s amours and marriages, Leni’s complicated adventures during the war and after the war (the reader never did get them straight), Leni’s slightly paranoid middle age—the fortunes of Leni’s life are meant, of course, to represent the dehumanizing effects of history on a free soul. But Leni’s ‘informants,’ though varied, are a toneless lot, and Leni herself a bit dim.”

What fascinated me more, that is, was not the story but the method behind Boll’s story telling, a method that slowly portrays the hard life of Leni and the sixty other characters—characters not always easy to differentiate—whom the Author interviewed because their lives intersected with her own.

And yet, of course, this story of civilian life in Germany during World War II earned its own interest. Even as some details in Leni’s life did not, such as her brief marriage with Alois, who is killed in Poland three days later, or her brief love affair with her cousin Erhart. What was much more interesting is Leni’s long affair with Boris, a Russian prisoner of war who is released to work alongside her at a local nursery. The novel’s narrative high point occurs when they conduct their affair in a cemetery vault, primarily during air raids. Such circumstances emphasize the complexity of their affair, and the emotional link between these two people drawn together despite different life experiences and separate national loyalties. And while this allows Boll to explore her friends’ mixed reactions to their affair, it does lead to an arbitrary decision by him to continue her portrait as a victim.

The World War II experiences comprise about 75 percent of the novel. The 25 percent that follows is much less interesting, even confusing at times. One reason is that it switches from personal interviews to professional reports with all their purported objectivity, all their jargon; and this jargon holds the reader at an even greater distance than do the Author’s interviews.

Much time is spent at the end telling the story of Lev, Leni’s son that she had with Boris. Lev is now in jail for forging checks in order to provide his mother with funds to pay for her home. There is little, however, about Leni herself, about her involvement with her son or her concern for his problems. There is more, in fact, about her friends’ struggles in post-war Germany. Indeed, the novel seems more interested in wrapping up the lives of these friends we have met through the Author—and providing this information through official reports that eliminate any drama—rather than bringing us back to Leni herself, and any issues she is facing in adapting to life after the war.

This complex novel and its objective approach certainly does not encourage me to look up more of the author’s work. (February, 2018)

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