Sunday 9 December 2012

Group Portrait With Lady

Group Portrait With Lady - Heinrich Böll

The form of this book is fictional documentary, with the author interviewing as many as possible of the friends of Leni Pfeiffer (nee Huyten) with a view to establishing the facts about her life experience and character as closely as possible. As well as citing interviewees the author often cites the most mundane opinions as being his own (Au.). However he claims to imagine nothing: "The Au. imagined nothing, his sole desire being for factual information."

This method allows Böll to distance us from the events and to lace the book with industrial strength irony.  And given that Leni came of age in Nazi Germany and was thrice bereaved during WW2, distance is necessary to tell this story.

Distance is also part of the story. Leni seems to exist some way away from reality. "What emerges unmistakably from the statements of the informants is that Leni no longer understands the world, in fact doubts whether she has ever understood it." There is also the distance of time, the distancing effect of memory -  especially the speed with which many embraced new identities behind which to hide their wartime memories. Böll almost quotes Proust in a passage where we hear of Leni having her memory stimulated when "her right foot recognised a slight unevenness in the pavement which it - the right foot - had last felt forty years before." The sensations aroused by this experience, we are told third hand, pass into all her senses and all parts of her body, leading her to experience "'absolute self-fulfilment'", a.k.a. "an 'orgasm'"

But while Proust tries to recreate a consciousness and memory from within, Böll keeps us far from the central figure in his group painting. She is always mediated through the words of others, and then through the author. The more the author draws our attention to the lengths he has gone to excavate some particular memories the less reliable these sources seem, or indeed his transmission of them.

He admits that he may be in love with Leni, and his recounting of interviews with nuns are erotically charged. He is sidetracked by describing the colour and texture of their skin e.t.c. Finally he meets a nun who is known at first simply as K. We are aware of games, of the unreality of what is being presented as reality. Is Böll giving us some of the ingredients of Leni when he lists these books from her library - "seven or eight surprising titles; poems by Brecht, Holderlin and Trakl, two prose volumes of Kafka and Kleist, two volumes of Tolstoy (Resurrection and Anna Karenina)"

It feels like all the distance, the irony and the games are there so that Böll can itch his own scars without drawing too much blood. In an interview with The Paris Review he talks of experiences during and just after the war which are echoed in Portrait. The treatment of deserters and of those who raised the white flag plays a part in the novel and is clearly a war experience that Böll feels a need to write about.

This makes the book something of a wolf in sheep's clothing, Böll clowning around in the guise of the 'au' while he digs into the slagheap of history. Take this "H.'s smile is not so warm, the corners of his mouth already showing a trace of that nihilism that is commonly mistaken for cynicism, and that for the year 1939," "can be interpreted as somewhat premature, in fact almost progressive." This refers to a photo of Leni's brother Heinrich.

Leni works as a wreath maker during the war. It is a booming trade, although materials are hard to come by and profits are to be made by engaging in recycling. To facilitate this they start to try and make the messages worked into wreaths less and less personal. Death came in his carraige with a full complement of retainers - "in late 1942 and early 1944, the burial of all categories of German dead represented a constant challenge: not merely to cemetary custodians , wreath-makers, priests, grandiloquent Lord Mayors, regional party leaders, regimental commanders, schoolteachers, buddies, factory foremen..."

This is another theme of the novel, people's names being stripped from them.  Character's end up using false names and carrying false papers. The author refers to many people by their initials only. Some characters remain unnamed for reasons of privacy. One can't help but think of the dehumanising effect of the war, and the way people were processed as if they were mere goods.

In a contrapuntal movement Leni's father peoples a dummy company with the names of characters from nineteenth century Russian literature. The names are provided by an academic and it is a rival academic, working for the tax department, who sees the payroll and realises that the names are clearly not referring to real people. It can be read as if the exploration of the individual is now false. Or we can take the "author's" reading. "The moral of this interlude is self-explanatory: contractors who keep forged payroll lists should have a good literary background and - tax auditors with a good literary background can prove to be of undeniable usefulness and benefit to the state."

Emotions, too, are obliterated, with the author using P and S and W and T and B to refer to pain and suffering and tears and bliss. He looks in his encyclopaedia to find out what these words mean, but it is not much help. Has simple human emotion been made unutterable, meaningless?

Another running 'joke' is his constant references to his expenses, and how he will claim them against tax. The way the Nazi's carefully accounted for the costs of transporting people to concentration camps is indirectly echoed in these asides.

All the time there is a sense of how easily life could be lost in Germany during the war. A careless word, having the wrong enemy, having the wrong friend, the wrong identity - any of these could be your death warrant. And as the war drew to an end this became an even greater threat. "There it had been in black and white, ever since October, on billboards and leaflets, that the entire German nation would be relentless in demanding just atonement for alarmists, defeatists, pessimists, lackeys of the enemy - and this atonement had but one name: death."

I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating novel. It makes me more determined to continue to read more Böll. His work is thoughtful, strange and is not afraid to wrestle with problematic subject matter. I have previously read The Safety Net, and in my pre-blog days Billiards at Half Past Nine. Both are highly recommended also.

p.s. This post is chronically late for #GermanLitMonth and even late for #GermanLateMonth and as for the blog on Peter Handke's The Left Handed Woman, that will be too late for #GermanEvenLaterMonth.


  1. I picked this up last year hope have it read next year ,like you I love his work too billards at half nine is one best german books I ve read and have a number to read on my shelves ,all the best stu

  2. The distancing techniques + the "industrial strength irony" make me think I might really enjoy this one, so I hope you and I can agree on a time to read The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum together sometime next year for what would be my first Böll. In the meantime, hope you get over the illness you mention in some of your more recent posts and thanks for a great year of reading at your blog--what a happy surprise it was to discover it earlier in the year!

    1. Richard - I'd love to do a parallel read of The Lost Honour... I'll let you know once I've acquired a copy.
      Thanks for your kind comments on the blog - it means a lot coming from you as yours 9s certainly one of the best lit blogs I've come across. I'm loving Hopscotch at the moment although unable to read at anything other than a glacial pace. I decided to read straight through and then to 'Hopscotch'. Some of the chapters are absolutely wonderful. I can't understand why it's not on far more 'best of' lists.
      I hope to be recovered for my Christmas dinner. Not being able to eat then would be a downer.