GROUP PORTRAIT WITH LADY by Heinrich Böll translated by Leila Vennewitz McGraw-Hill, $7.95
There are writers who have what can only be described as “star quality.” They may or may not be the best writers, that is another question; they are the visible ones. Even the subjects they choose, the styles they assume, and their timing with both seem like consummate theatrical gestures. After they are dead, after their sometimes charming, sometimes irritating, always diverting presences are gone, the next generation must discover whether they were writers who happened to have personality or personalities who happened to write.
By contrast, Heinrich Böll is one of those writers who can win the Nobel Prize without losing anonymity. Is this difference—say, the difference between a Heinrich Böll and a Günter Grass, who (Nobel or no Nobel) still holds front stage center as the German novelist of the postWorld War II era—a matter of nature’s variations in plumage? Was Grass predestined, for better and for worse, to become a too vivid caricature: celebrity moustache, urchin’s grin, Vote-for-Willy-Brandt button? Was Böll, on the other hand, doomed to abstraction, his only identity tag the rather deadly reputation for being a “Catholic moralist”?
A reader of Boll must conclude otherwise. 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 selfassertion, before the whole German love affair with the will. Grass antiheroes embark on manic quests, counterattacks of the individual will against the corporate will of the state. 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: In Group Portrait With Lady, the completest statement of what he believes, Böll at last has put womanthe-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.
Every artist sooner or later finds the metaphor for his own art: the way to state his business. If for Grass that metaphor is an obsessed dwarf beating a tin drum, for Böll that metaphor may be Robert Fähmel, cue in hand, reducing the universe to balls on a green baize table in Billiards at Half-past Nine (1959). Here is mathematical order, absolute rules, life as it should be. With precise clicks and measured rolls the balls move in their appointed orbits. Nothing else matters, including time. Time stops: “In vain the clocks sounded, vainly their hands moved.” And the will, the selfasserting will, the monstrous will sleeps.
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.
Böll has used a bizarre sort of dossier-collector to document this near miracle. A pedantic young man given to noting people’s exact weight—the svelte Leni, five feet six, weighs 133 pounds in “indoor clothing”—Böll’s narrator is as indispensable as a Greek chorus as he makes his interviewing rounds, digging up the past while chain-smoking cigarettes and chug-a-lugging tea. Yet Böll scarcely bothers to explain what this half-comic recording clerk’s motives are, nor does he seem to care that he is stuck with that clumsiest of storytelling devices, the flashback. For, in contrast to most contemporary novelists, his objective is neither suspense nor doubt but demonstration, conviction. He is an artist dictated to, for once, by his hopes.
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 (he was wounded four times, serving with the Wehrmacht in France and on the Russian front); 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.
Böll cannot change the past; historians, not novelists, believe in revisionism. But in Group Portrait With Lady he allows himself the moralist’s luxury of reconciling his history with his faith. What Leni’s family and friends are testifying to is the possibility of goodness in a world whose possibilities for evil require no testimony. Upon this credo Böll’s sanity, indeed his very life, appears to depend: the will to believe is his form of will. Out of the fragments of testimony, out of the witnessing by dozens of Pfeiffer-watchers over a period of four decades, Böll has composed a stained-glass window to St. Leni. Here, despite all the disguises of irony, is an act of seventies hagiography. Leni reads Kafka and plays the piano, Schubert only. Leni is impulsive (she “never knew what she was doing until she did it”). Her knowledge is strictly intuitive (she was “semior even grossly uneducated”). A certain banality, a certain indifference, characterize her life. She still occupies the apartment she was born in. Assigned to be a wreath maker when soldiers’ funerals were a macabre industry, she remained contentedly in the trade for twenty-five years afterwards. Leni lives through what she touches, through a kind of laying on of hands. Theories, abstractions—the State, the Enemy, even the Family— have no meaning for her. God is what she remembers of a particular Jewish nun at her convent school; worship is painting the six million cones and hundred million rods in the endless portrait she has titled “Part of the Retina of the Left Eye of the Virgin Mary.”
Leni’s family and friends, for Böll’s purposes, are satellites, at worst moons that only reflect her light. Among these are her wartime husband of three days, and two lovers, one a Russian POW who sired her son Lev in 1945 when she was twenty-three, the other a Turkish immigrant laborer whom at story’s end she plans to marry. Curiously, the more minor the character, the more personality he or she seems to have. There is, for instance, a cheery Brechtian nihilist with a glass eye, a missing hand, and a chest full of medals, who sings out as he prospers in Germany’s black market: “Enjoy the war, bud, peace is going to be terrible.” And there is Leni’s casual but rather marvelous friend Elli Marx, alias Liane Hölthohne: a realist par excellence who takes life “tight-lipped, as if she were constantly spitting out cherry stones.” At least one character is set up to illustrate what Leni is not. Eva, the wife of Leni’s wartime employer, is “one of those girls who’re always thinking of higher things; not a bad sort, just a bit hysterical.” Böll sums her up memorably: “Well, she read Rilke and played the flute.”
Leni is Böll’s song of innocence and experience, a promise that private virtue can endure the worst consequences of its time and place. One can imagine how Grass would handle the same theme—indeed he more or less has—with hot flashes of anger and cold flashes of sardonic rage; with the slash of a George Grosz drawing; with nightmares about scarecrows who are men and men who are scarecrows, and a hound of Satan, and, of course, that dwarf beating compulsively on his tin drum. Böll is less sensational, less immediate. He never leaves the reader gasping, as Grass can, with a single effect. He lacks the brilliant slapdash, the sureness of tone, that make Grass, at best, a vocal performance. Yet he has such patience, such staying power. He presses upon the reader, page by page, the violence of his experience, the gentleness, almost sweetness, of his response. What an extraordinary wounded veteran, whose only ambition is to persuade a reader that angels are not incompatible with dung heaps!
That 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.