Group Portrait with Lady
by Heinrich Böll, translated by Leila Vennewitz
McGraw-Hill, 320 pp., $7.95
How can one describe Heinrich Böll’s new novel, 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 book, translated by Leila Vennewitz with a splendid air of authenticity, is a portrait, as the title indicates, of a lady, Leni Pfeiffer, at the time of composition forty-eight years old, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, or “informants.” 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. (There may be here a manifestation of Böll’s equivocal feelings about Catholicism as evinced earlier in The Clown.)
Even so, some embarrassment remains. The Au.’s poker-faced verbatim reproductions of the reports of his informants are supplemented by a psychologist’s “psychogram” replete with technical terms and their abbreviations, in which quotation marks surround lay expressions which somehow still have to be employed, and a police officer’s deposition is included as part of the evidence. This mode of telling a story inevitably has this effect: where the author assumes the role of a detective, the reader is forced to become a voyeur. “Although obscenities will be avoided wherever possible in this report, for the sake of completeness it may be in order to describe the sexual enlightenment offered to the girls before they left boarding school….” Moreover, these informants and report writers have something of the loquacity and taste for detail of Richardson’s Pamela.
One sees the advantage of this procedure—for one thing it preserves Böll from that faint (though I never thought especially distasteful) sentimentality to which he has inclined in his handling of put-upon characters whom he admires or pities, for another it is itself a comment on our brave new world of insolently brisk computers and identikit psychologizing. But it exacts a stiff price …