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Heinrich Böll: Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady)

This book is certainly Böll’s longest work. Some critics, including The Nobel Prize Committee, consider it his best. It certainly sums up a period of Germany, from about the early 1920s to around 1970. Indeed, Böll has said that Leni Pfeiffer has taken on herself the entire burden of German history of that period. This might be an exaggeration but the fact that she survives a major bombing raid, loses a husband in the war and then fights both the demolition of her house and the pressure to become part of the West German capitalist boom, certainly supports this contention to some degree.

The initial part of the novel is a biography of Leni, her relations and her friends, as told by an unnamed narrator. The narrator gives us his sources (which include some actual documents, relating to the background). We learn, in particular, about the bombing raid but also about her husband, about the Russian prisoner-of-war she meets at work, Boris, and by whom she has a son, Lev, about her father being murdered by the Nazis, about her close relationship with the Jewish nun, Rahel, and about her inability to cope with her finances, resulting, as Böll coyly puts it, in her having a lot of men visiting her house – bailiffs, debt collectors and the like. We also learn what she has for breakfast, how she does her hair, how much she weighs and the photos she has in her house. In short, we get a detailed description of her.

To supplement her meagre income, she rents out rooms in her house to immigrant workers and she even has an affair with one of the Turkish immigrants. The second part of the book is more about this aspect and tells both about the inhabitants of the house but also about Leni’s efforts at resisting her relatives’ attempts to tear down the house and sell it for a profit, which is, of course, what post-war West Germany was about. She is helped by a Help Leni Committee consisting of her tenants and neighbours. Böll has always taken a humanistic perspective and he does so particularly (and particularly well) in this novel. West Germany cannot and should not be just about making money but about people, particularly those on the margins who often get neglected and in Leni and her immediate family, Böll makes this very clear.

Publishing history

First published 1971 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
First English translation 1973 by McGraw-Hill
Translated by Leila Vennewitz