Heinrich Böll, that loner, that Johnny-come-not-so-lately, that universally sanctioned rebel, that representative outsider of German society, and that same society's accredited prosecutor in Bonn, East Berlin, Rome, and Moscow, has accomplished the rather unique task of turning himself into a praeceptor Germaniae while still remaining a Rhenish rogue.
Authority and carelessness, of course, do not rhyme. Yet nowadays it seems that courtly preachers are only tolerable when they also prove to be court jesters. And herein lies the root of Böll's success as well as his international fame. What he has to offer the world is what it still, consciously or unconsciously, expects and desires from a German writer: morality and an acknowledgement of guilt. At the same time he denies the world what is commonly accepted as German: the thorough and the ceremonious. And what it finds in Böll is precisely what it would least suspect of the descendents of those victorious at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: namely, charm and humor, a certain amount of roguishness that cannot be underestimated, and some touching frailties. He is a preacher with clownish features, a buffoon of priestly dignity. Yet he is no comedian. He does not fool anyone. Disproportionately more clever than all his heroes, he is just as unsure as they are, just as perplexed. He does not think of disguising or concealing his helplessness, and has nothing in common with every other German author who drags this helplessness to market as his crowning trump card.
Paradoxically, it is in this authentic state of weakness that one finds Böll's strength. His fame cannot change the fact that we always seem to feel – and I mean this without the slightest condescension – somewhat sorry for him. Such sympathy, which should not be confused with tepid benevolence, is something he never wished to provoke; his readers nevertheless know this feeling (while it might be alien to the books of Dürrenmatt, Grass, or Uwe Johnson) and it contributes just as much to his success. There are more appreciated and more admired contemporary writers. But Böll, I believe, is loved, and perhaps we can only love when we at the same time feel sympathy. His new book will only heighten this tendency. Yet much like with the novel The Clown, where Böll could attribute the sudden increase in his readership to a hardly inhibited outbreak of sentimentality, so will the dubiousness of Group Portrait with Lady precipitate, in all likelihood, its spectacular success. Already now, a couple days after its first appearance, its publisher has printed over one hundred thousand copies. But the book does not recall The Clown as much as the earlier Böll novel, Billiards at Half-past Nine. For what begins here as the history and portrait of Leni Gruyten, a native of Cologne born in 1922, rapidly widens its lens to the group shot announced in the title. This group portrait will prove to be a swath of society including both multimillionaires and trash collectors; so too, will its time range, which concentrates primarily on the 1930s and 1940s, stretch from the fading Wilhelmine era all the way to today. In a word: a book on Germany much like Billiards at Half-past Nine, only disproportionately more opulent. Never before among Böll's works will one find such a plethora (often a confusing plethora) of motifs and milieus, of facts and figures, of topics and stages. In many chapters we often detect a pursuit for the shape of the subsequent section. And we have a narrator of incomparable observational ability, whose sensitivity and imagination know no bounds, picking from an embarrassment of riches.
So is this a new masterpiece? Alas, this most lavish and indeed most comprehensive of Böll's novels, one distinguished by its generous aims and dimensions, at the same time strikes me as a very unambitious work. The structure is simple and has been tried and tested many times over, most recently in Christa Wolf's novel Reflections on Christa T. The first-person narrator, a shrewd and eloquent man, apparently a journalist by vocation but also an impassioned amateur detective and psychologist, pursues, in his own words, "the discovery of the truth." Böll does not select – as is customary in such novels, with Wolf's being no exception – an already deceased person whose life must be reconstructed, but, for whatever reason, Leni G., a no longer young native of Cologne who has just begun a relationship with a Turkish Gastarbeiter. She refuses, however, to share any information. What is more, many in her inner circle – her parents, her brother, a nun notable for her progressiveness, and especially the three men with whom she was involved during the war – all died long ago. Thus the obstinate truth-seeker must question witnesses and let them tell him not only about Leni, but also about all these people once close to her. In the end, most of these witnesses' statements slip into direct or indirect self-portraits; often, they also assume the dimensions of self-justification. The entire book consists of such memories and depictions (conveyed in direct speech), complemented by some inserted documents and the first-person narrator's own report. His account of his efforts, which incidentally is supposed to be comical in its meticulousness and devotion to the facts, seems in my view tedious and silly. Yet what becomes as we read on more like a collection of small literary works, was undoubtedly planned as a novel with a single central figure and a now still-recognizable fable. In the middle of all this there is Leni whom, I must say straight off, I do not like at all.
That Böll loves simplicity and poverty as virtues in themselves, that he often mocks what we might denote as 'civilized,' that he utterly mistrusts education, are all facts long since known to his readers. And although anti-civilization affectation and anti-intellectual sentiments (examples of both of which, alas, our new novel provides in abundance) strike me as very dangerous, especially today when upon the use of terms such as "intellectual" or "man of letters" one must immediately qualify that they are not meant negatively, I have almost resigned myself to such phenomena in Böll's work (but only in Böll's work!). I cannot help but notice, however, that over time he has accorded his heroes less and less reason. The clown Hans Schnier was still permitted to say some intelligent things, which was not the legacy of the first-person narrator in "Away from the troop": he characterized himself, and not wrongly, as "artless" (tumb). Leni is also "artless," in the negative sense of the word, not that she is ever allowed to recognize this fact. At the very beginning we find: "Leni no longer understands the world; in fact, she doubts whether she has ever understood it." The novel's readers, however, are spared such doubts: it is clear that Leni comprehends absolutely nothing, that she "did not in any way, not even indirectly, have an idea of Nazism's political dimensions," or, for instance, until the end she did not know, "what a Jew or Jewess could possibly be." For a resident of the city of Cologne who by 1945 was twenty-three years old and long since part of the workforce, this ignorance does not imply a limitation as much as a stultification. Does it serve any purpose to place such a figure at the center of a novel critical of that era? Yet as little as this girl understands, just as much does she feel. Bereft of reason, but with one's heart in the right place: a combination so often preferred by German poets, if not quite by the very best of them. Moreover, Böll lauds Lenin's "direct, proletarian, almost brilliant sensuality," to which the energy of her natural mystique is supposed to correspond. She wishes to be deflowered outside, in the open air, perhaps even among the heathers. That all men seem to be after this taciturn lass goes without saying. Yet "no one had wed" this "test subject" because "she was unapproachable." Why is she "unapproachable"? Is she a real girl or simply a symbol?
The fact that Böll had both in mind simultaneously can be deduced from the book's most important period. In 1943, at the cemetery landscaping job in which she works, Leni meets a young (and "oversensitive") Russian P.O.W. by the name of Boris. To spite the Nazis she plies the enemy with a cup of coffee; later she takes loving care of him, even going so far as to accrue considerable debts to be able to keep supplying him with food and cigarettes. And Boris is quite able to show his gratitude. Having an excellent command of German, he acquaints her with the poetry of Brecht and Georg Trakl; he recommends the prose of Franz Kafka; yes, it is this young Soviet, this Russian, who teaches the Catholic girl that had "lived unecclesiastically" since she was thirteen how to pray again. Here the injustice and cruelty of the world during wartime are conquered by the love shared between a German woman and a Russian man. Only when they are being bombed can they be alone. Their rendezvous takes place in the private chapel of a family crypt, because only in a crypt or some other sacrosanct space is there room for love. Admittedly, this is not only a macabre and decorative setting; it is also one whose symbolism leaves nothing more to be desired.
Is Böll fully aware of what he has done here? Does he know that this blonde, true-hearted, simple-dimple Leni, noble, helpful, good, tender, and, as a rule, unapproachable Leni, this Leni who, if necessary, can work herself to the bone, who loves Schubert, who loves listening to sad verse, and who can sing songs such as "The young and beautiful Lilofee" – does he know that this Leni, so naïve and out-of-touch with this world and so connected to nature, corresponds with absolute precision to a fatal German feminine ideal? This ideal haunts second-rate German books, films, and ballads. So whether she treats a Soviet soldier to a cup of coffee, or hands some red wine to a handsome French lieutenant during the anti-Napoleonic German campaigns, or serves mead to a Roman legionary in the Teutoburg forest, or whether, as she does here, she gives herself over to the "starry sky evenly aglow" while lying among the heathers, or to the moon or the sun on some other meadow, it all amounts to the very same thing. No, let us not fool ourselves. This Leni G. is in no way representative or typical of the epoch depicted, nor of our century. She is timeless and eternal. Yet what is being revived here is not really the eternal feminine, but unfortunately – and this must quite clearly be said of Böll with all due respect – a seemingly eternal German kitsch. You can be sure that in German-speaking lands many tears will be cried over the tale of Leni and Boris. Yet we have one consolation: even Böll doesn't quite know what to do with Leni when she is in love and later when she is plagued by bad luck. In the second half of the book he increasingly loses track of her, which never detracts from the novel. It is precisely these small stories and sketches, these humoresques and genre pieces, these causeries and anecdotes where Leni is hardly or not at all the subject, which turn out to be the disproportionately more interesting parts of the volume.
Should researchers (who will undoubtedly jump at the chance to study Group Portrait with Lady – the novel is supremely ripe for interpretation) come to the conclusion, however, that the composition of the whole is well thought out, even perhaps refined, then permit me to say that I don't believe a word of it. The book possesses no recognizable principle of form whatsoever. It would appear that Böll just came up with one thing after another. And off he went, unbothered, unconcerned, and without a scruple, piling up individual pieces into a whole. The merits of these pieces vary significantly: there are footling and silly episodes, then masterful works of genius written as only Böll can write. We also notice how minimal Böll's self-control was when we examine the novel's language. Hardly any attention is paid to age, profession, or level of education, or to the social and national provenance of the witnesses who become narrators; almost all of them speak the same language, a Böll-like colloquial German, which is not as bad as our mounting suspicion that the portrayal of various "informants" is being employed as an alibi for stylistic sloppiness and, worse still, for sheer prolixity. Never before has a great German author written as sloppily as Heinrich Böll has here. This applies to the final chapter as well. Here the author suddenly runs out of steam and ideas, and just like Lessing's Nathan, the novel runs along pell-mell towards an happy ending. Everything is quickly transformed into a fairy tale, recast into the wonderful, and capped with a conclusion of weary joviality. That grumpy-obstinate disposition which had become so important (already known to us from "After a business trip") should in any case not be misunderstood as a form of retraction.
Certainly many things in the novel benefit from this half-happy finale, particularly the sense of anarchy, a prick in the side of the cozy and the comfortable, while many other things are undoubtedly rendered harmless. But this cannot have escaped Böll. In all likelihood he wanted us to turn away from the consumer world and what he terms the service industry, and yet in the end not understand things too mechanically, but rather relativize our world with light irony and winking smirks. In any case, the whole only profits from this mix of doubt and mischief, of hard accusations and lush fun, of bitterness and pleasurability. Miniatures in which both of these feelings surface at once, Böll's repulsion and Böll's humor, prove that his negligence does not indicate a waning of his epic strength. Whatever objections one may have against this book, it offers no small number of plainly brilliant sidelights and impressions, close-ups, episodes, and reminiscences. In an objective, seemingly dry report by a Russian regarding the sufferings of prisoners-of-war, there is nothing new to be discovered; all the same it is chilling because Böll finds the only appropriate tone for such a subject. The description of the daily tasks in a cemetery during the war and the graveyard's habitual practices – wreathes every few days after the burial were taken, freshened up, and resold – is a sarcastic background piece that lets us know more than the weird ridiculousness of burial conventions. The tale of an old Mitläufer and speculator who prattles on wittily and with great pleasure about his alleged difficulties during the Third Reich is absolutely hilarious and renews Böll's status as an philanthropic satirist and ingenious psychologist. And the depiction of the sex scene in the bomb shelter, perhaps the apex of the whole book, expresses more about human suffering during the war than some novels in their entirety.
I do not think that I am exaggerating when I claim that in these and other snippets Böll, like no other German writer, knows how to observe and pinpoint nuance and detail, mood and turns of phrase, sometimes with striking effect, so as to make palpable and visible what one tends somewhat solemnly to call the spirit of the times. Maybe, after all, we should be more content that we have such a great storyteller, instead of getting annoyed that he keeps churning out weak books. If I may make one Biblical reference: God comes to him in his sleep. But he, Heinrich Böll, does not choose at this time to put his talents to good use.