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Authors: Heinrich Boll

Group Portrait with Lady


In 1972,
Heinrich Böll
became the first German to win the Nobel Prize for literature since Thomas Mann in 1929. Born in Cologne, in 1917, Böll was reared in a liberal Catholic, pacifist family. Drafted into the Wehrmacht, he served on the Russian and French fronts and was wounded four times before he found himself in an American prison camp. After the war he enrolled at the University of Cologne, but dropped out to write about his shattering experiences as a soldier. His first novel,
The Train Was on Time
, was published in 1949, and he went on to become one of the most prolific and important of post-war German writers. His best-known novels include
Billiards at Half-Past Nine
The Clown
Group Portrait with Lady
(1971), and
The Safety Net
(1979). In 1981 he published a memoir,
What’s to Become of the Boy? or: Something to Do with Books
. Böll served for several years as the president of International P.E.N. and was a leading defender of the intellectual freedom of writers throughout the world. He died in June 1985.

The Essential

The Clown
The Safety Net
Billiards at Half-Past Nine
The Train Was on Time
Irish Journal
Group Portrait with Lady
What’s to Become of the Boy? Or:
Something to Do with Books—A Memoir
The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll

Group Portrait With Lady
Originally published in German as Gruppenbild mit Dame by Heinrich Böll © 1971, 1986, 2005 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne, Germany Translated by Leila Vennewitz. Afterword © William T. Vollmann, 2011

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Böll, Heinrich, 1917-1985.
 [Gruppenbild mit Dame. English]
 Group portrait with lady / Heinrich Boll; translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.
    p. cm.
 Previously published: New York : McGraw-Hill, 1973. With new afterword by William T. Vollmann.
 eISBN: 978-1-935554-96-7
 1. Germany–Social conditions–1933-1945–Fiction. 2. World War,
1939-1945–Germany–Fiction. 3. Germany–Social conditions–20th century–Fiction. 4. Germany–Social life and customs–20th century–Fiction. I. Vennewitz, Leila. II. Title.
PT2603.O394G713 2011


Translator’s Acknowledgment

William Vennewitz, my husband, has given me the utmost in patient and knowledgeable help in this translation, and I am deeply grateful to him.

I wish also to express my gratitude to Professor Frank Jones, of the University of Washington, for his assistance with the quotations from Brecht and Hölderlin. Fragments from these poets appearing, among other quotations, on
this page
are his translations; those on
this page
have been translated jointly by Professor Jones and myself.

Leila Vennewitz



Leni Pfeiffer, née Gruyten


The Families

, Hubert, Leni’s father

Helene, Leni’s mother

Heinrich, Leni’s brother

Lev, Leni’s son

, Wilhelm, Leni’s father-in-law

Marianne, Leni’s mother-in-law

Alois, Leni’s husband

Heinrich, Leni’s brother-in-law

Hetti, his wife


Wilhelm their sons

Fernande, Alois’s aunt

, Otto (Hoyser, Sr., Hubert Gruyten’s head bookkeeper)

Mrs. Hoyser, his wife

Wilhelm, their son

Lotte, Wilhelm’s wife

Lotte and Wilhelm’s sons

, Mrs., Helene Gruyten’s sister and Leni’s aunt

Erhart, her son and Leni’s cousin and lover

, Walter (“Sonny Boy”), Leni’s boss

Eva, his wife

their children
“Sonny Boy’s” father and mother

The Nuns

Sister Cecilia

Sister Columbanus

Sister Klementina (“K”)


Rahel (“Haruspica”)


The Jesuits

    “J.I” and “J.II”

Leni’s Fellow Workers

Grundtsch, head gardener

Helga Heuter

Liana Hölthohne

Ilse Kremer

Heribert Kremp (“Dirty Bertie”)

The Schelf woman

Marga Wanft

Frieda Zeven

Other Informants

Margret Schlömer, Leni’s best friend

Hans and Grete Helzen

An (anonymous) exalted personage

Mimi, his wife

B.H.T., a book antiquarian

Bogakov, a Soviet prisoner of war

Marja van Doorn, the Gruytens’ housekeeper

Alfred Scheukens, convent gardener

Dr. Schirtenstein, music critic

  Dr. Scholsdorff
experts in Slavonic studies
  Dr. Henges

“Fritz,” news vendor

Other Characters

Boris Lvovich, Leni’s lover and father of Lev

Mehmet Şahin, Leni’s lover

Belenko, Kitkin, and Genrikhovich, Soviet prisoners of war

Boldig and Kolb, camp guards

The Au.

For Leni, Lev, and Boris


The female protagonist in the first section is a woman of forty-eight, German: she is five foot six inches tall, weighs 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e., only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight; her eyes are iridescent dark blue and black, her slightly graying hair, very thick and blond, hangs loosely to her shoulders, sheathing her head like a helmet.

The woman’s name is Leni Pfeiffer, née Gruyten; for twenty-three years (with interruptions, of course) she has been subjected to the processes of that strange phenomenon known as the labor process: five years as an unskilled employee in her father’s office, twenty-seven years as an unskilled worker in a nursery garden. As a result of having casually given away, during the inflation, a considerable fortune in real estate, a substantial apartment house in the new part of town that today would easily fetch four hundred thousand marks, she is now pretty much without resources, having, for no good reason and without being sufficiently sick or old, given up her job. Because she was at one time, in 1941, married for three days to a noncommissioned officer in the regular German Army, she draws a war-widow’s pension which has not yet been supplemented
by a social security pension. It can fairly be said that at the present time Leni is finding things pretty tough—and not only financially—especially now that her beloved son is in jail.

If Leni were to cut her hair shorter, dye it a little grayer, she would look like a well-preserved woman of forty; the way she wears her hair now, the discrepancy between her youthful hair style and her no longer quite so youthful face is too great, and one would judge her to be in her late forties. That is her true age; yet she is forfeiting a chance which she should not pass up, she gives the (quite unwarranted) impression of a faded blond who leads or pursues a loose way of life. Leni is one of the very rare women of her age who could afford to wear a miniskirt: her legs and thighs show no sign of either veins or flabbiness. But Leni keeps to a skirt length that was fashionable around the year 1942, mainly because she still wears her old skirts, preferring jackets and blouses because, with her bosom, sweaters seem to her (with some justification) too ostentatious. As for her coats and shoes, she is still living off the high-quality and carefully preserved supplies that she had been able to acquire in her youth at a time when her parents had been temporarily well off. Sturdy tweeds, gray and pink, green and blue, black and white, sky-blue (solid color), and on the occasions when she considers a head covering appropriate she uses a head scarf; her shoes are of the kind that—provided one was sufficiently in funds—could be bought in the years 1935–39 as “made to last a lifetime.”

Since Leni is now alone in the world without constant male protection or advice, she is the victim, as far as her hair style is concerned, of a permanent illusion; for this her mirror is to blame, an old mirror dating from 1894 which, to Leni’s misfortune, has survived two world wars. Leni never goes into a beauty parlor, never enters a well-mirrored supermarket, she does her shopping at a small general store that is about to succumb to the economic trend. She is therefore wholly dependent on this
mirror, of which her grandmother Gerta Barkel, née Holm, used long ago to say that it was a dreadful flatterer; Leni uses the mirror a great deal. Leni’s hair style is one of the causes of Leni’s troubles, and Leni does not suspect the connection. What is being forcibly brought home to her is the steadily mounting disapproval of her environment, in the building and in the neighborhood. In recent months Leni has had many male visitors: agents from credit institutions, bearers—since she had not reacted to letters—of final, definitely final notices; bailiffs; attorneys’ messengers; and, ultimately, the bailiffs’ men to take away seizable goods. Since, moreover, Leni rents out three furnished rooms that periodically change tenants, it was only natural that more youthful males in search of rooms should also have come to see her. Some of these male visitors made advances—without success, needless to say; we all know that the makers of unsuccessful advances are the very ones to boast of their successes, so it is easy to guess how quickly Leni’s reputation was ruined.

The Author is far from having insight into all aspects of Leni’s body-, soul-, and love-life, yet everything—everything—has been done to obtain the kind of information on Leni that is known to be factual (the informants will even be mentioned by name at the appropriate junctures), and the following report may be termed accurate with a probability bordering on certainty. Leni is taciturn and reticent—and since two character traits have now been named, let us add two more: Leni is not bitter, and she is without remorse, she does not even feel remorse at not having mourned the death of her first husband. Leni’s lack of remorse is so absolute that any degree of “more” or “less,” in terms of her capacity for remorse, would be beside the point; she probably does not even know the meaning of remorse; in this—as in other respects—her religious education
must have failed or be deemed to have failed, probably to Leni’s advantage.

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