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Friday, January 13, 2017

Group Portrait with Lady (1971) by Heinrich Boll

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Heinrich Boll, OG meme.
Book Review
Group Portrait with Lady (1971)
 by Heinrich Boll


   Group Portrait with Lady is typically referred to as Henrich Boll's masterpiece.  In 1972, Boll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the accompanying Press Release issued by the Nobel Prize committee said, "Last in line comes his most grandly conceived book [,] Group Portrait with Lady, published only last year."  (Nobel Prize Official Website)  Later in the same statement, the committee refers to Group Portrait with Lady as his "crowning achievement."  Unlike his other books on the 1001 Books list, Group Portrait with Lady is lengthy, just over 400 pages in standard hard back format.

   Group Portrait with Lady  takes the form of an investigation of the main character, Leni, the daughter of wealthy construction magnate (at the beginning of the novel).   Leni lives in western Germany, and the spectrum of her experience in the wash of World War II ranges from people like her father who were Nazi's as a business opportunity to various Communists, Jews and Western Germany "separatists" who are trying to survive the war.   The investigation consists of dozens of interview's with Leni's friends and family, the narrative takes the form of the familiar "oral history" beloved by publications like Spin and Rolling Stone.  Boll is no stranger to a kaleidoscopic narrative with dozens of narrators, but in Group Portrait with Lady the introduction of a narrator/collector makes it much easier to read than his other books.

    The format- a post-some-undisclosed-event investigation of the protagonist, assumes that Leni requires explaining, that she has done something bad in the present of the book, and this misdeed is barely hinted at, let alone discussed.   This lends the narrative some weight, and unifies the dozens of separate interviews covering the whole of her life.   It is rare to see such a straight forward relationship between a single work and the award of a Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Nobel Prize for Literature has two major rules: 1. It doesn't award the prize for a specific work. 2. It doesn't award the prize to dead people.  Thus, for the prize and a single book to be tied so closely together is a notable achievement in the field of 20th century literature.

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