CECILY. Horrid Political Economy! Horrid Geography! Horrid, horrid German!
—The Importance of Being Earnest, II
German novels haven’t done well in English translation. Foreigners may know that the greatest German poet wrote Werther, but it isn’t read and may as well have been a short story or the opera libretto. Only specialists and college students in the Anglosphere know anything about Elective Affinities or Wilhelm Meister.
So, a German novelist, even a Nobel-prize winner, has something to prove to an American audience. Can Böll out-Faulkner Faulkner? Is his Katharine Blum the equal of Leopold Bloom?
Of the two novels under consideration, Group Portrait is much longer and more complex than Katharina Blum–but both use fragmented perspectives drawn together by an anonymous narrator. In Group Portrait, the narrator is called “the Author” or (“the Au.”). He tells little about himself, though his vanity comes through in the telling; he insists on reporting on the circumstances of each interview, for example:
The Au. (who had fallen behind in his research because of the Clay/Frazier fight) felts some twinges of conscience over the financing of his investigations and the related question of how much the income-tax department was bound to lose.
The Au. in this way resembles so many writers of interminable magazine articles of the New Journalism.
Group Portrait is a life story of Leni Gruyten Pfeiffer, born in 1922 in the Rhineland. She attends a Catholic girls’ boarding school, has a hasty arranged marriage to a man whom she doesn’t really care for and who dies on the Eastern Front soon after. Her true love is a Soviet POW, Boris Lvovich, whose connections enable him to mix with the locals. He meets Leni while employed in a local wreath-making operation. At the time of the Au.’s investigations, she is living alone at age 48 in 1970 and is close to being evicted from her apartment.
As the title suggests, the book develops the lives of the other characters as well. Those still living at the time of the Au.’s investigation give interviews, which he describes. There is a List of Characters at the beginning, recalling War and Peace.
In a ridiculous attempt to be dispassionate, the author consults an encyclopedia on the subject of tears, weeping, laughter, bliss, pain, and suffering, to which he then makes reference throughout as T., W., L., B., P., and S. If you dozed off in the original passage, you need to mark it and turn back for reference. (If a reader did such a thing.)
In Katharine Blum, by contrast, the narrator is invisible, though the various sources of information are identified up front:
For the following account there are a few minor sources and three major ones; these will be named here at the beginning and not referred to again. Major sources are: the transcripts of the police interrogation; Hubert Blorna (attorney); and Peter Hach (public prosecutor, also high-school and university classmate of Hubert Blorna). It was Hach who–in confidence, needless to say–supplemented the transcripts and reported certain measures taken by the police investigators as well as the results of their inquiries absent from the transcripts: not, we hasten to add, for official purposes but solely for private use. Hach was genuinely affected by the concern and frustration suffered by his friend Blorna, who could find no explanation for the whole affair and yet, “when I come to think about it,” found it “not inexplicable, but almost logical.” Since the case of Katharine Blum will, in any event, remain more or less fictitious, because of the attitude of the accused and the very awkward position of her defense counsel Blorna, such minor and very human lapses in conduct as those committed by Hach may be not only understandable but forgivable.
The minor sources, some of greater and some of lesser significance, need not be mentioned here, since their respective implication, involvement, relevancy, bias, bewilderment, and testimony will all emerge from the report.
From the first few pages, we learn that Katharine has turned herself in for murdering a man in her apartment on Sunday of Carnival week in 1974 (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). The story then moves back to the start of Carnival on the previous Thursday to explain how the crime came to be.
Katharine is a twenty-seven-year-old housekeeper for a professional couple, the Blornas–he is an attorney, and she is an architect. Katharine was married for only six months at the age of twenty-one, and then left her husband. She lives alone and is entirely in control of her finances and all aspects of her personal life, emotionally and physically. When at a party on Thursday, she meets a man whom the police have identified as a suspected terrorist. She is brought in for extensive questioning, which is leaked to the newspapers. Sensational speculation follows about her involvement. (“Katharina Blum, Outlaw’s Sweetheart, Refuses Information on Male Visitors,” is the first headline of many articles that appear between Friday and Sunday.) Eventually, she brings the chief reporter to her apartment and shoots him. The novel was published in 1974, during the time of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (think of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, also in the news at this time).
Both novels are ironic and careful to avoid any sentimentality. The reader will sympathize with Leni Pfeiffer and with Katharine Blum in their misfortunes, but neither one is Little Nell.
Both involve Church figures–more obviously in Group Portrait, where a nun from Leni’s boarding school is a major influence on her life and an important source of information. Several Jesuits also are interviewed. The author shows no piety of any sort and apparently no scruples in seducing a younger nun and encouraging her to leave religious life.
In Katharine Blum, there are no religious or clergy who play an important role in the story. Katharine shows no interest in the Church (it is not even clear whether she is Catholic or Lutheran–her celebration of Carnival appears entirely secular). Her parents were suspected of heretical or Communist sympathies and became estranged from the local pastor, who is apparently quoted in the wild first article as saying, “I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.” The Blornas also come under suspicion, and Herr Blorna is almost provoked to violence. Katharina’s mailbox overflows with hate letters.
One learns something of the view of West Germans in the 1960s and 1970s, looking back on the experience of the World Wars (in Group Portrait) and dealing with the confused political present (in Katharine Blum). Both exude the odor of western Europe circa 1970–Danish Modern in a smart apartment block, lust for Virginia cigarettes, and something less than delight with the Turkish guest workers. The humor is of the Cologne variety, neither Southern American nor Irish.