Lenz, Siegfried (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Siegfried Lenz 1926–
West German novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.
Among the foremost authors of contemporary German literature, Lenz is known for expressing humanitarian concerns in his fiction. Although his works maintain a distinctly German identity, their themes are universal, presenting current issues and problems.
Lenz's novels Das Feuerschiff (1960; The Lightship) and Stadtgesprach (1963; The Survivor) were translated into English in the early 1960s but did not receive a significant amount of critical attention in the United States. Stadtgesprach, however, is now noted as an important introduction to Lenz's recurring themes: duty, and the causes and nature of inhumanity and guilt. With the publication of Deutschtunde (1968; The German Lesson), Lenz gained international recognition. Most critics judge this novel to be Lenz's masterpiece. Here he fully develops early themes and examines how the lives and minds of Germans were changed by World War II.
Lenz's short stories are noted for their concise style and credible characterizations. In many of these tales, Lenz analyzes the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The same theme emerges in such later novels as Das Vorbild (1973; An Exemplary Life) and Heimatmuseum (1978; The Heritage).
All of Lenz's work displays his subtle sense of humor and perceptive sense of detail. Though critics consider his recent book, Der Verlust (1981; The Loss), slightly mawkish, they agree that its subject, the loss of speech, leads to an insightful study of language and silence.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
[In The Survivor Siegfried Lenz] created a dilemma of a not unfamiliar sort. The Resistance in a Norwegian village has tried to assassinate a German general. In retaliation, the local commandant has taken 44 hostages—the leading men of the town—and intends to shoot them if the leader of the Resistance does not give himself up.
Which is more important, continuing the Resistance or saving the lives of the hostages? Accepting the hypothesis that the cause of the Resistance was just in an absolute sense, there really is no question, but the right decision is the one that raises particularly painful questions of individual morality. The exploration of these problems is the main business of...
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[While so many of Siegfried Lenz's stories are] firmly set against the background of modern Germany, he is not just a chronicler of his country's recent history and present society, important as this function of the contemporary German writer continues to be. He sees himself as a reformer, but he insists that his protest is subordinated to, and conveyed by, his art…. Lenz, we may add, although delineating German scenes and situations so vividly, tries to look beyond them to more universal issues. This may be illustrated by his tale Stimmungen der See, which depicts the clandestine attempt of three men to cross the Baltic. On internal evidence alone, it is hard to decide whether the action occurs during the...
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Herr Lenz is perhaps regarded most highly for the distinction of his contributions to the short story and the novel; it is in these fields that his major publications have so far lain. His most recent book, this collection of four radio-plays [Haussuchung], illustrates something of the imaginative range to be found also in his prose fiction. Precision, care and felicitous craftsmanship reveal themselves in the neatly rounded construction of these works, where dialogue and scene-sequence are presented economically and convincingly….
The author has the gift of making his reader feel quickly at home in his imagined world and of proceeding without further delay to sustaining our interest in this...
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Siegfried Lenz's latest novel, [Deutschstunde (The German Lesson)], may well be the most successful work of fiction to appear in West Germany since the war…. The book has attracted both the public's interest and an almost universally favourable critical reception. Deutschstunde is neither a simple nor an inexpensive book and its impact represents a very interesting phenomenon indeed. It shows, for example, that "Bewältigung der Vergangenheit" is still a living issue in West Germany, despite the desire to "forget it all", of which we often hear. On another level, the success of Deutschstunde also demonstrates, as does so much of Herr Lenz's work, that the trend to "documentary" literature in...
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The immediate appeal of The German Lesson … has a good deal to do with the strict limits Lenz observed in writing it…. [He] is a master of minutely observed detail…. [He] has confined himself to a single setting, deliberately excluding all reference to anything outside the experience and consciousness of the characters—provincial characters at that, even though one of them is a painter with an international reputation.
The greater part of the action takes place during the last two years of the Second World War, at and around Rugbüll in Schleswig-Holstein, close to the Danish border. It is narrated in retrospect by Siggi Jepsen, who has been told to write an essay on "The Joys of Duty"...
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I'm finding it very difficult to choke back hostility to Siegfried Lenz's "The German Lesson," to resist complaining that a certain ponderousness weighs it down, a certain unwillingness to come to the point, a certain metaphysical elusiveness. I want to indulge my prejudice against the Teutonic imagination, to agree with a not unperceptive student I once knew, who in a fit of exasperation with Johann Fichte (I believe it was) scrawled at the bottom of a term paper the message that "GERMANS CAN'T WRITE."…
My inclination is to sum up Mr. Lenz's plot and theme with a series of questions that may make his work sound somewhat less than compelling. Why is the story's hero, Siggi Jepsen, locked up in a...
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There was little in Siegfried Lenz's two earlier novels published here [The Lightship and The Survivor] to herald the beauty and richness of The German Lesson. Both struck me as heavily upholstered short stories….
Both books were well written, but neither amounted to more than its synopsis; one feels that the author conceived the theme first, and only then clothed it in incident. In The German Lesson it is the other way about: The theme grows irresistibly out of the material. Since the theme is the joys of duty as experienced by a law-abiding, indeed law-enforcing, German under the Nazi regime, Lenz takes us to the heart of the 20th-century agony. This is, then, an...
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Rarely is a novelist able to operate successfully in several simultaneous dimensions—personal, historical, and esthetic—without resorting to allegory, artifice, or just bad writing. In The German Lesson, Siegfried Lenz turns the trick. He has created characters with profound political and artistic significance who never lose their credibility as people….
The implications of this story are so broad that they form a kind of invisible picture of the most fundamental characteristics of the modern age: the conflicts between art and totalitarianism, between blind obedience and the dictates of conscience, between family and society, between freedom and responsibility, between the writer and his...
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The German Lesson is good, but not nearly so good as it appears. Siegfried Lenz writes in what I'd call the accretive style: sentences go three steps forward, two steps back. There is an illusion of lush detail, great perception, but the novel is like a box of cornflakes: it tends to settle in transit…. The German Lesson reads like old Dr. Kildare dialogues, not memorable, but very memorizable….
Lenz imitates—but seldom approaches—really hard and incisive writing.
This, of course, is the Gunter Grass style. Siegfried Lenz does seem awfully derivative. If either novelist should happen to pass, say, a paint factory, there will follow one chapter, perhaps two...
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Das Vorbild [An Exemplary Life] tells the tales of a small but ill-assorted official committee in search of a model (potential idols appear along the way, but a model is what is wanted), an agreed example of estimable attitudes and behaviour which, if suitably written up, might be included in a textbook for use in German schools.
Lenz is an accomplished short-story writer, and any quest for neatly depictable episodes which demonstrate the ways in which more or less admirable people think and act would give his talents scope. The scope in this case is vast, since the stories under scrutiny are presented not with their inventor's commendation but, in essence, as the choices made, the...
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[An Exemplary Life] is an exemplary novel. It is on the abiding subject of all good fiction—how should one live now?
Three people have met in Hamburg to edit an anthology for children, and in order to fill one chapter they must find some life-story which will serve as a suitably inspiring model for the young. These three consist of Pundt, an ageing schoolmaster, Rita Sussfeldt, a freelance busybody, and Heller, a trendy growing a little long in the tooth. Although they have been somewhat stylized respectively as conservative, shambolic liberal and progressive, they are scrupulously characterized as well….
Not surprisingly, no single piece of anthology prose can be...
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Despite his major reputation in Germany, Siegfried Lenz remains virtually unknown in the United States…. Perhaps this can be traced to his lengthy descriptions of unknown German landscapes, both physical and cultural. His lingering on Frisian village scenes and, even more, his plumbing of the German soul may have left Americans at a loss. In this country we have moved so drastically from even minimal concepts of duty and discipline that the representation of their misuses in German life apparently failed to strike a meaningful chord.
That was one of the central messages of The German Lesson: how duty, often a desirable quality, was converted into a fatal political liability as loyal Germans...
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["Die Phantasie"], the last, longest, and most recently written of the thirteen pieces which go to make up this collection, Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg, is, if not the best, certainly the clearest single illustration of [Siegfried Lenz's] thematic inventiveness that one could hope for in what is still, after all, a shortish story of some forty-five pages. Three writers of differing artistic persuasions meet in a pub and agree to show each other their paces by improvising tales which might explain the presence there of the unknown couple in the corner—their only fellow customers. All three are, of course, Herr Lenz: Klimke, who is "convinced that one can only reveal reality with the aid of the...
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The basic theme of [the novel Stadtgespräch (The Survivor) and the story 'Das Feuerschiff' ('The Lightship')] is the choice of evils imposed when hostages are taken for any purpose. That they come to different conclusions—insofar as they come to conclusions at all—is probably inevitable. The increase in kidnapping as a political weapon over the past few years has, moreover, sharpened the sensitivity of the reader to the problems inherent in this kind of theme, but an increased awareness of the possibilities of such a situation has not made the possibility of a general solution any more likely. Lenz does, of course, treat the theme in his drama Zeit der Schuldlosen, and the 'experimental' situation...
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In his weighty book [Heimatmuseum, Lenz] tells the story of a Masurian Heimatmuseum, from its creation by an uncle of the narrator Zygmunt Rogalla, through its sixty-year history up until its deliberate incineration by the narrator himself. Like the situation in Böll's Billard um halbzehn in which Robert Faemel blows up the monastery built by his grandfather, Rogalla's Akt der Befreiung is similarly motivated, even though the reasons for the museum's destruction are several and fundamentally more complex than in Böll's book. They generate the overall suspense of the novel and are only revealed at the book's end.
Heimatmuseum should appeal most favorably to those...
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"A detestable word? A word with a dark history?… I realize that the word has a bad reputation, that it has been abused, so seriously abused that one can hardly use it nowadays … But for that very reason, could we not try to rid the word of its bad connotations? Give it back a sort of purity?"
The word is "homeland," and the speaker is Zygmunt Rogalla, master weaver of rugs and the narrative of Siegfried Lenz's new epic fable ["The Heritage"]. Its original title, literally translated, was "The Homeland Museum," and its theme is the vast gulf between Germany's past and present: a gulf created by the Nazi's unscrupulous use of the idea of homeland, heritage and history to justify and legitimize...
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The concept of "Heimat" has no adequate equivalent in English because German history has charged it with such disreputable connotations. The Nazis appropriated the word for ideological purposes…. The concept of a traditional, regional home was already strongly rooted in popular consciousness, and it was not long before the word "Heimat" no longer implied sentimental feelings towards one's own homeland, but rather patriotic feelings towards the "völkisch" element of the rural past, a reverence for all things that purported to be of ethnic German origin….
This atavistic "heimat" ideology was naturally of great significance in East Prussia, a province separated from the fatherland for a second time...
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The complex and still-youthful hero of Lenz's novel [Der Verlust] suffers from aphasia, the loss of speech. Through the elevation of this affliction to metaphor Lenz transforms his narrative into an essay upon language and silence, grounding it firmly in territory explored by Wittgenstein, George Steiner and Peter Handke.
Uli, the central figure, is a gifted and charismatic person, rich in imagination but unable to make final decisions about his life. He exists as a drifter, keeping all options open. His failure is expressed most intensely in his tenuous relation with the major female figure of the work; here the ultimate breakdown of communication manifests itself. With subtle care, Lenz...
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The image of blindness, actual physical blindness, appears in literature from the earliest times to our days. When we confront the image, a bewildering array of possible interpretations leads into seemingly different directions. On the surface, blindness, like any other physical or mental impairment, has a negative meaning. Yet, on closer examination, another, positive, side appears and, in turn, suggests an ambivalent, two-sided structure of the symbol. It is perhaps the richness of allusive meanings which accounts for the fascination it holds for writers and which makes it a most appropriate symbol for our times. (p. 671)
For the writer Siegfried Lenz art is responsibility and commitment and the...
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Lenz, Siegfried (Short Story Criticism)
Siegfried Lenz 1926-
German short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
Along with Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, and Martin Walser, Siegfried Lenz is a leading figure in post-World War II German literature. Best known for his novels, Lenz has also garnered popular and critical acclaim for his stories, which are noted for their realism and traditional narrative style. His writing often probes themes of duty, authority, and responsibility, though the political resonance of his fiction is more often understated than overt. According to William P. Hanson, Lenz's "ultimate interest is in people and their relationships, and the multiple possibilities inherent in human character. Not the black and white strokes, but the grey shaded areas of human experience are what he can reproduce with a fine sensitivity. Responsibility and aspiration, indifference and weakness are his chief concerns."
Lenz was born in Lyck, a small town in Masuria, East Prussia, which is now part of Poland. He entered the navy in 1943, still a teenager, and served on a cruiser in the Baltic. Lenz deserted in Denmark during the last months of the war and handed himself over to British authorities. After the war he studied literature at the University of Hamburg, and eventually became an editor of the newspaper Die Welt. Lenz published his own short stories in Die Welt, as well as his first novel, Es waren Habichte in der Luft (Hawks Were in the Air), in 1951. An original member of the Gruppe 47, an influential cadre of post-war writers in the 1950s, his first real literary success was a book of stories about his native Masuria, So zärtlich war Suleyken (So Tender Was Suleyken). These stories he ostensibly wrote to give his wife an idea of his homeland. Lenz's next major work was his novel Deutschstunde (The German Lesson), published in 1968. This book about the conflict between duty and responsibility in a small town during the war was a critically acclaimed best-seller, and considered by many to be Lenz's best work. Lenz was active politically in the 1960s as a campaign speaker for the Social Democratic party. In 1970 he accompanied Chancellor Willy Brandt to Poland to witness the signing of a German-Polish treaty. Lenz has received numerous awards for his novels and short stories, including many of the highest honors in German literature. He is esteemed for the seriousness of his work, and the way he raises difficult issues without dogmatically providing answers. Though he is a popular author in Germany, with many of his novels and short stories adapted for film and television, he is not as well known outside of Germany as some of his contemporaries.
Major Works of Short Fiction
So Tender Was Suleyken was Lenz's first collection of short stories to reach a wide audience. This collection, which is considered among the most sentimental of Lenz's works, is atypical of Lenz's oeuvre. The issues most associated with Lenz—responsibility and moral choice, especially during wartime—are fully present in his later collections, Jäger des Spotts (Hunter of Ridicule) and Das Feuerschiff (The Lightship). Many of the stories in these works, which are clearly influenced by Ernest Hemingway, involve heroism and failure in battles against the elements. The title story of The Lightship concerns a captain's struggle against criminals who try to hijack his ship. The captain is unwilling to resist the criminals until they move the lightship, which marks the channel, and thus endanger other ships in the area. The point at which resistance is warranted is a theme that occurs again and again in Lenz's fiction. This is an important aspect of his best-selling novel The German Lesson, as well as in the novella Ein Kriegsende (An End of the War). This story, which Lenz helped adapt for German television, tells of a cruiser sent on an impossible rescue mission just as the surrender has been announced. The captain is set on continuing with the mission, but the crew mutinies and the quartermaster takes control of the ship. The quartermaster sails the ship into a Danish harbor where, after a quick court-martial, he is condemned to death and shot. This masterful tale exhibits Lenz's great skill at telling a story from the inside. The perspective of the captain, who is willing to rescue wounded soldiers despite the risks, as well as the viewpoint of the frightened crew and the resourceful, responsible quartermaster, are all fully developed, so that there is no clear or right solution in the story. Thus, the quick and brutal decision of the military court comes as a particular shock. Aside from the more experimental stories collected in Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg (Einstein Crosses the Elbe near Hamburg), Lenz's work is highly traditional. Many of his works, such as So Tender was Suleyken, Der Geist der Mirabelle (Spirit of the Yellow Plum) and the novel Heimatmuseum (The Heritage), deal with village or small town life in provincial Germany, and thus are more endearing and accessible to Germans than to Lenz's audience abroad. However, critics agree that his best works, though concerned with specifically German problems—such as responsibility for actions under the Nazis—are deeply philosophical and reach a level of universal human understanding.
Lenz has been considered one of the three or four leading authors in Germany since the 1950s. His novel The German Lesson was acclaimed internationally, and several of his later novels have been widely translated. His short stories have a devoted following in Germany, and many critics consider him more skilled in short fiction than in the novel. Lenz has received high literary honors in Germany, and has been invited to lecture abroad many times. Despite his popularity and renown at home, Lenz has not achieved the international stature of his contemporaries, Grass and Böll. This may be because his style is more restrained. Even so, Lenz is clearly one of Germany's most valued authors, deeply respected for the depth and seriousness of his work.
So zärtlich war Suleyken [So Tender was Suleyken] 1955
Jäger des Spotts [Hunter of Ridicule] 1958
Das Feuerschiff [The Lightship] 1960
Das Wunder von Striegeldorf: Geschichten 1961
Stimmungen der See: Erzählungen 1962
Lehmanns Erzählungen; oder, So schön war mein Markt:Aus den Bekenntnissen eines Schwarzhändlers 1964
Der Spielverderber: Erzählungen 1965
Das Wrack, and Other Stories 1967
Die Festung und andere Novellen 1968
Gesammelte Erzählungen 1970
Lukas, sanftmütiger Knecht 1970
Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg 1975
Der Geist der Mirabelle: Geschichten aus Bollerup 1975
Die Kunstradfahrer und andere Geschichten 1976
Der Anfang von etwas 1981
Ein Kriegsende 1984
Die Erzählungen: 1949-1984. 3 vols. 1986
Das serbische Mädchen 1987
The Selected Stories of Siegfried Lenz 1989
Other Major Works
Es waren Habichte in der Luft: Roman [Hawks Were in the Air] (novel) 1951
Das schönste Fest der Welt: Hörspiel (radio play) 1956
Der Mann im Strom: Roman (novel) 1957
Zeit der Schuldlosen: Drama (radio play) 1961
Deutschstunde [The German Lesson] (novel) 1968
Das Vorbild [Exemplary Life] (novel) 1973
Heimatmuseum [The Heritage] (novel) 1978
Drei Stücke (play) 1980
Der Verlust: Roman (novel) 1981
Exerzierplatz: Roman [Training Ground] (novel) 1985
SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Siegfried Lenz," in German Life and Letters, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 241-51.
[In this essay, Russ surveys many themes and stylistic devices used by Lenz in the stories collected in Jäger des Spotts, Das Feuerschiff, and Der Spielverderber.]
Siegfried Lenz belongs to that talented echelon of writers born in the later 1920s, and currently reaching the height of their powers. In our own country, translations of his work have been both published and broadcast. Yet he has not so far attracted the attention of 'Germanisten' here to the extent that one might have expected. It is in the hope of rectifying this situation, in some measure, that I...
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SOURCE: "The Macabre Festival: A Consideration of Six Stories by Siegfried Lenz," in Deutung und Bedeutung: Studies in German and Comparative Literature, Mouton, 1973, pp. 275-93.
[In the following essay, Russ discusses thematic similarities between six stories that are set during festivals or holidays.]
Siegfried Lenz's fiction discloses a continual preoccupation with a limited number of central, interrelated themes, which are yet varied in very interesting ways. In particular, the complex of motifs embracing the sudden reversal of fortune, the loss of authority or status, and the revelation of vulnerability, has proved a rewarding field for this writer's searching...
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SOURCE: "Siegfried Lenz's Short Story 'Die Festung'," in Modern Languages, Vol. 55, No. 1, March, 1974, pp. 26-32.
[In the following essay, Hanson uncovers the techniques that make Lenz's story "Die Festung" one of his best.]
Siegfried Lenz is one of the most highly respected and gifted writers in present-day Germany. He has not achieved the same notoriety, nor the same exposure as Günter Grass, his friend, and fellow-campaigner on behalf of the S.P.D., but at the age of 47 he has a body of work behind him which must put him, not only in Germany but probably in Europe also, in the forefront as a writer, particularly in the field of the short story. Where Grass is...
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SOURCE: "Ironic Reversal in the Short Stories of Siegfried Lenz," in Neophilologus, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, October, 1974, pp. 406-10.
[In this essay, Murdoch analyzes Lenz's use of irony in the stories "Der Amüsierdoktor" and "Mein verdrossenes Gesicht. "]
Studies of the prose fiction of Siegfried Lenz have offered in the main an overall view of the writer's work, concentrating primarily upon recurrent thematic motifs, with some comment on language and style. Such studies have praised Lenz in general terms for the originality of his wit, and for the restrained nature of his social satire: Lenz's social criticism—and it is visible most clearly, perhaps, in the short...
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SOURCE: "How It Seems and How It Is: Marriage in Three Stories by Siegfried Lenz," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1974, pp. 170-79.
[In this essay, Elstun analyzes the discrepancy between appearance and reality in three Lenz stories: "Ein Haus aus lauter Liebe, " "Der längere Arm, " and "Der sechste Geburtstag."]
In the afterword to Siegfried Lenz's Gesammelte Erzählungen Colin Russ speaks of a "moment of truth" in these stories, "den Augenblick, in dem ein Mensch preisgegeben und auf die Probe gestellt wird." A reading of the Erzählungen confirms his observation and reveals this additional fact: in a striking number of the stories the...
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SOURCE: "More German Lessons," in The New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1989, p. 14.
[In the following assessment of The Selected Stories of Siegfried Lenz, Demetz names Lenz "the last gentleman of German writing" in view of the deft understatement of Lenz's political themes.]
Among the few postwar German writers who have reached an international audience, 63-year-old Siegfried Lenz has been least tempted to be an educator of the entire nation or a front-page prophet of dire events. In matters of language he is less innovative than Günter Grass, who has never been particularly coy in his public appearances, and far less eager to push his somewhat...
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SOURCE: A review of The Selected Stories of Siegfried Lenz, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 186-87.
[In this brief review of The Selected Stories of Siegfried Lenz, Strawser raises some interesting points about Lenz's popularity in Germany and in the United States, and about the quality of Lenz's acclaimed story "Ein Kriegsende."]
In the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, the three most widely known and read German authors of novels and short fiction from the postwar period are certainly Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Christa Wolf. Most of the works of these writers were promptly rendered in English and...
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Geldrich-Leffman, Hanna. "The Eye of the Witness: Photography in Siegfried Lenz's Short Stories." MLN 104, No. 3 (April 1989): 696-712.
Analyzes the meaning of the visual in Lenz's short stories, with particular attention to his portrayal of cameras and photography.
Murdoch, Brian, and Malcolm Read. Siegfried Lenz. London: Oswald Wolff, 1978, 150 p.
Covers all Lenz's fiction up to 1978, with detailed summaries and analysis.
Woods, Roy. "Siegfried Lenz's 'Ein Kriegsende': Text and Film." New German Studies 15, No. 3 (1988-1989): 207-24....
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