Siegfried Lenz Essay - Lenz, Siegfried (Short Story Criticism)

Lenz, Siegfried (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

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

Erzählungen 1972

Meistererzählungen 1972

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

Criticism

C. A. H. Russ (essay date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 4829 words.)

Colin Russ (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 6839 words.)

William P. Hanson (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 3941 words.)

Brian Murdoch (essay date 1974)

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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Esther N. Elstun (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 3700 words.)

Peter Demetz (review date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Amy Kepple Strawser (review date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 907 words.)