Siegfried Lenz

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.)

Kenneth Lamott

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 The Survivor.

I wish I could say that Mr. Lenz has been entirely successful, for he brings to his book both intelligence and sensitivity. I was not, however, really moved by it, and I think the trouble is that in spite of all the vigorous action that takes place, this story is essentially an intellectualized version of something experienced at second or third hand. Mr. Lenz has a tendency toward moralizing aloud, often in the form of rhetorical questioning. While this technique may help lay bare the moral skeleton of The Survivor, it does little to strengthen it as a work of fiction.

Kenneth Lamott, "Thinking a Good Fight," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1965, The Washington Post), June 20, 1965, p. 18.

C.A.H. Russ

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 war or afterwards, whether, in other...

(This entire section contains 1688 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

words, the fugitives are trying to escape from the Nazi police State or from communist East Germany. Now what Lenz is doing inStimmungen der See is to concentrate on psychological tensions set against the background of the sea that he knows and describes better than any other German writer of our time. The 'Stimmungen' are human as well as natural. The story's historical point of departure is, in the final analysis, irrelevant to its timeless themes: tension between the generations, the interplay of hope and fear, and man's cruelty to man. (p. 242)

Lenz's concern, then, is with generally valid, universal themes which, as in Stimmungen der See, transcend any purely historical context. Indeed, the timeless figure of the loser, the man who fails to survive the moment of truth, the fallen idol, dominates Lenz's fiction. Sometimes the character is trapped by external forces, or by the action of others, but sometimes, too, his own failings are unmasked. Whether he be tycoon, farmer, athlete, journalist, or teacher, his status—his security—will be demolished. The techniques with which Lenz handles this simple theme in his tales repay closer study.

We may first consider five of the 'Ich-Erzählungen' which form a substantial proportion of Lenz's short stories. Each of the five employs a narrator-observer who records the 'fall', or defeat, that he has witnessed. In Die Festung, a son recalls how his father, a dispossessed East Prussian farmer, finding his tenure of new land cancelled, in turn, by an army requisition, ensconced himself in an improvised fortress as futile as the son's sandcastle. In Risiko für Weihnachtsmänner and Ein Haus aus lauter Liebe, a hired outsider stumbles on a travesty of family life…. [In] Der grosse Wildenberg, the narrator is confronted in the great man's sanctum with a lonely figurehead who is delighted to receive a visitor…. (pp. 242-43)

The narrator-observer of Der seelische Ratgeber is also a narrator-victim. The idol falls, but so, in a sense, does his admirer: the effect is all the sharper in that his disillusionment, although constantly implicit, is not articulated until the final sentence. Narrator-victims appear in other tales. Lenz again shows us characters who, through their own fault or not, emerge as vulnerable or unable to fulfil expectations. In the narratives to which we now turn, however, the 'ich' himself is exposed. Thus, in Lukas, sanftmütiger Knecht, a white farmer recounts his desperate journey terminating in the discovery that the Mau Mau had reached his home before him. The narrator of the lighter Mein verdrossenes Gesicht cannot sustain the gloomy expression on which his career as a photographer's model depends. The 'Amüsierdoktor' suffers even greater discomfiture, and nearly goes the way of all fish. Once more, then, the commercial world comes under Lenz's scrutiny, as in the first group of 'Ich-Erzählungen'. However, whereas the great Wildenberg's powerlessness is seen through the eyes of his visitor, the model and the 'Amüsierdoktor' themselves retail their misadventures. Narrator-victims have replaced narrator-observers. In Lieblingsspeise der Hyänen, on the other hand, we find both devices. They are not here combined, as we have seen them to be in the figure of the editorial assistant of Der seelische Ratgeber. Instead, the narrative structure, one 'Ich-Erzählung' inside another, entails a situation in which the first narrator—the observer—listens to the second, American narrator—the victim—lamenting that his womenfolk's obsessive visits to shoe-shops throughout the family's European tour have prevented his re-visiting the scenes of his wartime experiences.

Schwierige Trauer requires separate attention. It is an 'Ich-Erzählung' in the form of an apostrophe to a dead member of the narrator's family: the mayor of an Eastern border town preoccupied, on the flight to the West, with saving trivial documents, whatever the human cost. Here the 'ich' is not so much the observer, or victim, but rather the agent of the denunciation directed against the mayor, who is, of course, in the terms of our discussion, the idol with feet of clay. Personal anger may explain the, for Lenz, unusual technical choice of a dynamic fictive narrator, for the writer was an eye-witness of the flight from the East.

We turn to stories outside the 'Ich-Erzählung' category. As we have seen, the latter includes tales dealing with inadequacy or defeat, observed by the narrator in others or himself. Now, in further works, characters observe each other's failure to meet a challenge. We might term this the device of the character-observer. The observed challenge arises, in each case, on the physical plane, but its implications transcend that level. Like Stimmungen der See, these stories marry physical action and psychological reaction in a manner typical of Lenz's work. In Drüben auf den Inseln, a young man drowns as his sweetheart looks on helplessly—the intruder into a closed world has succumbed to the elemental forces within it; and in Das Wrack a son observes his father's frustrated exhaustion as he dives repeatedly, and fruitlessly, to search a submerged wreck. Silvester-Unfall, another of Lenz's many explorations of close relationships, shows a family watching its head, who is doomed by disease, during the forced festivities of his last New Year's Eve. Here, as in Das Wrack, the act of observation is underlined by repeated allusion to it. In such other tales as Der Läufer, Ball der Wohltäter and Jäger des Spotts, the witnesses of defeat are multiple, although Lenz's victim-figure in the latter story may (almost literally) snatch some measure of victory from its jaws.

In these narratives, employing character-observers, the agent of man's failure is nature itself, represented by the sea, by animals, and by the vulnerability of the human body to exhaustion, age and disease. Even the deed which leads to the athlete's disqualification, in Der Läufer, seems more a reflex action, or bodily accident, than wilful. Elsewhere, however, Lenz portrays the victims of other characters. The latter engage in more than observation, are less passive than most of the narrators of the 'Ich-Erzählungen' (recalling, rather, the opponents confronting some of the narrator-victims), and may therefore be termed character-agents. Thus, Der längere Arm and Nur auf Sardinien each portrays a wife's undermining of her husband's self-respect. (pp. 243-44)

Lenz the realist reveals a keen eye for visual detail, from the momentary flash of the sun on an aircraft cockpit high above the fugitives' boat in Stimmungen der See—an elusive symbol of liberty (or danger?)—to the effects of heat on lead, conveying both the suspense generally inherent in the context of 'Bleigiessen' and the menace latent in the particular setting of Silvester-Unfall.

Lenz's description of nature also testifies to his accuracy as an observer…. And the variety of settings … is, of course, articulated in specific local colour. (p. 247)

The fusion of physical sensation and psychological process becomes, in Der Anfang von etwas, an aspect of human communication: 'Hoppe spürte, wie sich Paulas Finger um seinen Unterarm schlossen, ihr Erschrecken sich im wachsenden Druck der Finger Fortsetzte.' The proferred hand conveys false feeling in Ein Haus aus lauter Liebe and genuine distress in Die Festung. Everyday gestures are endowed with meaning.

To return to Der Anfang von etwas, this story also exemplifies Lenz's realistic treatment of sound. As Hoppe prepares to cast his belongings into the river, the privacy and secrecy of his intended action are conveyed by the distance and impersonality of the sound that he hears: 'Er … spähte die Pier hinab, musterte die Luken der Speicher, stand und lauschte auf das schleifende Geräusch einer feren Strassenbahn'…. The enormous care devoted to realistic detail in Lenz's stories may be finally illustrated from this same tale by the accumulation of visual and acoustic elements relating to the fruit-machine.

For his descriptive material, then, Lenz draws heavily on the sights, sensations, gestures and sounds of everyday life. Yet, as we have noticed, the descriptive elements in question often carry some deeper implication. Even in that highly documentary account of the operation of a fruit-machine, unexpected abstract nouns link the mechanical process and the feelings of the players…. Lenz is not, therefore, a mere chronicler of surface reality. What we have seen to be true of his themes is true also of his style. He is neither merely polemical in his approach nor merely naturalistic in his technique. (pp. 247-48)

[Lenz has] been termed the most conventional writer of his generation in his use of language. On the other hand, there are signs that Lenz's inquiries may now be leading him to a greater degree of technical experiment. His latest novel, Stadtgespräch, represents an attempt to practise on the grand scale the form of the narrative apostrophe, or harangue, already adumbrated in Schwierige Trauer. A recent short story, Der sechste Geburtstag, essays the—for the male writer—difficult task of employing a female fictive narrator. We may hope that other experiments will follow in the years to come. For, if Lenz succeeds in fusing experiment with the traditional narrative virtues which are his already, he may emerge as a major artist. (pp. 250-51)

C.A.H. Russ, "The Short Stories of Siegfried Lenz" (a revision of a lecture originally delivered at the Institute of Germanic Studies, University of London, on May 20, 1965), in German Life & Letters, n.s. Vol. XIX, No. 4, July, 1966, pp. 241-51.

The Times Literary Supplement

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 world by a sequence of surprises and a continuity of tension. His sympathies are with the oppressed and frustrated, but can extend also to the representatives of a society that he is satirizing (Das schönste Fest der welt). The author's approach is cautious in the judgments it encourages us to make, while urging us on to concern and compassion.

"Guilty Couples," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3435, December 28, 1967, p. 1260.

The Times Literary Supplement

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Germany has not rendered obsolete the quite different approach of a writer who has always insisted, and proved, that he is a story-teller, a lucid exponent of the craft of fiction. Deutschstunde is the longest and, at the same time, the most ambitious of his novels.

Siggi Jepsen, the narrator, is the inmate of an institution for juvenile offenders, set on an island in the Elbe. Unable to produce for his German master an essay in praise of duty, he is placed in solitary confinement in order to perform the task at leisure. He plunges into it, and we read his essay as he writes it. The account of his past life, which the essay represents, turns on his medial position between his father—a policeman in the northernmost part of Germany—and the painter Nansen, who has been forbidden by the Nazis to continue working…. The policeman's fidelity to his meaningless duty, involving the surveillance of the painter, the resulting estrangement of father and son, as the latter turns to Nansen—the father-figure frequent in Herr Lenz's work—and Siggi's obsessive desire to protect paintings on public display by taking them away and concealing them, even though the Nazi era is ended, leading him to acts of "delinquency", form only some of the strands in the texture of an exceptionally rich novel.

This material could well have been treated in a documentary manner. It is, in fact, presented in a tentative, inquiring and provisional way. Siggi constantly corrects himself, revising his choice of words as he tries to tell his story. Sometimes a self-deprecating turn of phrase or studied casualness will suggest that the task is beyond him; but he keeps at it until it is successfully completed. Then we see that the search for language has also been a quest, across the years, for the identities of the characters, including the narrator, and for the identity of their country, scrutinized in that—or this?—"Deutschstunde". The heading of the fourteenth chapter—"Sehen"—has implications for the novel as a whole. Not only is Nansen a painter, but the book teems with motifs related to sight and visual perception. In this world of inarticulate or uncommunicative people, the characters constantly watch each other, and seek, or avoid, each other's gaze. Everyday objects—a clock, a mirror, a photograph—are scrutinized, the very word "Bild" repeatedly appears in both literal and metaphorical application, and imagery drawn from the world of the cinema reminds us that we, too, are watching, and trying to decipher, the German past.

Deutschstunde is rich too in finely observed details of the regional setting. The evocation of domestic atmosphere, the scenes of provincial life, and the sidelights on Siggi's routine in the institution (presented in splendidly satirical terms) represent other factors which certainly bring the reader close both to the narrator's past and to his life now. Yet to describe Deutschstunde as a realistic novel would be a curious half-truth: the data, so to speak, are not given. The presentation of Siggi's story is, as we have seen, tentative. Yet, however cautious his inquiry, its findings are unambiguous.

Siegfried Lenz's favourite theme of the precariousness of status and power has found its most extended and impressive articulation to date. The figure of authority, the policeman, like his counterpart in the short story "Der Verzicht", is weaker than his victim. He can offer no more than the confident cliché of "duty", typifying a kind of frozen language which obstructs the path to truth along which, in contrast, his son gradually, if uncertainly, progresses.

"German Lessons," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3500, March 27, 1969, p. 317.

Michael Hamburger

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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" at the school for juvenile delinquents to which he was remanded after the war, for reasons bound up with the story he tells: an account of the conflict between his father—the local policeman—and the Expressionist painter Max Ludwig Nansen…. (p. 71)

The reader expecting a heroic confrontation between the forces of good and evil in Nazi Germany will be disappointed: this novel avoids histrionics. Jepsen does his duty; Nansen applies a related stubbornness and cunning to the business of getting on with his work. If The German Lesson is a political novel at all—and it can be read as though it were not—what we learn from it is that the Nazi regime was upheld by "decent" and conscientious executives, little men like Jepsen or—as Hannah Arendt showed—like Eichmann. The demons of earlier fictions about the Third Reich are absent here. The nearest thing to an irrational compulsion in Jepsen is his inability to leave Nansen alone after the end of the war; yet such behavior could also be attributed to his stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, and inflexibility. Similarly, Siggi cannot break the habit of concealing Nansen's paintings even when, after the war, Nansen has been rehabilitated. It is for removing paintings from a Hamburg exhibition of Nansen's work that Siggi is institutionalized as a delinquent. His father remains the policeman at Rugbüll, and we can be sure that Jepsen will serve the Federal Republic just as loyally and meticulously as he had formerly served the Third Reich.

Siegfried Lenz learned from American writers such as Hemingway the discipline of understatement. Since such realities as concentration camps, "the final solution," or other major horrors of the war do not impinge on the awareness of his provincials, they are not mentioned in the novel. At one point Nansen is summoned to an interrogation by the Gestapo, but Siggi—who knows or imagines all kinds of things that he has not witnessed himself—is as reticent about this experience as is Nansen himself…. Rarely does the narrator draw a moral or generalize, and when he does, the effect—within the context of this book whose ironies and satirical strands are as unobtrusive as its seriousness—is almost startling.

The seriousness, in fact, comes over not as a quality of the writer's mind but of the persons in the novel, including the many subsidiary local characters whom I have not mentioned. That is one reason why The German Lesson has a density and solidity reminiscent of nineteenth-century novels about provincial life. (p. 72)

Whatever political allegory may have been worked into the realistic fabric of The German Lesson, it is not a simple or unambiguous one. If we read the book as a novel about the Nazi era we are bound to object that rural Schleswig-Holstein was not Germany, that the new technology of destruction is scarcely hinted at, that the conflict between a policeman's ruthless devotion to duty and a painter's devotion to the freedom of his art does not and could not possibly convey either the banality or the monstrosity of evil that distinguished National Socialism from other authoritarian systems. Nansen, we are told, had once been a supporter of the regime; and he is among those members of the community who are called upon to form a last-minute home guard when the war is lost. Since he remains part of the community to the end, he cannot represent the victims of Nazism, who ceased to exist not only as artists but as human beings.

Yet political allegory, as I have suggested, is not essential to The German Lesson, which excels as a novel about people, places, and things, rather than as a novel of ideas. The issues involved in the clash between Nansen and Jepsen remain of urgent relevance not only to Germany, with its tradition of rigidly obedient officialdom, but wherever duty conflicts with judgment, conscience, or independence of mind. What is more important, Nansen does not merely stand for the freedom of self-expression. His function in this novel is closely related to that of Siggi as narrator and witness: it has to do with seeing—the title of one chapter in the book—and the necessary interaction between imagination and outward reality.

As a painter Nansen sees and interprets the world around him. Jepsen, on the other hand, is blinkered both by his servility and by his authoritarianism, self-deceived even about the desire for power that motivates his obedience, so that duty yields joys. This ambivalence comes out in Jepsen's dealings with his young son, the narrator, whom he thrashes for going out of the house without permission, yet also makes use of for his own professional ends, revealing an almost abject dependence upon him. As for his older son, the deserter, Jepsen no longer sees him as a son or as a human being, but is prepared to hand him over to the "authorities" for punishment. In all such dealings Jepsen receives the passive support of his wife, whose love for her children is never in doubt.

Lenz excels at the rendering of these family relations between people who are laconic, humorless, and trapped in a patriarchal order that it never occurs to them to question. We get to know them intimately not so much through what they say as by what they do, what they look like, what they eat; by the gestures and movements that express what they feel and think.

It is left to each reader to draw his conclusions about this patriarchal order which—at least among the peasantry and petty officialdom of provincial regions—remained almost intact behind the political and military machinery of the Third Reich. That the "joys of duty" were still a fit subject to be assigned for a German essay in the progressive, seemingly benevolent institution in which Siggi is being reformed after the war is one of Lenz's pervasive but unobtrusive ironies. Another is Siggi's relationship there with his guard or warder, Joswig, who constantly reminds Siggi that smoking is forbidden in the cells, yet provides him with cigarettes. If we insist on finding allegories in the book, and Joswig may be taken to be a postwar variant of the policeman father figure, there is also room for comforting inferences about the future of the Federal Republic.

American and English readers of this book will be confronted with a world that few of them will find easy to reconcile with what they know about Nazi Germany. Moreover, they may be astonished that Siggi's narrative, so packed with the almost palpable details of day-to-day experience, scarcely touches on sexual love. Siggi's story, after all, spans his puberty; by the time he has finished telling it he is twenty-one. Yet sexual experience or even sexual fantasy would have been out of place not only in his essay on "The Joys of Duty" but in the ambience which his story evokes and captures. Instead, we get Siggi's and Nansen's emphasis on seeing, so that there is no lack of sensuous substance but an extraordinary abundance of it. Certain episodes, like that in which Siggi and his sister wade out at low tide to catch flatfish with their hands and feet stick in one's mind with the persistence of lived experience. So, too, does the whole natural setting, with its changing light and winds, its harshness and heaviness. (pp. 72-3)

Siegfried Lenz himself may well have transported certain recollections of his childhood in what was East Prussia to the vicinity of his West German home. The concreteness of many descriptive passages suggests as much; and in an autobiographical sketch, written well before the publication of this novel, he mentioned that his father was a "patient official." If he did transpose parts of his story from the Baltic to the North Sea, the imaginative graft has taken, and the effort required of an English or American reader is very slight compared to that feat. In any case, Lenz has succeeded in writing a consistently gripping novel about normal life in a provincial outpost of Nazi Germany—without melodrama, demonology, or a pretentious superstructure of allegory and symbolism. And he has done what many realistic writers have tried and failed to do: sustained his readers' interest in characters who are not outstandingly attractive, sensitive, or articulate. The key to that achievement is the gift of seeing. (p. 73)

Michael Hamburger, "A Third Reich with No Demons," in Saturday Review (© 1972 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. LV, No. 10, March 18, 1972, pp. 71-3.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 prison for juvenile delinquents on an island in the river Elbe? Why has Siggi been assigned by prison authorities to write an essay on "The Joys of Duty"? Why is Siggi troubled by this assignment, and why does he insist on carrying it out by filling one thick copybook after another with his life story (which becomes the book we are reading) until his keepers grow exasperated and practically beg him to desist?

What is Siggi getting at with this lengthy account of how his father, a rural policeman, becomes obsessed with acting on an order from Berlin to prevent an expressionist painter living in his district (an old friend who once saved him from drowning, of course) from producing any more "degenerate" art? Why, if Siggi has taken the artist's side, did he begin stealing the paintings produced in defiance of the ban? And what the devil does the fish imagery have to do with it all?

I'm urged to answer these questions derisively—to sneer that the conflict between the policeman devoted to his duty and the defiant painter dramatizes nothing less obvious than the divided German spirit, conflicted in its longing for authority and culture. Something tells me that Siggi himself is supposed to represent the twisted outcome of that character conflict: a boy who—heavy irony here—ends up in prison for stealing the artist's paintings to safeguard them from his father's zeal to do his duty. I'm afraid that the novel's final irony is that Siggi learns nothing from his punishment. He has simply written his interminable analysis of "The Joys of Duty" in response to yet another sense of duty. And apparently the point of the biological imagery—all the details of aquatic species and the references to Darwin—is supposed to be that fate would not have allowed Siggi's story to be otherwise—that the fate of Germans, past, present and future, is locked in the steps of determinism.

And yet I am nagged by the feeling that this treatment is not fair to Mr. Lenz's novel. For the truth is that while I was often tempted to put it down, I had to keep reading "The German Lesson." There was something pictorially irresistible about the North Sea coast in which the story is set. It was a relief to read a novel set in wartime Germany in which no storm troopers march or Nazi slogans are shouted, yet in which we could never doubt where we were. That expressionist painter was a powerfully attractive figure, with his greatcoat patched with bottomless pockets, his stolid imperturbability and the comic dialogues he indulged in with an invisible esthetician named Balthazzar. The policeman himself was not unappealing … not at all … in fact, it was hard not to sympathize with his slow-witted sense of loyalty and his crude peasant instincts. If ever the Third Reich was pictured in microcosm, with its prejudices against people not rooted in the land, and its tiny spasms of nationalistic fervor that added up to an irrational howl only in final sum, then Mr. Lenz has done it … has surpassed it.

"The German Lesson" will not go away. The solemn drollery of its narrative voice has gotten under my skin, I see; and I suspect that its German original is even more infectious. I can't get out of my mind the scene in which Siggi's older sister, Hilke, goes hunting for seagull eggs with her boyfriend, Addi, and, suddenly, the sky becomes a feathered mass of screaming birdclouds, and Addi collapses in an epileptic fit. I remember the old doctor who must pause to catch his breath after every half-dozen steps he takes, and who gives his patients a multiple choice of diagnoses to pick from. I can't shake off the feeling that if Mr. Lenz's footsteps are just as heavy as the doctor's, the imprints they leave are indelible.

So where does all this leave us? With feelings mixed to the extreme, obviously. This is not a novel over which to enjoy the passage of spring to summer, or a bag of potato chips. It is probably not a book that will appeal at all to an American audience at this late date in the century. But I keep thinking of Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters"—its gnarled figures crouched in dark earthen space, consuming their meager fare with resignation and tragic hope. One does not wish to enter that world or even to linger with its image. Yet the power of its crude composition remains unforgettable.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Figures in a Dirty Ground," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 5, 1972, p. 43.

Kingsley Shorter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 ambitious book.

What is unusual about it is that Lenz has chosen to deal with issues of universal significance in a setting so apparently peripheral, so local, that a mere outline of the novel must make it sound like a genre work—closely observed but minor, miniature; or an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, it is neither. Set amid the peat bogs, dykes and desolate water meadows along Germany's North Sea Coast, The German Lesson is so powerful an evocation of place that I found myself combing the map of Schleswig-Holstein for the villages that stud the narrative.

Some are real, some are fictitious; for like everyone's childhood in retrospect, Lenz's landscape is a haunting superposition of precise coordinates on the inner world that only in childhood is coextensive with actual fields, actual woods. Through the eyes of the 11-year-old Siggi we come to know the ever changing cloud formations, the dramatic play of light over the sea, the omnipresent force of the wind; through his eyes the characters, too, take on an inevitable, almost elemental force. (p. 9)

Reading Lenz makes one realize the extent to which grotesquerie has been a substitute for feeling in postwar German writing. It is as if what happened under Hitler was so dreadful that art is impotent to represent it; as if everything now must be ghoulish, a dance of death on the ruins of sensibility; as if we'd been numbed by the sheer scale of the disaster, to the point of believing the facts to be beyond human reckoning, incomprehensible. Lenz deals with this by narrowing the scope but at the same time hugely increasing the magnification, cranking his lens down into the culture where the protozoa of totalitarianism thrive and multiply. Instead of inventing bizarre incidents, Lenz brings a naturalist's attention to bear on the minutiae of "ordinary" behavior, the microevents that cumulatively produced the megalomania, the camps, and all the rest of it.

The story is seen through the eyes of a child, but recounted when the narrator is already a young man. The immediacy of the one qualified by the ironic perspective of the other gives the book both freshness and great depth. A child does not theorize; he experiences and feels accordingly. Reconstructing the events 10 years later, Siggi seeks the meaning of his ordeal in a painstakingly minute examination of his memories.

Precise observation is the key…. [The] insistence on the exact time of day, the exact configuration of the heavens, the exact wind strength and direction—and the corresponding exactness of observation about persons and their movements, gestures, speech—powerfully recreates the feel of childhood, the directness of the child's experience.

Lest this weight of circumstantial evidence oppress the reader, Lenz has perfected a totally opposite technique for rendering it more manageable: the cartographer's schematization. (pp. 9-10)

Siggi is reassuringly anchored in his cell, whose contents lend themselves to finite inventory; the reader can breathe with him there, between dives to his private Atlantis. The breathers help, for what Siggi fetches up from under 10 years of silt is depressing stuff. (p. 10)

Siggi's excavation is thorough. But meaning is not so easily come by: The brute facts of experience have a way of surviving all explanations intact. Siggi shows in great and compelling detail how his father and the painter behaved the way they did, how it was inevitable that they should have done so, and how their conflict partially unhinged him; he is unable, however, to understand why.

As if to illustrate the intransigence of experience, the futility of explication, Lenz introduces a young psychologist who visits Siggi in his cell and reads him excerpts from a clinical study of his "case." Like Siggi-the-narrator's own map-making simplifications, this "objective" commentary is reassuring because it appears to make sense of otherwise senseless phenomena. Siggi knows better: "No, Wolfgang Mackenroth! It was like that and yet it was not like that at all."

The German Lesson is in the end tragic, not so much because of the events themselves but because of their resistance to interpretation, because they cannot truly be grasped. And if they cannot be grasped, neither can they be transcended…. Why, he asks, why, why, why are they the way they are, the people "down our way." "And I put my questions to their way of walking and of standing, to their glances and their words. And whatever I learn from any of it does not satisfy me." The tone is so fresh and youthful throughout, and the conclusion so despairing, that one is quietly appalled.

There is much more to be said in praise of The German Lesson. But perhaps Tolstoy's dictum about happy and unhappy families applies to art, too: All good novels resemble one another, every bad novel is bad in its own special way. A list of Lenz's achievements in The German Lesson would surely be as dull as the book itself is enthralling. It isn't perfect; occasionally—very occasionally—Lenz lapses into archness, or sentimentality, or preachiness. Yet these are minor flaws in a major work. Let me simply say I was really sorry when I got to the end, and leave it at that. (pp. 10-11)

Kingsley Shorter, "Germany Under the Lens," in The New Leader (© 1972 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 10, May 15, 1972, pp. 9-11.

Phillip Corwin

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 audience. And the amazing thing is that no matter which way one reads The German Lesson, there is something to be learned.

Phillip Corwin, "Read Him Any Way You Like, Mr. Lenz Scores," in The National Observer (reprinted by permission of The National Observer; © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1972; all rights reserved), May 27, 1972, p. 21.

D. Keith Mano

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 (called probably "The Joys of Paint"), complete with brochures, specifications and color charts. The digressive method has its venerable ancestry: Jacques le Fataliste out of Tristram Shandy. In The German Lesson we have predictable devices, "How shall I describe his hat?" "I must stop here and set the scene." It puts a MAN WORKING sign over the author's head. These phony associations are a substitute for the business of metaphor making. And the reader, with noticeable condescension, is made to participate in, to be present at, the artist's great moment of creation.

Grass and Lenz share the same concern: Germany and It Can't Happen Here But It Certainly Did, Didn't It? The first person protagonist is ordered to write a German essay on Duty. The essay becomes a novel about his duty-mad policeman father and a great painter forbidden by the Nazis to paint. The German Lesson means, transparently, the Lesson of Germany. It celebrates the free mind's triumph in a totalitarian state, tries to clamp half-nelsons on the German character. But where Grass uses immense, loud, mesmerizing emblems, Lenz is matter-of-fact…. Lenz's moralizing, like his style, is full of air, pretentious, over-simple…. Lenz is a talented writer. The book has sold a quarter of a million copies in Germany alone. But not for its literary excellence—rather for its very proper and expiatory response to the national guilt. (p. 646)

D. Keith Mano, "When They Are Good …," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1972; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXIV, No. 20, June 9, 1972, pp. 646-47.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 models proposed by three highly disparate educationists. And each of these in turn has a history, a far from exemplary domestic background, which emerges as yet another semi-independent narrative within the whole. All told, then, Das Vorbild is a rich plum-pudding of a book: whether it can be said to hold together is debatable; certainly it is hard to digest….

Despite its distinctively German features, Das Vorbild raises questions and hints at messages of wide concern. The problematic urge to seek, follow, set, propagate, or impose shiny examples is not of course peculiar to this or that nation…. Nevertheless, the appeal of Lenz's book is strangely limited. It reads well; the author handles language with remarkable precision and an unobtrusive panache which his more flamboyant German contemporaries have reason to admire. It is funny, witty—the writer has an eye for comic detail, a gift for straight-faced irony, for amusing formulation which can be a delight. And it is packed with characters, incidents, and observations that command attention. And yet the whole is disappointing, flawed by what might be an inherent weakness. In view of the possible importance of the job in hand, those tackling it appear implausibly lightweight, as do their arguments and their space-consuming proposals, their "models", on occasion.

If this is one of Lenz's points—that serious tasks are sometimes given to the wrong people—he is an unconscionable time making it; but, whether it is or not, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the cast of Das Vorbild has been chosen arbitrarily. That this casting has contributed to the overall inconclusiveness of the work is clear: readers are likely to be left not merely with queries which deserve to remain unanswered but also with a feeling that, on the moral and educational issues to which so much space is devoted, Lenz is incongruously reluctant to take a stand.

"The Perfect German," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973, reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3745, December 14, 1973, p. 1547.

David Pryce-Jones

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 accommodated to such differing tastes. Siegfried Lenz has fun with that, having constructed the splendid position whereby he can sit in literary judgment on his own material….

Slowly the European novel is reviving the old central belief that fiction's purpose is to illuminate people and the choices they make. Siegfried Lenz, with his gifts, is himself a fine and encouraging example.

David Pryce-Jones, "How to Live Now," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1976), November 18, 1976, p. 10.

Lothar Kahn

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 carried out dehumanizing orders under Nazism…. Lenz' book was a truly frightening picture of the Third Reich in microcosm…. The novel enabled the author to probe the whys, the implicit guilt, the missed options of the Nazi years. It was search without breast-beating but with a persuasive moral earnestness; a return to the past to investigate the values that—exaggerated and perverted—had led to monstrous and destructive behavior.

Now, in An Exemplary Life, Lenz anchors himself in the present. Again he uses a bleak North German landscape, this time the metropolis of Hamburg on gray and rainy November days. Again, too, he confronts his characters with the social and individual choices that may elevate or debase a human being. For the new work addresses itself to a simple question: Given a free hand to come up with "an exemplary life," a perfect model of conduct for youngsters to emulate, could we produce such a life, whether real or fictional?

A committee of three, charged by the Ministry of Education for North German lands with finding a paradigmatic story for inclusion in a school reader, meets in a run-down Hamburg hotel to exchange the results of their respective searches. The three had experienced no difficulty with the first two sections, one on Work and Festivals, the other on Home and Abroad. But here they encounter problems. They read their stories to each other; they dissect them; they do not find any suitable.

At least part of the trouble rests with the people selected to compose the anthology…. As they read and reject each other's suggestions, they not only recognize the shortcomings of their proposals but become aware of the paucity of their individual lives as well—revealed to us by Lenz in between consideration of their proposals.

Old Valentin Pundt thinks about his single son, who for no apparent reason killed himself shortly after brilliantly passing his examinations in Hamburg. Trying to understand the tragedy, Valentin begins to see his own existence in a new and frightening light. (pp. 9-10)

Yet Pundt, a man of the old school, performs perhaps the most exemplary act in the book. He hears some whimpering sounds and comes upon two helpless people being trampled by members of a vicious gang. In his strictest schoolmaster's voice he bids them stop and is stopped himself, his limp body set adrift in a boat on the Alster. Saved through a miracle, Pundt lies in a hospital room questioning his worth and decides to quit the project.

Dr. Suessfeldt, part of an ill-defined ménage à trois, is forever ignoring traffic regulations as she flits from one cultural meeting to another. Her role is never made clear, however; Lenz did his novel no favor in creating her. Janpeter Heller, by contrast, is a vital part of the plot and a foil to Pundt. In a foolish effort to be one of the youthful crowd—he knows every phase of The Scene—he has alienated his wife and ruined his marriage. Heller is not aware of it, but his brand of modern cynicism barely conceals his disenchantments and inner bankruptcy, and his gestures of idealism are pathetic and amusing.

How were these specimens of human failure, who started out barely suspecting their inadequacies, chosen to prepare a chapter to mold the young? Lenz gives no answer but, as in The German Lesson, he skillfully explores the dichotomy between the purity of an ideal and its application in human practice, or, from another vantage, the distance between precept and preceptor….

It is easy to sense Lenz' distrust, once again, of moral absolutes, especially in the political sphere. He does not claim inspirational examples do not exist, rather that every human life is suspect in some quarters, and all are potentially dangerous, futile or self-destructive. More than any other writer today, with the possible exception of Saul Bellow, Lenz is frightened by the intellectual, cultural and political clutter of our times, and by forces so complex and contradictory that simple solutions are beyond reach. Yet Bellow always salvages a remnant of hope through some prescriptive formula; Lenz does not. If this work nevertheless avoids generating black despair, it is because of his subtle humor, his dexterous use of unobtrusive irony, his amusing situations.

An Exemplary Life is a fascinating but tricky and ambiguous novel. It is also highly readable for a deeply philosophical work, thanks in large part to Lenz' admirable tendency to let his characters be defined by what they are doing and how they do it. We know them through the way they eat, drink and drive, the places they visit, their actions in the face of old and new situations.

True, the exemplary lives rejected by the trio are invented by Lenz in a manner that allows him to stack his case, and the many stories and the novella within the book occasionally distract. But if this novel is not quite on the level of The German Lesson, it nevertheless confirms Lenz' place alongside Gunter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Uwe Johnson as one of the top writers in Germany today. (p. 10)

Lothar Kahn, "A German Master," in The New Leader (© 1976 by The American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LIX, No. 24, December 6, 1976, pp. 9-10.

G. P. Butler

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

["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 fantastic" …; Gregor, who insists that "invention must always be authenticated by reality" …; and the first-person narrator of the tales' framework, who is accused—justly—of inconclusiveness: "That's typical of you … with you everything ends in the air, because you consider solutions impolite."

Impolite or not, openendedness, fantasy, imaginative realism and occasional flashes of critical commitment, of liberal stance-taking, are indeed all characteristic of Lenz's storytelling, no matter how the stories are assembled … and no matter what their ideal medium: he is, of course, a dramatist, too, with a keen ear and an acute sense of situation,… and several of the items gathered together in his new book might be even more enjoyable performed than read. "Fallgesetze", for instance, a slightly implausible and perplexing story of intrigue and skulduggery among stone-fishers (or pearl-fishers), is told by the three voices, in a repeated sequence, of the drama's principal figures and is virtually a script for radio….

Lenz's inclination to end "in the air", to leave the reader wondering what happened next, is arguably one of his strengths; but unfortunately it belongs to those features which, if recurrent and encountered in quick succession, can irritate—even though, as here, they appear in essentially discrete units which deserve to be assessed as such. "Die Wellen des Balaton", for example, describes a rendezvous, on more or less neutral territory, of two related couples: a prosperous pair from Bremen (he is a refugee from the GDR) and a poorer but none the less self-assured one—likable enough, rather stolid, understandably defensive—from across the border. Will the twain ever really manage to meet? What takes place is a brief and fruitless encounter. And the reader finds himself asking the questions he would commonly ask, and to which he can normally find some kind of answer, after dipping into a novel or reading an excerpt. They concern not only matters of detail (How did Trudi get that scar on her cheek?), but the place of the episode in the whole from which it has apparently come. Curiosity is similarly aroused and left unsatisfied by the everyday story of student folk with which the collection opens ("Das Examen"—a well-captured glimpse of the stresses inherent in the German examination system, and in examination candidates' marriages), by the account which follows it ("Ein Grenzfall") of an eventful day in the seemingly humdrum life of a harassed customs officer, and by much else besides.

In other words, as his record to date has indicated, Lenz is first and foremost an anecdotalist whose ambitions and abilities as novelist are sometimes in conflict with what he does best. A lack of economy, for instance, to which in a novel there are few legitimate objections—Günter Grass's stress on the importance of "incidentals" comes to mind—can and does occasionally mar the narratives in Einstein. At his best, on the other hand, Lenz is superb. The book's title story is a short piece of virtuoso whimsicality …, "a photograph to be read" in which the theory that all motion is relative is translated into mundane yet phantasmagoric practice—imaginings catalysed by the presence on a Hamburg ferry of Albert Einstein. But in spite of his with and generally admirable lightness of touch, the author is perhaps most impressive—at least in this volume—when he is most sombre: the savagery of "Die Augenbinde", an eerie, allegorical comment on the levelling processes to which society subjects its more gifted members; the fearful bitterness of "Die Schmerzen sind zumutbar" (The Pain is Not Excessive), a military dictator's conclusion after undergoing—voluntarily, in the interests of his regime's image—a selection of the interrogation techniques of two of his henchmen; the sadness of "Wie bei Gogol" of an incident which epitomizes the plight of West Germany's illegal guest-workers—these are evidence of a rare and versatile talent, and, praise be, of one still vigorous enough to express concern through literature. One hopes that there is more to come, even if more means no better.

G. P. Butler, "Destination Unknown," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3920, April 29, 1977, p. 538.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 set up there is echoed in these works, too. There is some justification for treating the stories not in the order of composition but in that of the events told in them. Stadtgespräch is set—in spite of efforts to make the time and place deliberately vague—in Norway during the Second World War. 'Das Feuerschiff' is set after the war, although there is still a link with it. (p. 40)

Stadtgespräch is potentially a war-time suspense story. A Scandinavian country is under enemy occupation, and in the town at the centre of the story, an enclosed, small community, a resistance group is formed only after two years, under the leadership of Daniel, a one-time student who has broken off his studies. (p. 41)

The tale is told by a first-person narrator, not Daniel, but one of his followers. It is, moreover, an address to Daniel, a statement to the effect of 'this is the story as I remember it—you must tell it from your side.' Further, there is no suspense as to whether Daniel actually does give himself up. (p. 42)

The narrative strategy of the novel is for the most part successful. Sometimes it is stretched, as indeed it is in Deutschstunde, where the narrator has to be made to be present to overhear a conversation. Here, there is a vital conversation between two of the hostages, and the narrator has to be placed in a position to eavesdrop and report. Sometimes, though, the omniscient narrator intrudes willy-nilly: this is clear in the description of the death of the hostages. The resistance fighters hear the shooting and imagine what is happening, and the narrator imagines it in great detail, but he does so through Daniel…. The vividness of this incident, where the imagination overtly takes over, makes more real the supposedly involved narrative of the rest. The problem of narrative reality becomes more acute if we compare the shooting with the hurried flight of the resistance fighters from their camp, something which presumably did have witnesses…. (pp. 42-3)

Lenz builds upon the fundamental dichotomy between good and evil, a basic contrast between occupiers and occupied which is clear, and against which the more complex problems of how a single community responds may be set. To draw overtly on the historical opposition in Nazi-occupied Norway would seem to have been more appropriate.

The occupiers are portrayed negatively…. One man's (or one epoch's) partisan is another man's terrorist, and Lenz would presumably not want any confusion of loyalties to occur later. (pp. 43-4)

The story … recalls the basic tenet of the heroic epic, which shows a human figure struggling against a destiny which is inevitable, and since it is inevitable, can be told from the beginning. Stadtgespräch reverses the fate of the medieval hero, however: it is Daniel's fate to survive, not to die. When a hero of the Germanic epic died in an inevitable struggle, he found glory, and was aware of this. Daniel's fate in surviving is to find accusations and whisperings against him—a Stadtgespräch, not an heroic poem.

The opening of the work does not preclude tension within the story, of course: the incidents that arise from the basic situation have an inner tension that contributes towards the readability of the work. These incidents sometimes take the story in unexpected directions, but all are related to the central theme of Daniel.

Daniel is doomed to failure from the beginning. The resistance started too late:

Everyone knows that it came late, the town had been occupied for two years, we had come to terms, subjected ourselves, got used to it; we had discovered that it is possible to live without justice….

What Daniel demanded was a different attitude, and his transformation into the embodiment of resistance becomes clear in the more philosophical portions of the novel. (p. 44)

Daniel's efforts, however tragic they might appear, are the imposers of the necessary moment of truth, the urge to make those involved state what is right and what is not. The pastor's notions of forgiveness might be sincere, but ultimately they are flabby. The irony is that the central figure here—Dr Lund—and the one who understands, has to die. The rest of the people in the town do not understand, or if they do, they do not remember when the state of injustice is passed.

Daniel himself is a passive figure, and the echo of the 'lions' den' is presumably intended. The forces are beyond his control and he becomes aware of his own impotence…. Daniel does not develop in the work, but the awareness of the passive nature of his own suffering constitutes an anagnorisis. (p. 46)

The work has implications for the single individual in an extreme situation, and it has links with the earlier novels. For Dr Lund, the fact that he is faced with death forces his awareness of existence. Indeed, the whole incident in the town is testing:

A line ran through the town, a shadow-line, a line of decision. It was visible and palpable already, it concerned everyone….

Daniel forces the people of the town to stand on one side of the line or the other.

The second set of problems in the novel concerns historical objectivity, and added to this is the notion of overcoming the past by remembering it. Lenz illustrates here the basic lesson of history; that men never learn lessons. It is not the forces of evil that are castigated, but those who forget afterwards the whole necessity of resistance to an evil force, but rather remember only the concrete losses of forty-four men and a ferry. Those lives must also be set against humanity, not against Daniel.

The problem of objectivity takes the novel beyond its chronological limits, into historiography itself. In a short time the sequence of events becomes distorted, and even Daniel hears from the prison guard at the end a version of one incident that contrasts with what has been told us by the narrator as an eye-witness. This brings about the ultimate paradox: the story has to be reiterated, in order to keep it fresh. (pp. 49-50)

Stadtgespräch is not paradigmatic in any practical sense. In a passage which, in this novel, is unusual in its sententiousness, we are told that:

Past credit-marks don't let anybody off the responsibility for a present action. For us, all that counts is how we survive and the one thing that tests us daily: the present….

Recent experiences with terrorism have shown all too clearly that every case is different. In 'Das Feuerschiff', however, Lenz does seem to be setting up a political or at least an ethical paradigm. This time the forces of terrorism make an attack from outside on to the picture of order, and the black and the white are clear again from the beginning. The problem is not in determining who is the terrorist, but rather how one is to react to terrorism. More even than in Zeit der Schuldlosen, we are presented here with a test-tube situation, an experiment, an exploration.

Freytag is captain of a lightship at anchor in a channel which has been dangerous because of the mines and wrecks left from the war. It is about to be withdrawn from service, however, and this is the last spell of duty. Freytag has on board with him not only his small crew, but also his son Fred, who despises him, for reasons which are not immediately clear, and which form the sub-plot of the work.

A small boat is spotted by the son and its crew rescued, but it turns out to contain an unlikely trio, two thugs and the sinister Dr Caspary, who have just committed a major robbery. They are armed, and have effectively taken the lightship hostage. Their threats of violence ensure that the police are not called, and Freytag, to avoid hurting any member of his crew, agrees to their demand that their boat be repaired. The crew, however, will not do this and eventually it is cut free. This forces a showdown: Caspary demands that the lightship be loosed from its moorings to take them to freedom. Here, however, Freytag stops. He faces the gun aimed at him and is wounded, but does not give way. By now the police have been alerted, however, and the remaining two criminals—one has been killed, as has one member of the crew—are taken prisoner. The order of the sea has been maintained.

The sub-plot is concerned with the attitude of Freytag towards violence. Until the ship itself is threatened, and thus the whole concept of order at sea, he gives in to the demands of the three terrorists rather than risk harm to his crew. His son demands action, and reveals that his distaste for his father stems from tales of an incident in which his father was involved when in command of a sea-going ship. The ship had been lying off a Greek island with a cargo of grain, forbidden by the shipping company to put in and unload, in spite of famine, until the price could be forced up. The father and two others were held when the grain was eventually unloaded, were tortured, and only two returned to the ship. Freytag had refused to risk the entire crew to return for one man. The son understands neither this nor the attitude Freytag adopts towards Caspary and his accomplices, and the point of 'Das Feuerschiff' is precisely to explain that attitude.

Freytag realises that individual heroics are unsatisfactory, and acts—heroically—only when the entire concept of order is threatened…. (pp. 50-2)

'Das Feuerschiff' fits well into the mould of the nineteenth-century novella. There is a concentration of space, time and action, a limited cast, a 'remarkable incident' and a dominant symbol. The symbol is that of the lightship, there all the time, lighting a path through the treacherous waters, embodying Ordnung (order). The phrase 'bounden duty' takes on a new meaning here, and Lenz develops the paradox that the ship is tied—a prisoner to duty. Yet freedom is, for the ship, illusory—to unmoor it would mean to destroy the order of things.

The parable-like nature of the story as a whole is underlined in the character of Caspary…. The seamen are real: Freytag has been at sea for many years, has learned much and has realised the rôle of order and fixedness; and if the rest of his crew have some memorable attributes, such as Gombert with the crow as a pet, they are none the less real. Caspary is not a caricature, although the thugs who accompany him are more or less so…. [The] interest is in any case on Caspary, who is characterised (as Lenz so often does his sinister figures) with a gesture—here polishing a large ring—and with his dark glasses.

He is, of course, an allegorical figure: the force of evil itself. He has assumed the identity of his twin brother, a lawyer (another favourite theme of Lenz), and has also been a large-scale blackmailer. Lenz places him in opposition to, and in discussion with Freytag: the seductive force of evil is set against the principle of order. This is the experimental centre, the philosophical thesis of the work. For Caspary's activities as a blackmailer have a philosophical basis…. Original sin, or perhaps in a nontheological context 'original evil', does not demand cynical acceptance, it demands an imposed order. Caspary sneers at this: 'Order, Captain, is the triumph of a lack of imagination',… 'Phantasie'—the imagination that Caspary is so proud of, but which is such a danger. Imagination is a dangerous thing after all, and we recall that another German word for imagination is 'Einbildung', which can also be a 'delusion of grandeur'.

Here as in so many of his works, Lenz is writing about guilt as a state of being. Paradise may be an ethical prison, but it is still Paradise, and the way to return to Paradise is to impose on oneself the prison of order. The lightship has to be tied, and this is the basis of the work. It is—sneers Caspary—'a born prisoner' …, as is Freytag. But

if a ship goes down, then it is a single tragedy, and is part of the price that you have to pay when you follow the sea. But if a lightship leaves its post, the whole order of the sea is finished….

For this reason, when that seems possible, Freytag does act heroically. His last words in the story are addressed to his son: 'Everything in order?'…—and it is. This applies to the ship and now to his relationship with his son, who now understands him.

Given the strong allegorical mould of the work, it must be stressed that the tale is again a gripping one—more so perhaps than Stadtgespräch. Here we have too the superficial showdown tension, a German High Noon, and a narrative where the philosophical interludes—the debate between Freytag and Caspary—are less obtrusive. Elements of real tension are built in: one of the two criminal brothers is killed, and Caspary is taken prisoner, but released. One of the crew is also killed. There is an attempt on the part of the criminals to suborn a member of the crew, and, towards the end, a storm blows a live mine towards the ship. Freytag utilises the weapons and skill of the criminal Eddie to fire on and detonate the mine, thereby saving ship and pirates, and the political implications are interesting: a man without weapons has saved a situation by using the weapons and the force of evil. The concepts of the greatest good and the end as justifying the means are invoked. The incidents must be taken as they come, but order must prevail over all else. (pp. 52-4)

Brian Murdoch and Malcolm Read, in their Siegfried Lenz (© 1978 Oswald Wolff (Publishers) Limited), Wolff, 1978, 157 p.

Thomas Hajewski

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 intimately familiar with the German-Polish area it so vividly describes—i.e. Masuren, a region of thick forests, glistening lakes, strange wildlife and mystical folk customs. In fact the initial half of the novel is a collection of tales, all of which taken together make up a loose cultural history of the area and its inhabitants…. Of less interest to the uninitiated reader is Lenz's liberal use of regional dialect.

The speed of the narrative picks up appreciably around the novel's midpoint. The Nazi takeover is experienced in this corner of Europe with the same apprehension as elsewhere, within as well as beyond the borders of the Reich…. A crisis is reached when the museum, whose custodianship Rogalla has inherited from his deceased uncle, is to be converted from a regional museum of Masurian culture and history into a Grenzland-Museum, a restructured showcase emphasizing Nazi ideals and dedicated to visually justifying German as opposed to Slavic ownership of and rights to the region. The richness of the Masurian past as symbolized by the museum's contents and the near-mystical intermingling of "Geschichte, Heimat, Erinnerung" run like a current through this book, and the attempt at prostituting this relationship by the Nazis (and later by more contemporary factions) implants in Rogalla the idea of the museum's destruction a generation later…. After concluding that recent history has essentially not instructed, due to its cyclical nature, and has been grossly misused at the expense of home, family, tradition and memory, Rogalla destroys his beloved structure.

The novel is not without flaws. Lenz has attempted to give his long, often fragmented story more cohesion by having each part narrated by Rogalla as he is lying in a hospital bed recovering from burns received during the museum fire. A certain Martin Witt, presumably the reader, comes to visit him on more than a dozen occasions, each time being treated to another lengthy chapter of the narrative. This situation in itself, together with the sterile hospital surroundings and the initial confused state of the badly burned narrator, tends to opaque the work and presage the less-than-optimistic "moral" of the novel following the museum's destruction. The near daily, almost automatic appearance of Herr Witt and Rogalla's continued referral to him as simply "mein Lieber," take on a ritualistic tone which only anesthetizes the reader further.

In addition to a short-circuited attempt at giving this long book more cohesiveness, Lenz seems to have deviated little from his own earlier themes of guilt and atonement, duty and conscience, freedom and moral responsibility. While reading this novel, I kept fighting off the impressions that it had all been told before, in the so-called "Verlorene-Heimat" novels by other German writers and in more polished prose by Grass and Böll. Yet the clarity with which Lenz describes events from the Masurian past and his undeniable gift for storytelling (i.e., short story telling) demonstrate that the main problem with this novel lies more in form and structure rather than in literary relevance or content. Visitors to the Heimatmuseum will undoubtedly have more controversial, diverse opinions regarding its contents than would be the case with most bestselling German novels. (pp. 497-98)

Thomas Hajewski, in a review of "Heimatmuseum," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 497-98.

Salman Rushdie

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"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 xenophobia, tyranny and the doctrine of ethnic purity. "The Heritage" is, among many other things, an attempt to rescue the past from its exploiters: a fable of reclamation, the very writing of which entails a kind of heroism that reveals Siegfried Lenz … to be much more of an optimist than his narrator.

The novel begins when Rogalla deliberately burns down the museum in which, for most of his life, he has tended the relics of his homeland's past. His arson, we finally learn, is motivated by a desire "to bring the collected witnesses to our past into safety, a final, irrevocable safety, from which they would never again issue forth, but where they could never again be exploited for this cause or that." This would seem to be a deeply pessimistic act; but then again, through a feat of total recall that makes up most of the novel, Zygmunt Rogalla restores to us the history of his lost homeland, neither sentimentalized nor distorted, made neither quaint nor risible; the heritage is given back its innocence, because, as Rogalla knows, "in our memory things lead a purer existence."

Siegfried Lenz's novel is a colossal achievement. It contains a seemingly endless parade of striking images and characters who seem larger than life precisely because they are so beautifully rooted in life….

The homeland of "The Heritage" is an East Prussian province called Masuria, and it is made as real to us as Günter Grass's Kashubia…. The prevailing mood of "The Heritage," however, is more somber than Günter Grass ever gets. Which is not to say it is less memorable. Anyone who reads Siegfried Lenz's description of the evacuation of Lucknow in the last dark days of the Second World War will find it hard to get it out of his head….

The English-language edition of "The Heritage" has been "shortened with the co-operation of the author"; perhaps this accounts for the occasional jerkiness of the storyline, and for certain unsolved mysteries, such as why Zygmunt calls Conny "the great Konrad Karrasch" without really justifying the epithet. It seems a shame to have gone at this book with scissors; it's like arbitrarily removing some exhibits from a museum.

Never mind. The book has survived the surgery. It remains a genuinely fabulous tale, another demonstration that the fable is now the central, the most vital form in Western literature; and it should be read by anyone who takes pleasure in entering a world so beautifully and completely realized that, for all its apparent alienness, it rapidly becomes our own.

Salman Rushdie, "A Fable of Reclamation," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 19, 1981, p. 6.

S. N. Plaice

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 by the establishment of the Polish Corridor in 1919. It is East Prussia, more specifically the dreary swamps and lakes of Masuria, which provide the setting for Siegfried Lenz's historical novel [The Heritage]. The original title of the book was Heimatmuseum, and it seems faint-hearted of Krishna Winston, the translator of this otherwise admirable American version, to abandon the German and opt for the unappealingly general title of The Heritage. This sacrifices the two central ideas of the book at a stroke. For Lenz must surely have intended the museum not only as a metaphor for the whole ideology of "Heimat", but also as a metaphor for his own novel. Heimatmuseum is itself a work of restoration and preservation, an anecdotal, folkloristic and historical archive of the vanished culture of Lenz's native province, which was wholly incorporated into Poland at the end of the Second World War.

The book is a spoken memoir. From his hospital bed, Zygmunt Rogalla, the rugmaker, relates his former life in the Masurian town of Lucknow to a silent listener, Witt…. The constant asides to Witt are tediously artificial and intrusive upon a narrative that really needs no framework. They show up glaringly in translation. The narrator-rugmaker analogy is carefully exploited, however. Zygmunt weaves the events of his own life, the semi-magical cultural heritage and the political history of Masuria into a single tapestry.

The narrative begins exuberantly with Zygmunt's childhood….

In adulthood, as Zygmunt learns the art of rugmaking and inherits the museum, Conny [Zygmunt's childhood friend] becomes a free-thinking journalist, championing the Polish minority and opposing the increasingly Nazi local Homeland Association. Adam Rogalla had originally described his collection of Masurian relics as "unimpeachable witnesses", but Conny is by now fully aware of the sinister purpose to which they might be put…. A visit from a Nazi official to effect the removal of all non-Aryan exhibits confirms Conny's suspicions and obliges Zygmunt to close the museum to the public.

With the advent of National Socialism, the narrative no longer has the same exuberance. The impression is of individual destiny giving way to remorseless historical forces and collectivist ideology. In keeping with this, perhaps, the characters that now crowd the book grow blander, and the historical events are reported in a more conventionally realistic style. The final, inevitable flight from Masuria is a rather tired inventory of the deprivations of war. It is tempting to reproach Lenz for allowing the narrative to flag, but the shift in style does reinforce the cultural argument of the book—that the creative individualism of regional Germany was swamped by a centralized ideology proclaiming the very values of "Heimat" it was actually destroying.

There is no suggestion that post-war German democracy reversed this cultural decline. At the end of the war, with the help of other Masurians in exile, Zygmunt reconstructs the Heimatmuseum in Schleswig, in the Bundesrepublik. His subsequent decision to destroy the collection is largely influenced by Conny's sudden and rather implausible volte-face. Uprooted from Masuria, the journalist falls into the sentimental trap he had once so sardonically criticized. He begins to write nostalgic pieces on "the lost homeland", and becomes deeply involved with the Lucknow Homeland Association, reformed in exile….

Zygmunt's ultimate realization is that the only way of making relics of the past safe from present exploitation is to destroy them. But the extension of this paradox is that Lenz has preserved the relics of the Masurian past in his own Heimatmuseum, the novel, and written a work that cannot disguise its nostalgia for a lost homeland and for a vanished epoch of regional German culture. Thus, on one level, The Heritage is propagating the same values of "Heimat" that Lenz has seen so ruthlessly distorted and exploited in Germany. A hankering for the things of the past and a desire to preserve them is, he believes, a human weakness to which not even the most critical intellect is immune. The past refuses to be obliterated, but in his own book Lenz has at least managed to press it into the service of enlightenment rather than reaction. The feeling remains, however, that the past cannot be presented impartially: its retrieval must always serve an ideological purpose.

The Heritage deserves comparison with Dr Faustus and The Tin Drum as a comprehensive analysis of Germany's cultural disintegration. Zygmunt may not have quite the naive humanity of a Zeitblom or the charisma of an Oskar to make a memorable narrator, but Lenz has nevertheless managed to put Masuria on the literary map forty years after it ceased to exist politically.

S. N. Plaice, "The Masurian Museum," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4089, August 14, 1981, p. 928.

Wes Blomster

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 allows his observations upon man and language to emerge as the major theme of the work. Through the loss of speech the hero grows inaccessible even to himself. The novel ends with cautious optimism, indicating that, while there might indeed be no solution to today's problems, everyone stands nonetheless at a beginning, where he must learn to give voice to his being. The imperative is hailed as the only proper and possible approach to life.

The control which Lenz exercises over his low-keyed narrative offers at the outset little hint of the intensity which it will soon achieve. Subplots reflecting the troubles of everyday people—the eviction of a retired couple from their dwelling, the violent death of a teen-ager—give the book that rootedness in reality which has always distinguished Lenz's product. The most powerful moments in the book are those in which the speechless hero attempts to express himself—only to produce incoherent and meaningless sounds.

Wes Blomster, in a review of "Der Verlust," in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring, 1982, p. 327.

Hanna Geldrich-Leffman

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 artist … cannot shed his obligation to make these problems of his fellow men his own…. (p. 689)

Light as the symbol of intellectual clearsightedness and mastery is stressed as being a positive quality. Blindness in such a context can have only a negative value and will stand for the intellectually closed world of a society that is not free. The existence of such totalitarian states is a deep preoccupation of Lenz; conflicts of responsibility and the question of guilt, as well as the theme of conflict between the individual and power or between the human and the inhuman are constantly reappearing in his works.

Two works of Lenz depict just such a totalitarian society, the short story, "Die Augenbinde" … and the apparent reworking of the same theme in the play also entitled Die Augenbinde…. In the short story three men who play cards together during their ride home on a commuter train talk about the serial story one of them had read in his local newspaper about the happenings in a small town called Tekhila…. The story describes how the whole town, led by the mayor who has a leather eye-cover, goes to the school-house to capture the son of the teacher for his "crime" of being able to see. The father tries to protect his son by denials and justifications, but the young boy freely admits his newly gained sight.

He pleads for his freedom by telling the townspeople that precisely because he can see, he could be useful to them since he could show them the economic possibilities of Tekhila. But they do not react…. So he is captured, taken out of town and bound to the one end of the water-wheel drawn around in a circle by a mule, and the cover is put on his eyes. Everything is done without hesitation, without words, as if it had been done many times before, and the man who binds the boy seems to do it out of a sense of personal experience…. The one word which is never mentioned throughout the whole story is "blindness!"

In the play, Die Augenbinde, a similar theme is presented. Here it is a scientific expedition stranded at a place called Mallidor, where everybody is blind. The members of the expedition are called upon to join the community, and it becomes increasingly clear to them that they will not be allowed to leave. But the price to join life at Mallidor is conformity with life there, blindness. In contrast to Tekhila, physical force is applied only as a last resort. The first approach is persuasion, persuasion to put on the eye-cover or mask…. Should they not "choose" to take the eye-cover and accept the life of the community, they are faced with total abandonment and eventual death. (pp. 689-90)

Slowly the forces of Mallidor seem to win, and one by one the members of the expeditionary group choose the security of submission and acceptance, take the cover, and go to town just as in Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros and Max Frisch's Andorra the characters opt for conformity. First they see the rule of blindness as a sickness that permeated everything in town…. Later Carla, the only woman of the group, and one who … constitutes the pivotal center and the core of resistance, analyzes it more correctly saying that it is fear that made these laws, the fear that light should fall into a "diseased" eye…. It is a rule that fears the light because it could not prevail over people with open eyes. It will therefore use whatever means it can to establish its control over people. One means was violence, the other persuasion. Convenient slogans were used to brain-wash the population and give this ultimately anti-human rule a cover of respectability, even of humanitarianism…. And it is again Carla who rebels against them. It is Carla who recognizes the diabolical reversal of values which prevails in this society where insight is negated and blindness is used for its own distorted aims…. Only the blind can be led by such words. Blindness then stands here as the symbol of ignorance and evil, the counterpart of enlightened knowledge symbolized by light.

The ultimate irony in the situation at Mallidor is the fact that the rulers, the mayor, are themselves not blind. When he is confronted by the strangers who can see that he is not blind, the mayor justifies himself by saying that he has to be different to ensure balance…. But Mircea confronts his father when he suddenly realizes the deception…. The ultimate crime in this deception, Mircea feels, is that his father has left them all in ignorance and made them deceive themselves…. But even armed with this knowledge no revolution happens and Mallidor continues as it is. It is the now blind Alf, the real "seer," who, aided by Carla, who is now called a Kassandra, will continue the resistance, since the only road to salvation is seen in rebellion and the opposition to force.

The play has been called a simple political parable of opposition to a dictatorship, a parable of the vulnerability and power of free men; sight is a symbol for contact with reality, discernment, and the ability to choose, and conversely, blindness is the absence of all of these. It has received relatively poor critical reaction, yet it does embody thematically some of the central preoccupations of Lenz: the problems of freedom, power, tyranny, and humanism. (pp. 691-92)

The startling fact about the image of blindness … is that it can stand for seemingly contradictory aspects of reality, i.e. the negative aspect of lack of knowledge and insight, as in Lenz, or the positive aspect of a deeper understanding and truer knowledge of life…. [It] is used to distance the audience from the play so that a critical attitude becomes possible. It also makes it possible for … Alf in Die Augenbinde to become to a certain extent [a sacrificial victim] whose death or sacrifice brings about the resolution of the conflict…. [Blindness is] used to symbolize the ambiguity of language, its possibilities to mask and hide as well as to reveal and communicate truth so that blindness becomes a most appropriate symbol for the paradox of language, truth and life itself. There is a constant shifting between two levels of sight and blindness: physical sight representing the visual aspect of reality stands as a limiting factor for the literary artist and is combined with intellectual, spiritual blindness; whereas physical blindness representing the non-visual, imaginative, mystical and spiritual aspects of reality stands as the liberating, open, non-limiting factor for the creative imagination and is therefore combined with deeper intellectual and spiritual knowledge and insight. Sight and blindness are used as the metaphor for language in its double aspect of revealing and hiding, limiting the truth, not only in the outright negative abusive use of the lie or the premeditated un-truth but also in the fact that as soon as language is uttered or made seen a limiting factor comes into play masking the total reality of the statement. (p. 693)

Hanna Geldrich-Leffman, "Vision and Blindness in Dürrenmatt, Buero Vallejo, and Lenz," in MLN (© copyright 1982 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), Vol. 97, No. 3, April, 1982, pp. 671-93.∗


Lenz, Siegfried (Short Story Criticism)