Siegfried Lenz Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Siegfried Lenz 1926–

West German novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.

Among the foremost authors of contemporary German literature, Lenz is known for expressing humanitarian concerns in his fiction. Although his works maintain a distinctly German identity, their themes are universal, presenting current issues and problems.

Lenz's novels Das Feuerschiff (1960; The Lightship) and Stadtgesprach (1963; The Survivor) were translated into English in the early 1960s but did not receive a significant amount of critical attention in the United States. Stadtgesprach, however, is now noted as an important introduction to Lenz's recurring themes: duty, and the causes and nature of inhumanity and guilt. With the publication of Deutschtunde (1968; The German Lesson), Lenz gained international recognition. Most critics judge this novel to be Lenz's masterpiece. Here he fully develops early themes and examines how the lives and minds of Germans were changed by World War II.

Lenz's short stories are noted for their concise style and credible characterizations. In many of these tales, Lenz analyzes the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The same theme emerges in such later novels as Das Vorbild (1973; An Exemplary Life) and Heimatmuseum (1978; The Heritage).

All of Lenz's work displays his subtle sense of humor and perceptive sense of detail. Though critics consider his recent book, Der Verlust (1981; The Loss), slightly mawkish, they agree that its subject, the loss of speech, leads to an insightful study of language and silence.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

Kenneth Lamott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 entire section is 236 words.)

C.A.H. Russ

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1688 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Michael Hamburger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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"...

(The entire section is 1539 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I'm finding it very difficult to choke back hostility to Siegfried Lenz's "The German Lesson," to resist complaining that a certain ponderousness weighs it down, a certain unwillingness to come to the point, a certain metaphysical elusiveness. I want to indulge my prejudice against the Teutonic imagination, to agree with a not unperceptive student I once knew, who in a fit of exasperation with Johann Fichte (I believe it was) scrawled at the bottom of a term paper the message that "GERMANS CAN'T WRITE."…

My inclination is to sum up Mr. Lenz's plot and theme with a series of questions that may make his work sound somewhat less than compelling. Why is the story's hero, Siggi Jepsen, locked up in a...

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Kingsley Shorter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)

Phillip Corwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rarely is a novelist able to operate successfully in several simultaneous dimensions—personal, historical, and esthetic—without resorting to allegory, artifice, or just bad writing. In The German Lesson, Siegfried Lenz turns the trick. He has created characters with profound political and artistic significance who never lose their credibility as people….

The implications of this story are so broad that they form a kind of invisible picture of the most fundamental characteristics of the modern age: the conflicts between art and totalitarianism, between blind obedience and the dictates of conscience, between family and society, between freedom and responsibility, between the writer and his...

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D. Keith Mano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

David Pryce-Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Lothar Kahn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

G. P. Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Die Phantasie"], the last, longest, and most recently written of the thirteen pieces which go to make up this collection, Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg, is, if not the best, certainly the clearest single illustration of [Siegfried Lenz's] thematic inventiveness that one could hope for in what is still, after all, a shortish story of some forty-five pages. Three writers of differing artistic persuasions meet in a pub and agree to show each other their paces by improvising tales which might explain the presence there of the unknown couple in the corner—their only fellow customers. All three are, of course, Herr Lenz: Klimke, who is "convinced that one can only reveal reality with the aid of the...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The basic theme of [the novel Stadtgespräch (The Survivor) and the story 'Das Feuerschiff' ('The Lightship')] is the choice of evils imposed when hostages are taken for any purpose. That they come to different conclusions—insofar as they come to conclusions at all—is probably inevitable. The increase in kidnapping as a political weapon over the past few years has, moreover, sharpened the sensitivity of the reader to the problems inherent in this kind of theme, but an increased awareness of the possibilities of such a situation has not made the possibility of a general solution any more likely. Lenz does, of course, treat the theme in his drama Zeit der Schuldlosen, and the 'experimental' situation...

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Thomas Hajewski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his weighty book [Heimatmuseum, Lenz] tells the story of a Masurian Heimatmuseum, from its creation by an uncle of the narrator Zygmunt Rogalla, through its sixty-year history up until its deliberate incineration by the narrator himself. Like the situation in Böll's Billard um halbzehn in which Robert Faemel blows up the monastery built by his grandfather, Rogalla's Akt der Befreiung is similarly motivated, even though the reasons for the museum's destruction are several and fundamentally more complex than in Böll's book. They generate the overall suspense of the novel and are only revealed at the book's end.

Heimatmuseum should appeal most favorably to those...

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Salman Rushdie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

S. N. Plaice

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The concept of "Heimat" has no adequate equivalent in English because German history has charged it with such disreputable connotations. The Nazis appropriated the word for ideological purposes…. The concept of a traditional, regional home was already strongly rooted in popular consciousness, and it was not long before the word "Heimat" no longer implied sentimental feelings towards one's own homeland, but rather patriotic feelings towards the "völkisch" element of the rural past, a reverence for all things that purported to be of ethnic German origin….

This atavistic "heimat" ideology was naturally of great significance in East Prussia, a province separated from the fatherland for a second time...

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Wes Blomster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Hanna Geldrich-Leffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The image of blindness, actual physical blindness, appears in literature from the earliest times to our days. When we confront the image, a bewildering array of possible interpretations leads into seemingly different directions. On the surface, blindness, like any other physical or mental impairment, has a negative meaning. Yet, on closer examination, another, positive, side appears and, in turn, suggests an ambivalent, two-sided structure of the symbol. It is perhaps the richness of allusive meanings which accounts for the fascination it holds for writers and which makes it a most appropriate symbol for our times. (p. 671)

For the writer Siegfried Lenz art is responsibility and commitment and the...

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