Siegfried Lenz 1926–
West German novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.
Among the foremost authors of contemporary German literature, Lenz is known for expressing humanitarian concerns in his fiction. Although his works maintain a distinctly German identity, their themes are universal, presenting current issues and problems.
Lenz's novels Das Feuerschiff (1960; The Lightship) and Stadtgesprach (1963; The Survivor) were translated into English in the early 1960s but did not receive a significant amount of critical attention in the United States. Stadtgesprach, however, is now noted as an important introduction to Lenz's recurring themes: duty, and the causes and nature of inhumanity and guilt. With the publication of Deutschtunde (1968; The German Lesson), Lenz gained international recognition. Most critics judge this novel to be Lenz's masterpiece. Here he fully develops early themes and examines how the lives and minds of Germans were changed by World War II.
Lenz's short stories are noted for their concise style and credible characterizations. In many of these tales, Lenz analyzes the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The same theme emerges in such later novels as Das Vorbild (1973; An Exemplary Life) and Heimatmuseum (1978; The Heritage).
All of Lenz's work displays his subtle sense of humor and perceptive sense of detail. Though critics consider his recent book, Der Verlust (1981; The Loss), slightly mawkish, they agree that its subject, the loss of speech, leads to an insightful study of language and silence.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
[In The Survivor Siegfried Lenz] created a dilemma of a not unfamiliar sort. The Resistance in a Norwegian village has tried to assassinate a German general. In retaliation, the local commandant has taken 44 hostages—the leading men of the town—and intends to shoot them if the leader of the Resistance does not give himself up.
Which is more important, continuing the Resistance or saving the lives of the hostages? Accepting the hypothesis that the cause of the Resistance was just in an absolute sense, there really is no question, but the right decision is the one that raises particularly painful questions of individual morality. The exploration of these problems is the main business of 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.
[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 words, the fugitives are trying to escape from the Nazi police State or from communist East Germany. Now what Lenz is doing in Stimmungen der See is to concentrate on psychological tensions set against the background of the sea that he knows and...
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