Siegfried Lenz 1926-
German short story writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
Along with Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, and Martin Walser, Siegfried Lenz is a leading figure in post-World War II German literature. Best known for his novels, Lenz has also garnered popular and critical acclaim for his stories, which are noted for their realism and traditional narrative style. His writing often probes themes of duty, authority, and responsibility, though the political resonance of his fiction is more often understated than overt. According to William P. Hanson, Lenz's "ultimate interest is in people and their relationships, and the multiple possibilities inherent in human character. Not the black and white strokes, but the grey shaded areas of human experience are what he can reproduce with a fine sensitivity. Responsibility and aspiration, indifference and weakness are his chief concerns."
Lenz was born in Lyck, a small town in Masuria, East Prussia, which is now part of Poland. He entered the navy in 1943, still a teenager, and served on a cruiser in the Baltic. Lenz deserted in Denmark during the last months of the war and handed himself over to British authorities. After the war he studied literature at the University of Hamburg, and eventually became an editor of the newspaper Die Welt. Lenz published his own short stories in Die Welt, as well as his first novel, Es waren Habichte in der Luft (Hawks Were in the Air), in 1951. An original member of the Gruppe 47, an influential cadre of post-war writers in the 1950s, his first real literary success was a book of stories about his native Masuria, So zärtlich war Suleyken (So Tender Was Suleyken). These stories he ostensibly wrote to give his wife an idea of his homeland. Lenz's next major work was his novel Deutschstunde (The German Lesson), published in 1968. This book about the conflict between duty and responsibility in a small town during the war was a critically acclaimed best-seller, and considered by many to be Lenz's best work. Lenz was active politically in the 1960s as a campaign speaker for the Social Democratic party. In 1970 he accompanied Chancellor Willy Brandt to Poland to witness the signing of a German-Polish treaty. Lenz has received numerous awards for his novels and short stories, including many of the highest honors in German literature. He is esteemed for the seriousness of his work, and the way he raises difficult issues without dogmatically providing answers. Though he is a popular author in Germany, with many of his novels and short stories adapted for film and television, he is not as well known outside of Germany as some of his contemporaries.
Major Works of Short Fiction
So Tender Was Suleyken was Lenz's first collection of short stories to reach a wide audience. This collection, which is considered among the most sentimental of Lenz's works, is atypical of Lenz's oeuvre. The issues most associated with Lenz—responsibility and moral choice, especially during wartime—are fully present in his later collections, Jäger des Spotts (Hunter of Ridicule) and Das Feuerschiff (The Lightship). Many of the stories in these works, which are clearly influenced by Ernest Hemingway, involve heroism and failure in battles against the elements. The title story of The Lightship concerns a captain's struggle against criminals who try to hijack his ship. The captain is unwilling to resist the criminals until they move the lightship, which marks the channel, and thus endanger other ships in the area. The point at which resistance is warranted is a theme that occurs again and again in Lenz's fiction. This is an important aspect of his best-selling novel The German Lesson, as well as in the novella Ein Kriegsende (An End of the War). This story, which Lenz helped adapt for German television, tells of a cruiser sent on an impossible rescue mission just as the surrender has been announced. The captain is set on continuing with the mission, but the crew mutinies and the quartermaster takes control of the ship. The quartermaster sails the ship into a Danish harbor where, after a quick court-martial, he is condemned to death and shot. This masterful tale exhibits Lenz's great skill at telling a story from the inside. The perspective of the captain, who is willing to rescue wounded soldiers despite the risks, as well as the viewpoint of the frightened crew and the resourceful, responsible quartermaster, are all fully developed, so that there is no clear or right solution in the story. Thus, the quick and brutal decision of the military court comes as a particular shock. Aside from the more experimental stories collected in Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg (Einstein Crosses the Elbe near Hamburg), Lenz's work is highly traditional. Many of his works, such as So Tender was Suleyken, Der Geist der Mirabelle (Spirit of the Yellow Plum) and the novel Heimatmuseum (The Heritage), deal with village or small town life in provincial Germany, and thus are more endearing and accessible to Germans than to Lenz's audience abroad. However, critics agree that his best works, though concerned with specifically German problems—such as responsibility for actions under the Nazis—are deeply philosophical and reach a level of universal human understanding.
Lenz has been considered one of the three or four leading authors in Germany since the 1950s. His novel The German Lesson was acclaimed internationally, and several of his later novels have been widely translated. His short stories have a devoted following in Germany, and many critics consider him more skilled in short fiction than in the novel. Lenz has received high literary honors in Germany, and has been invited to lecture abroad many times. Despite his popularity and renown at home, Lenz has not achieved the international stature of his contemporaries, Grass and Böll. This may be because his style is more restrained. Even so, Lenz is clearly one of Germany's most valued authors, deeply respected for the depth and seriousness of his work.