Siegfried Lenz: The German Lesson

October 21, 2016

41ufinpue1l-_ac_us160_A chance, passing reference somewhere recently sent me back to this novel, which I haven’t read for more than twenty years. I was instantly reminded of Günter GrassThe Tin Drum, a comparison which I don’t think had occurred to me on previous readings, and which got me thinking. Along with Heinrich Böll, these are three writers particularly associated with German attempts to reconnect with a sense of conscience and morality as they explore the cesspool of Nazism and its effect on the German people in various ways. It’s easy for a non-German to call this a necessary task; it’s certainly an incredibly difficult one, and I have a certain admiration for those who have persisted over the years.

Grass and Lenz share the fact that they originate from territories the Germans lost at the end of the war: Grass’ hometown of Danzig, an international city, has become Gdansk, in Poland, and Lenz’s hometown Lyck is now Elk in the Masurian region of Poland. The rights and wrongs of this ethnic cleansing are far too complex to elucidate here.

The setting of The German Lesson is Schleswig-Holstein, the area around the town of Husum near the border with Denmark, and gives the novel a far bleaker feel than Grass’ novels: small settlements and flat wind-swept coastlines are no match for the international and multiracial city of Oskar Mazerath’s story. Grass’ novel is narrated by a boy/man who is the inmate of an asylum; Lenz’s narrator is a juvenile delinquent incarcerated in an institution. It’s interesting that those who were children in the Nazi-time are not able to become ‘normal’ functioning adults – even Grass himself kept his forced membership (he was 14 at the time) of the SS a secret almost until his death, to the shock and horror of many.

Siggi’s father is a village policman given the task of monitoring a painter who has fallen foul of the Nazi authorities and been banned from painting; he takes this duty very seriously, obsessively even. He is a very strict father, and his wife a taciturn and sour woman; they make their children’s lives hell, imposing senseless rules and vicious punishments; in the end the children are desperate to escape. The elder son shoots himself in the arm to avoid military service and is repudiated by his parents, cast out from the family never to be mentioned and when he turns up back at the family home, having been seriously injured in an air attack, they turn him in. Siggi begins to take and secrete paintings to save them from his father, who, even after the end of the war, does not give up the task he was set by the Nazi authorities…

Lenz puts the idea of duty under the microscope. We see Siggi’s father’s idiotic and overbearing sense of it poisoning all family relationships and friendships, tipping him into mania. Max, the painter, sustains his duty to his art through a series of invisible paintings in a cat-and-mouse game with the policeman, that we aren’t always invited to approve of, I think. And Siggi the delinquent is punished for not writing his essay on the joys of duty by the prison governor, at which point he makes it his duty to explain himself – through the novel, demonstrating a similar, if less harmful (?) obsessiveness to his father.

It’s a far more pessimistic novel than I remember: Siggi the delinquent cannot live a straight life though he may wish to, and has nothing to look forward to outside the juvenile offenders’ institution; can he even have a clear picture of what an ordinary life might be? Irrevocably shaped – perverted and twisted by his father, and equally, though with out violence and horror, cajoled and patronised into accepting another duty by the governor – what chance has he?

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