Posts Tagged ‘Heinrich Boll’

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?

Siegfried Lenz

October 13, 2014

I learnt from a casual visit to the New York Times yesterday of the death of the writer Siegfried Lenz; nothing seems to have appeared in the British press so far.

Lenz was another German writer – rather less known over here than the likes of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll – who wrote about the Nazi period in Germany, the issues of resistance, and what was lost with the war. The German Lesson tells of an artist out of favour with the regime who is sent to live in a remote village near the Danish border, and his relationship with the country policeman who is deputed to keep a vigilant eye on him. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but I do recall vivid descriptions of the area and its remoteness, and of the understanding that develops between the two characters.

The Heritage shares rather more with Grass, I think. Both came from the same region: Grass from the former Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland) and Lenz from rather further east, the town of Lyck in East Prussia, now Ełk in Poland. It’s from this convoluted geography that springs the tragedies they both recall in different ways, for before the Second World War, the region was inhabited by Germans, Poles and other, smaller, minority groups who had lived side by side for centuries. The Versailles settlement of 1919 began the process of separating peoples via plebiscites in various parts of the region, with the choice of belonging to Germany or Poland; the special status of Danzig/Gdańsk became one of the focal points in the lead-up to the Second World War.

It seems to me that extremism – nationalism – furthers division between people, and after the horrors of the war, nothing could remain the same. Ethnic cleansing came to this corner of Europe: the Germans were removed from Gdańsk, which became a purely Polish city, and so many of Grass’ novels and writings paint a picture of a vanished world, and the sadness that it was lost; similarly, East Prussia could no longer exist: the population fled in before the advancing Soviet armies. Lenz depicts this trauma in The Heritage; centuries of a shared past vanish in a few months. Those who didn’t flee were expelled by the new Soviet and Polish administrations. And you can’t say that they could or should have done anything else, when you read of what the Nazis did and encouraged Germans to do to non-Germans in those areas.

All of this is, of course, fading into history with the passing of those who knew it and could write so well about it; it exists in old maps and place-names, and in the ideal of different peoples being able to live together. Of course, this was an ideal; the history of the borderlands tells a grimmer story, and yet something has surely been lost for ever with the coming of national homogeneity.

German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

Writing from other worlds…

July 7, 2014

As English is the dominant world language, and it’s ours, I have always felt that literature from other countries barely gets a look-in in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why I read French Literature at university along with English, and have worked to sustain my working knowledge of one other language. And then, there’s the fact that, proud as I am to have the language of Shakespeare as my mother tongue, I’m in fact only half English. The other half of me is Polish, and this has always reminded me that there is another world, there are other worlds out there…

It’s not possible for anyone to keep up with all the literature in the world; I don’t know how long ago that might once have been possible. So I’m aware that, even though I read quite widely, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. When I read other people’s blogs about literature, I see how much else there is that I have no awareness of. So I choose, I follow certain tracks for certain reasons. This means that others are inevitably ignored. I have always been interested in Eastern European literature, particularly that written during the time of the various so-called communist regimes of the Cold War; it was fascinating to observe truths being told even under the eyes of the censors. Now, of course, that writers there have the same ‘freedoms’ as we have in the West, they are writing more of the same stuff that we produce. Having my origins in the outcome of the Second World War, I have also been fascinated with how Germans have come to terms (or not) with what was done by them and in their names during the Hitler years; I suppose Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll spring to mind at once.

Something fascinated me with Latin America and magic realism – I can’t remember what or when – and I like the perspective it offers on life and story-telling. And a chance discovery of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and its amazing bookshop opened my eyes to some of the literature of the Arab world: so very different, but, as importantly, just as valid a perspective on the world as our own. Amin Maalouf and Naguib Mahfouz spring immediately to mind.

I would find it almost impossible to justify what I’m about to say, which is that, in comparison with the literature I’ve just described above, I have found a great deal of the English and American literature I have encountered from the same time-period, ie since the Second World War, rather dull, introspective, navel-gazing even. I’ll counter this immediately by mentioning Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as instances of new and exciting anglophone writing, but also categorise them as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Reading through what I’ve just written, I’m realising that I can’t just leave things there; I’m going to have to explore some of the bold and sweeping statements I’ve made in more depth and detail, and attempt to be clearer and fairer…

to be continued…

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