Posts Tagged ‘The German Lesson’

Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

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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?

German literature and me

August 29, 2015

I’ve always been fascinated by Germany, its history and its past. I first read Günter Grass in the sixth form at school, the short Cat and Mouse first, a little thrown by the nature and development of the narrative and the authorial interaction with his reader, but drawn in by his yearning for and love of his home city Danzig which I’d visited the year previously in its Polish incarnation as Gdansk. For me, The Tin Drum, his first novel, remains his best (and Volker Schlondorff‘s film is a wonderful version, but only of the first half of the book); some of the later ones are a little self-indulgent. His memoirs, the cause of much controversy, are fascinating.

Grass, and his contemporary Heinrich Böll, were two German writers who made the attempt to come to terms in some way – if that is possible – with their country’s Nazi past; Siegfried Lenz also does this in two novels little-known in this country, The German Lesson and The Heritage. On my travels in Germany I’ve noticed that nation’s recent attempts to be honest with itself, and to ensure that the past is not forgotten (though it was not always thus). However, I have found the occasional slight hint in some quarters ‘don’t forget, we were victims too’ à propos of the damage inflicted by bombing on the country, or the expulsion of Germans from former territories, to stick quite heavily in my craw.

My reading of German literature has been mostly twentieth century novels, though I have read some Goethe (Elective Affinities) and loved Fontane‘s Effi Briest. I have been unable to get anywhere with Thomas Mann, I’m afraid. My favourite read of all remains Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life, a haunting tale of a sea captain’s response to the horrors of the Great War: he flees everything and buries himself in the depths of the East Prussian countryside, to live the life of a hermit. It’s a beautiful book, which I’m sure appeals to the ex-hippy in me; I have to go back and re-read it every few years and it never palls.

Hermann Hesse was the big discovery at university – another writer briefly popular in the sixties and seventies but who has now slipped back into obscurity. Siddhartha was the most widely-read novel (there’s an excellent Librivox recording, too) although it was Narziss and Goldmund, a tale of two young men and their relationship in mediaeval times, that really spoke to me. Again there was a really clear sense of time and place, and of the longing for something sought for and lost.

This seems to me, on my limited acquaintance with German literature, to be one of its markers or strengths: the past as somewhere beautiful and hearkened back to, along with the need to know and find oneself. Perhaps it’s something about the landscape and territory the further east one goes? The plains and the forests stretch on for miles and miles and it’s possible to get really in touch with one’s relative insignificance. Being reasonably familiar with Gdansk, and what was East Prussia (most of it is now part of Poland) I think I can understand the feelings of Wiechert, Lenz and Grass.

What I know of Germany, and what I have seen of it, I love. For me, as a half-Pole, its recent past does render it ultimately incomprehensible, though.

 

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.

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