Lenz, Siegfried (2009), Landesbühne, Hoffmann und Campe
Siegfried Lenz is one of the least well known, most important German postwar writers. A few key books of his have been translated, such as his 1968 masterpiece Deutschstunde (translated by Kaiser and Wilkins as The German Lesson (New Directions, 1986)), but in general, he is not as highly regarded or even as much read as contemporaries like Günter Grass or the infinitely less competent Martin Walser, which is a shame. Lenz’ work is rich and offers brooding, long and insightful novels about German history, as well as short, suspenseful novellas and even shorter stories. In fact, many critics have proposed the view that Lenz is a better writer of short stories than of novels, just like Heinrich Böll. His novels are usually written in a tradition that includes Thomas Mann’s good works and Raabe’s last novels, i.e. books that are as adept at individual psychology as at a sweeping (if often harsh) social analysis and criticism. These novels are often as dark as the history they are grappling with, but not outright judgmental. Lenz is a generous writer, writing with a love of the people and the country he enshrines in his work, however negative these books may sound at a first glance. There is a certain weakness that comes with this approach; in his novels Lenz never seems quite as concise and focused as he could be.
This is amended by his stories, which are far more indebted to Gottfried Keller’s stories about the simple people of Seldwyla (I think there is a translation of those published by J.M.Dent in 1929). He channels the same love and generosity in these stories but the economy of his writing is frequently flabbergasting. It’s no surprise that many German schools use Lenz’ stories as model examples of what a well-executed story should look like. And unlike lukewarm writers like Paul Auster, Lenz is upfront and direct, as far as his convictions are concerned. The character in his most well known novel, Deutschstunde, is driven by a need to tell his story, to make it known, to explain himself and the culture that produced him, and while, as a whole, books like Deutschstunde can seem meandering, that urgency is always part of Lenz’ work. Or it used to be. Recently, the formerly prolific writer, who, after all, has published some fifteen novels and numerous collections of stories as well as about ten novellas, has started to write less and less and what he does write frequently seems like a complacent exercise more than a novel that needed to be written. But they are still very good books that show us a writer at the height of his powers as a writer, as far as technical prowess is concerned.
In his most recent books, like the 2008 novella Schweigeminute (which will be published in English translation as Stella in 2010 by The Other Press (Random House)), Lenz is nothing short of stunning. Within a handful of words, Lenz evokes ambiguities, characters, whole histories. Lenz manipulates his readers at will, without pushing himself on them. A friend recently remarked of a different book that it made her feel “supervised” (which is a great expression), and although Lenz certainly controls and supervises his readers, it is part of his mastery to never let them feel that. In addition to this, he’s also creating subtle, very readable and elegant books that are wearing their importance and the thought and the ideas that went into them lightly. It is this quality of his work that makes such an, ultimately, difficult writer sell so well. His 2003 novel Fundbüro was printed with an initial print run of 100.000, which isn’t too bad for a slightly solipsist novel set in a lost-and-found. Fundbüro is interesting in still other ways. In it we can also see Lenz, who made German history the theme he pursued most obsessively (but not exclusively!), starting to play with geography and history, with the tyranny of facts. Many readers and reviewers have been irritated by contradictory details that make the novel (that appears to be highly realistic) difficult to pinpoint historically.
For lesser writers that kind of writing can be an excuse to be sloppily sentimental in their treatment of historical or social issues (I’m currently accruing notes on Auster’s treatment of Bertran de Born), but with Lenz it’s one more acknowledgment of the kind of control he exercises over his material. In the same vein, he approaches literature and geography in his most recent book, Landesbühne, which, according to Lenz’ labeling, is neither a short story, nor a novel or a novella; however, the length of it (~120 pages) and the condensed, inward structure of the whole book do suggest a novella, but who am I to argue. Whatever else it is, Landesbühne is a quick read that seems to be easy to comprehend at first but offers several puzzles and complications when you look closer at it. The book is largely set in the Isenbüttel prison. It is narrated (a third person personal narrator) by a former university professor, who has been locked up (the details remain sketchy) after he was suspected of sleeping with some of his female students and giving them the best grades in exchange for the sexual favors accorded to him. The professor is fairly well known in his field; one of his critical works on the Sturm und Drang epoch has become standard reading in schools and universities, and the superficially read prison warden, priding himself on his education, accordingly venerates his most well known prisoner.
Other prisoners include a former referee whose corruption was his ticket to a period behind bars and Hannes, who used to impersonate policemen and, in that costume, fine traffic offenders (who were surprisingly quick to shell out the money). Unusual as this group may seem, the professor, the referee and Hannes are not accidentally chosen, each of their fates provides a comment on how a certain kind of authority works within German society (authority and obedience, and their role in German culture and history is a standard theme in Lenz’ work, as well as the interconnectedness of political (punitive, even) power, with the control and dissemination of knowledge); the book as a whole can be said to be about a crisis and a prevalent strength of these kinds of authorities. But on a more direct level, it is a clever little story with lovable characters that is set up as an allegory, as cold trickery, but that, in the end, transcends these simple categories. It is equal parts realism and playing games with symbols, structure and intertextuality. The former is most visible in Lenz’ treatment of his characters who practically fly from the page, even smaller characters that have a walk-on role at best are sufficiently fleshed out to leap to life the second one reads about them, to which Lenz’ writing contributes a great deal, although in a different way than I expected.
Lenz’ style is rather unique in that it can combine an almost classical diction and elegance with an intriguing contemporary style that shines through not just in the odd pop cultural reference, but also in very specific phrasings that are not restricted to the characters’ speech. In fact, Landesbühne has a very intriguing patterning as far as different registers of language are concerned. Instead of playing off the professor’s elevated diction against other characters’ diatopically or diastratically diverse speech, Lenz uses divergences to further characterize the professor, who, early in the book is shown to be writing a diary. With this simple tool, unobtrusive and not very noticeable at first, Lenz creates a protagonist who is so believable, so warm and present, that the reader believes anything he says. It is the professor vouching for his fellow prisoners’ existence, I think, that lends them such a presence in this book without Lenz having to invest in creating divergent patterns of speech, that often, when it doesn’t work so well, further alienates the reader from the characters; personally, I get this impression from David Mitchell’s work, and even more from that of a writer like Auster, who seems to me to be engaged in a constant project of disavowing his own characters. I accept that this is a peculiar preoccupation of my own, but in a case like Lenz’ book, the utter success of a method can be stunning, even if your interests lie elsewhere. And he makes it look so easy…
That ease is particularly marked by the fact that all this is at the background (or rather: grounding) of a book that appears to be preoccupied with wielding complex concepts and grand ideas. This is what I earlier announced as playing games. Spoiled on critical and postmodern theory, my mind immediately leaped into action as I comprehended the book’s premise: one fine day, a bus from a large local theater visits the prison to put on a play. “Landesbühne” (roughly translatable as “State Stage”) is what’s written on the side of the bus in clearly visible letters. In that premise and the first third of the book, where we watch the company unpack and perform the first act of a play, there are echoes from all kinds of texts and theories, most prominently perhaps Kleist’s essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (“On the Marionette Theater”) and the work of Borges and Kafka. Quotes, paraphrases and other allusions abound. The play that is put on is an invented play by an invented writer called “The Labyrinth” and the portion we are told about is about two old ladies who own a labyrinth that doesn’t allow anyone to escape who enters it. There is no interpretation, discussion or explanation; instead, during the intermission, a few prisoners, led by Hannes, and including the Professor, capture the bus and break out of the prison, only to stop in a small town close to the prison, where people assume that the prisoners are actually actors.
I’m not spoiling anything if I tell you that they are, in the end, re-captured and end up in prison again two thirds into the book, because any reader will have expected that. In a very transparent way, the play they all, partly, saw, prefigures, in a very broad sense, what will happen. They won’t ever really escape. In the meantime, they are sweet-talked by the local mayor into helping the town to build a museum, create adult evening classes and, occasionally, provide a choir. They are ratted out by a local journalist who turns out to have been one of the Professor’s students in the old days, one of the plain ones, with the bad grades. In the passages concerned with their life in the town Lenz almost becomes his old self, creating sentimental, but well-turned vignettes of small town life, spiked, among other things, with references to his own work. And this is part of the point in this section. It is, to a large extent, about writing about this kind of scenery. Unlike his earlier work that was grounded in a precise sense of place, set in cities that anyone can find on the map, Landesbühne is set somewhere unspecified in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The prison is named after a town that is almost certainly in a different state, and with Lenz’s dispensing of diatopically recognizable speech there is no direct connection to a place. Instead, Lenz connects his setting to old German history and the migration of the Saxons (through the name Isenbüttel) as well as to more direct topical issues connected to East Germany in general and the state of Schleswig-Holstein in particular.
All this is, as I said, prefigured by the play, which can serve as a foil with which to interpret the episode. After the poor prisoners are captured and returned to the prison again, the Landesbühne, not to be outdone, returns and puts on a different play, this time, it’s Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. If you groaned just now, you grasped the situation well. Of course, Godot is used to describe the situation the characters find themselves in and Lenz would not be the first (if only!) to use Beckett like that. However, this time, the play serves a subtly different function than the first one, “The Labyrinth” did. During the production of the play, Hannes, devastated, leaves the room, unable to bear any more of it. He recognizes himself in the play and this sets in motion a self-reckoning. Hannes’ life, his thoughts, his experiences and emotions are used here to make sense of the play. This is not as reductive as it sounds. At this point, all the character building I previously mentioned is put to good use. There is no overt interpretation, although some hints and parallels are not very subtle. But in Hannes’ coming to terms with his life and his fate and his reading the play, a kind of symbiosis, for lack of better words, between experience and reading emerges. There is a deep ambiguity in the book’s ending that feigns a resolution but doesn’t, in fact, present one.
And one of the reasons for this is the absence of an interpretative stance. The Professor is the master reader in the book. He has even written a book of criticism, a book about books, and in his role as teacher at Universities, he is directly involved in shaping others’ understanding and reading of literature. As Nietzsche in one of his best known aphorisms points out, life is filled with contradictions and we streamline them at our own peril; applied logic is a constructed reading of all the material available (it even structures the very perception of the availability, one might say) and the Professor is part of the machinery that provides the parameters (and even details) of such a construction. In a very odd way, the book is both critical and affirmative of certain hegemonial practices. By divesting the professor, as the arbiter of critical reasoning, of the authority to continue to administer that interpretative practice (he is basically thrown into the work, in the first two thirds of the book, without being afforded a vista that would allow him to reflect upon his situation) , authority is handed over to events, to experience, to plays he does not know and fellow prisoners whose lives supply interpretations that he can’t readily supply himself.
Similarly, his former female students launch, in the last third of the book, a defense campaign for him that provides an interpretation of his own case, of his own life and his own person that he’s similarly incapable of providing himself. None of these ‘rogue’ interpretations is legitimized as true, but why should they, with the (almost archetypal) authority jailed and confused. On the other hand, the fact remains that he still narrates everything, that he’s still the focus of every perception and that people still come to him. I think that the changes, the apparent slipping down the hierarchal rungs is part of a crisis, maybe the crisis of a particular model of society, but Lenz is unable or unwilling to go further in this small book. This is part of the readability of it all, I think. It’s an old man’s book, registering and subtly describing a crisis but not going all out, not lashing out at a system that he’s, after all, a part of. He cares more than about himself. He cares for his characters, for his story and for the issues that are at the roots of both. Stylistically he’s quietly dazzling, a writer who doesn’t brag to his readers like Paul Auster in his recent work, who demands more of them than Philip Roth in his (whom he resembles in many ways, though) and who is able to give more to his readers than either of them. Lenz was always a writer worth reading and while I prefer his earlier work, and the urgency and richness of it, Landesbühne, like much of his recent output, is the work of a master who hasn’t lost his touch, who merely writes with a finer pen, weighing his words.
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