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Friday, May 20, 2016

The German Lesson (1968) by Siegfried Lenz

Siegried Lenz, West Germany's second biggest literary author after World War II.
Book Review
The German Lesson (1968)
by Siegfried Lenz

  The success of Marcel Proust and his Remembrance of Things Past marked the coming of age of the anti-picaresque, "memory novel."   This type of novel, for which Remembrance of Things Past is the first and still greatest example, inverts the picaresque model of the narrator who goes everywhere and learns nothing with a narrator who goes nowhere and learns everything.

 Although the picaresque was well in decline by the time Proust rolled around, it left an indelible imprint in the genetic code of the novel, inspiring successor genre's like the bildungsroman/coming of age.  The picaresque also echoes in the world of genre fiction, detective novels, science fiction, all those sorts of books maintain a direct connection to the picaresque tradition.

 The inversion of picaresque in the form of the "memory novel" took firm root across multiple artistic disciplines in the mid to late 20th century, finding particular traction in the area of "art film" in places like France, Italy, Sweden and the United States from 1950 to the present.  The German Lesson is an excellent illustration of the development of this genre by a German author.  The narrator in The German Lesson is Siggi Jepsen, the son of a policeman in the most northern part of Germany, along the border with Denmark. In the present of the novel, Jepsen is serving a three year sentence for theft at an island juvenile detention facility.

  At the beginning of The German Lesson, Jepsen is placed in solitary confinement  so he can finish a paper on the "joys of duty." The story that unfolds through the medium of his school assignment is a complex tale involving Jepsen's father, the stern policeman of his home town and his persecution of a local painter (and longtime friend) Max Nansen.

  The events take place during and after World War II.  Schweig-Holstein, the province where Jepsen, his father and Nansen live, is far from the front.  Nansen, the persecuted painter, is based on real-life expressionist Emil Nolde.  The landscape, surrounded and bisected by water on all sides, low to the ground mirrors the limited palette of emotions displayed by Jepsen's father.  Lenz's decision to place Siggi Jepsen on an island, miles away from the location of the majority of events in the book, serves to highlight the alienation from family and land that plagues Jepsen.

  And indeed, one could read that  alienation from family and land as a metaphor for all thinking Germans after World War II, those who were perhaps vaguely uneasy with parts of the Fuhrer's plan for Nazi Germany but either did nothing to oppose it or continued the roles they served in the German state prior to Hitler's rise.   Nansen and Jepsen's father represent two poles on that spectrum- Nansen- who is actively persecuted by the Nazi state but stays in Germany and tries to make the best of a very bad situation, and Jepsen's local policeman father, who becomes increasingly obsessed with following his concept of "duty" to its utmost conclusion, in the face of virulent opposition from both friends and loved ones.

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