Starting Over

At 85, noted German author Siegfried Lenz, now living in Denmark with his second wife, says that old age may require renunciation, but he is not ready to give up writing or loving.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

FAABORG, Denmark - The opening scene of "A Minute's Silence" describes a memorial service at a high school in a town on the Baltic coast for a beautiful and admired teacher Stella Petersen, who fell from a dock into the sea during a storm and died when her head struck the rocks. The new novella by Siegfried Lenz (published in English in 2009 as "Stella" in the United States and as "A Minute's Silence" in Britain - the latter is also the title of the Hebrew version, published in late 2010 by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan) is narrated by Christian, an 18-year-old student who stares in shock at the black-draped outsize photograph of the deceased teacher. In these last moments of parting, listening to the school orchestra's rendition of Bach's "Actus Tragicus," Christian drifts in and out of a time-tossed reverie to tell the story of their forbidden secret love. "Love, Christian, is a warm wave bearing us up," his lover and teacher wrote him in her last letter. (English translation: Anthea Bell.)

The plot unfolds in the summer. Christian, a lad of the sea from a family of sailors, works with his father on a barge that carries heavy rocks to be dumped into the sea as support for the breakwater and the dock. "You can always rely on rocks," a fisherman says, but Christian, who likes to dive into the water between the boulders, finds that in life, that is not exactly so.

Siegfried Lenz in 2008.Credit: AFP

The love between teacher and student flares when they first sail to Bird Island, where hundreds of years earlier a reef was built from huge boulders of unknown origin. It's a beautiful island, abundant with waterfowl. In school, Petersen urges her students to read and to analyze George Orwell's "Animal Farm." When she is with her young lover she shares with him her addiction to the works of William Faulkner, particularly his 1932 novel, "Light in August." In interviews, Siegfried Lenz, too, consistently names Faulkner as the writer who influenced him most.

Toward the end of the novella, Christian, who declined to speak at the memorial service for his lover, tells himself that the space she and he found for themselves must be kept private. Silence, he thinks, is the right place to preserve and store what made us happy. That this is indeed the book's motif is confirmed by Lenz, who is also a great believer in moments of silence.

Alive in Denmark

I met with Siegfried Lenz on Christmas Eve. The plot of "A Minute's Silence" is wholly a literary fiction, he said. "The story is not personal and it contains no biographical elements," he emphasized. "It is drawn entirely from the imagination and was forged in my brain. All my short stories are like that. Every story I write starts with a dilemma or a theme. Once I am convinced that this is the issue that is perturbing my thoughts, I start to look for characters capable of representing it. The theme of 'A Minute's Silence' is the memory of loss; how one is able to restore and renew what he lost. We all have things which were engraved in us, but what happens to us when what was lost rises in the consciousness?"

Asked which of the novella's two characters was fashioned first, Lenz replies that it was obviously the teacher, Stella Petersen. "I chose her because she had experience of life and some sort of past because of which she was vanquished."

Why did you kill her off just when she found moments of happiness with the youth?

"Sometimes, it is precisely when you discover that you are living very happily that you suddenly find yourself in danger. To be happy means to discover that you are exposed to being hurt. That is what I wanted to say between the lines."

Lenz, who is 85, dedicated the book to Ulla Reimer, 74, whom he married in June 2010. He knows about loss and the price one pays when the person who is dearest to you dies suddenly. In 1949, when he was a young editor with the Hamburg-based newspaper Die Welt, he married the love of his life, Liselotte, who was an editorial secretary at the paper, in charge of photographs and cartoons.

Liselotte was eight years older than Lenz; the couple had no children. When she died, in 2006, his life fell apart. "I remained alone in our apartment in Hamburg and it was very hard for me," he recalls. "I collapsed. I felt that I had lost my imagination and the ability to write. I often fell down and lost consciousness. I felt that my life was about to end."

It was Reimer, who had been a friend of his wife's, who noticed his deterioration. A physiotherapist and a divorced mother of two, Reimer is of Danish extraction. She lived near the Lenzes in Hamburg. "Ulla took me in hand," Lenz says. "She said I must not go on living alone in torment. She was afraid I would die of grief and suggested that I live with her in her home in Faaborg, in Denmark. I knew the house, because my wife and I used to spend the summer in Faaborg. Ulla saved me, and thanks to her I started writing again. Now I am living here as a neighbor to farmers who greet me with 'Good morning' every day. I sit in my room at my desk, looking out the window to the yard and waiting for a plot to come to me, to rise slowly in my mind."

Lenz's room is on the second floor of their house of yellow brick, which has white window frames and a tiled roof and is surrounded by an enormous garden and woods. The room has white wall-to-wall carpeting and dozens of his books - they have been translated into many languages - are arranged on shelves. Lenz greeted me cordially and unpretentiously. He sat at his desk, his walker nearby. Outside, the snow covered everything with a white blanket and piled up on the bare tree branches. The cheerful Christmas lights on the bushes in the yard stood out even more colorfully against the white.

The refreshments were excellent. Lenz asked me if I had read "The German Lesson," his seminal book from 1968. I reread it ahead of our meeting, I told him, and he smiled. A few minutes into the interview, the rapid patter of tiny feet was heard overhead. Mice or squirrels, I thought, but Lenz laughed in embarrassment, because he could not find the right word in English and only kept repeating the animal's name in Danish. He tried to explain that there were creatures living in the attic that Ulla had befriended. I later learned they were minks that had sought refuge from the cold.

Lenz, who had studied philosophy and English literature as a young man, insisted that he had forgotten his English. He added that he does not speak German much and is totally immersed in Danish. "Madame," he all but bellowed every once in a while, "can we talk in Danish, or at least German?" But he was generally soft-spoken, and much of the time during the interview was devoted to his efforts to translate what he wanted to say from Danish to English.

Lenz (left) with Gunter Grass at a conference of the Social Democratic Party, 1976.Credit: AP

Second breakfast

Lenz is writing a new novella that will be around the same length as "A Minute's Silence" (around 120 pages). He writes in longhand, using a pen on unlined white paper. His handwriting is small and dense, with little space between the lines. Lenz has a fixed working routine. He writes every day after breakfast, when, he says, his energy and powers of concentration are at their height. "I like to work in the morning, and I write until Ulla calls from downstairs, in Danish, 'Second breakfast,' at about 12:30. In the afternoon I go back to the desk for what I call 'the second round of writing,' which lasts as long as it lasts."

Is writing still a great joy?

"Definitely. I read what I write over and over and make corrections and improvements, until I reach the conclusion that the material deserves to stand on its own. If it passes the test, I say to myself out loud, 'Siegfried, it is not another lost day.'" Even though he writes in longhand, he doesn't get upset when he decides to start afresh and create a new version. "I have no problem starting over again. 'Don't be afraid, there is nothing to be afraid of,' I tell myself out loud. Ulla types up the manuscript and I love to watch her. She has a special method of typing. She hits the keys with her two strong fingers. I identify a bit of pity in those fingertips. We talk about every sentence. In the past, my [first] wife used to type my books. I never used a typewriter. I am not intelligent enough to operate a machine like that, and we can forget about a computer. All my books were written this way, and at my age there is no point changing it." The trip from Copenhagen to Faaborg took about four hours. The town is only about 180 kilometers from the capital, but a snowstorm the night before, compounded by ice fog, rain and occasional snow, reduced visibility. It was minus 11 Celsius outside, and the black tree branches bent under the weight of the white flakes. From Copenhagen, on the eastern shore of Zealand Island, the route cut west to the island of Funen, across the Great Belt Fixed Link, which is 19 kilometers long and rises 300 meters above the water at its highest point. Completed in 1997, the bridge is the biggest construction project ever undertaken in Denmark. It is known for its vast spans, the longest of which is 1,624 meters. Vehicles use the upper level, trains the lower. As we crossed the bridge the sun came out for a few minutes, and our Danish driver said that heavy snow and a glowing sun add up to a classic Christmas.

Signs direct travelers to Odense, Funen's main city and the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. But Odense is in the north, while Faaborg is on the island's southeastern coast. Not a living soul was on the streets of Faaborg that day. The windshield frosted over and the driver slowed to 20 kilometers an hour. The homes on the main street were like farmhouses, and were spread out. Two black horses stood in a frozen meadow. We passed the church in the center of town. "Yoga lessons," announced a sign on a house.

After much twisting and winding through the town's alleys and woods we reached the home of Ulla Reimer and Siegfried Lenz. A worker came out and shoveled the walk so we could enter. When Ulla, a large, warm and authoritative woman, bought the estate 25 years ago, the house had 50 rooms. After major renovations, during which she made it over into a sort of museum of Danish culture, it now has around 20.

Ulla's father was a hunter, and the frozen gaze of a fox cub met us as we entered the house. The collections of Ulla and her family are arranged in breakfronts with sparkling glass doors. Most of the furniture is in the Biedermeier style, which was fashionable in Central Europe in the first half of the 19th century, but it is well-maintained and looks new. A vitrine that has been in her family since it was made in 1830 holds an impressive collection of antique Danish porcelain. Next to it is a colorful hand-painted cuckoo clock from the same year. The walls are crowded with oil paintings by Danish artists. Antique silver objects are scattered about, and there is also a handsome collection of enormous old wardrobes that Reimer uses to hold the rest of her treasures. A traditional decorated Christmas tree stood next to a grand piano. Clearly Lenz was living splendidly in this Danish castle, and maybe that was why he was so drawn to the Danish language.

Lenz's health deteriorated about a year ago. He had surgery - the same operation, twice - to ameliorate his spinal stenosis. Although the goal was to ease his pain and improve his physical function, he has needed to use a walker since the last operation and prolonged sitting is a problem. He moves slowly and with visible pain. Ulla cares for him like a nurse. In the morning, she comes to his room bearing a porcelain tray that holds seven pills. Lenz describes how they laugh as they contemplate the purpose of each medicine: One pill is to rehabilitate the sense of humor, another is to fill the house with good spirit, and so forth. He is not allowed to drink alcohol, not even wine or beer. "I am condemned to drink a pitcher of water in the course of the morning," he grumbled.

He calls her Ulshen, and they look like they are in love. His voice is tender and affectionate when he says to her, quietly, "Ulshen, I noticed that I am a little cold." "Yes, yes," she replies and hurries to drape a coat over his shoulders, apologizing for leaving the window open in his room in the morning. She manages his life, including its professional aspects; the whole house revolves around his needs and occupations. Sitting for a moment, she sighs and says, "I haven't managed to sit down all day to rest for a minute, I am running around all the time." Bringing Lenz downstairs, so he can sit in the dining room or the television room, is a complicated operation that takes more than 15 minutes. But he does not complain and constantly jokes with her and makes her laugh.

Discipline and fantasy

The home of Ulla Reimer and Siegfried Lenz in Faaborg, Denmark.Credit: Dalia Karpel

Lenz, a German writer of novels, short stories, plays and essays, published his first novella when he was working at Die Welt, in 1951. As he told me, he was assigned to find good short stories by young writers and he seized the opportunity to submit a story of his own. Germany was still under the Allied Military Government, and the press was subject to its supervision.

"The British commander who was responsible for the paper on behalf of the occupation authorities called me into his office and said, 'Congratulations, lad. Next week we will publish your novella, because it's the best of all the stories that were submitted.' Subsequently, the novella appeared under the imprint of the Hamburg publishing house with which I still work to this day, Hoffmann und Campe."

Lenz was born in March 1926 in the town of Lyck in East Prussia (now in Poland). His father was a customs officer. In an interview with Michael Ohad that was published in Haaretz Magazine (in Hebrew ) during his visit to Israel in November 1979, Lenz recalled learning to applaud the Nazi leaders and how, at 13, he cheered when war broke out.

At 17 he enlisted in the German Navy, and about a year later he joined the Nazi Party. His ship was bombed and sank, and the survivors were taken to Denmark, which was still under German occupation. The sailors were stationed in Denmark to continue their service, but after a time he deserted, getting by on his own until he was taken in by Danish peasants, who hid him until the end of the war.

Lenz turned himself in to the British army and was transported to a POW camp in Schleswig-Holstein. Many of Lenz's fictional works are set in this region, with its rivers and coasts - the Baltic Sea to the east, the North Sea to the west.

After the war he studied philosophy and literature at the University of Hamburg and interned at Die Welt. In 1951, after his novella won a prize accompanied by a cash award, he traveled to Kenya, then a British colony. The visit resulted in an essay about the Mau Mau liberation movement, then in its early stages. Lenz worked for a radio station and wrote radio and theater plays, but focused on fiction.

Lenz joined Group 47, an association that aimed to promote young German writers and encourage them to shake off the burden of the past and write about contemporary issues. Lenz wanted his writing to activate his readers' consciousness and conscience, to spur them to social and political action. Throughout his literary career he has held that one of the aims of writing was, as one critic put it, "to pay off the enormous debts" the German people owed to humanity. Writing, Lenz held, was an opportunity to express opposition and to "take preventive actions against any danger of a recurrence" of the crimes of the past.

"I learned at an early age that every person is obliged to justify his life," Lenz says. "I tried to justify my life and my work through the books I wrote out of my dreams and thoughts. From my very first story, 'Hawks in the Sky,' I concentrated on an important issue: Can vast political power effect change, and what meaning does that change have for the ordinary, simple folk?"

Did you make a conscious decision to become a writer?

"Absolutely. I understood that I was obliged to investigate and study social-political phenomena. Writing is an excellent method to take apart life's problems and dilemmas. I decided to learn how to be a writer; that required discipline, together with an ability to fantasize, which I possess. It was not an easy decision, but the truth is that I was not afraid, perhaps because my first published story won a prize and generated many letters from readers. It seems to me that I was quite sure of myself, not least because in 1952 I received the Scheckele Prize, named for a German writer living in exile, and the panel of judges included the writers Hermann Kesten and Thomas Mann. The latter wrote me from Zurich and praised my work. Certainly prizes pave the way for a beginning writer, but writing became the essence of my life." It seems that every writer aims his work at a specific person or group of people. For whom do you write?

"I always desired with all my heart to have a particular writer in mind when I write, but as I write I conduct a dialogue with an anonymous correspondent who is invited to make his choices. I urge him to look me in the eye and choose my offering or reject it. I am open to rejection and I understand that the reader is liable to shun my offering or, alternatively, decide that he is interested in the subject and in the story, in which case he might adopt them as part of his world and his worldview. I have hopes, but I do not believe that I will always succeed in conveying conflicts or energy to readers. It is hard to imagine how much power a book has to illuminate and educate the reader."

Critical friendship

Group 47 was established in Munich after the Second World War - the name refers to the year of its establishment, 1947 - in conjunction with the founding of a literary magazine called Der Ruf (The Call ). The aim of the founders was to prepare the German public for democracy after the years of Nazi dictatorship. However, the American occupation force revoked the editors' printing license. Later in 1947, they founded a new magazine, Scorpion, which also failed.

They were young writers and poets who met twice a year and read from their new work. Over time, they were joined by prominent writers such as Heinrich Boll, Gunter Grass and Siegfried Lenz. Another member was Marcel Reich-Ranicki, later an enormously influential literary critic. As a Jew, he had experienced firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust and at the time was still living in Warsaw. In his book "Life and Literature" he documents a meeting of the group in 1958, noting that most of the participants were mainly busy with one another. He found that there was no order in the organization but that it did possess German discipline. Everyone who read out a new text was subjected to the criticism of those present, and everything was controlled by the founding author, Hans Werner Richter. In sum, Reich-Ranicki wrote, Group 47 was an important experimental platform in the literary life of postwar Germany; it imbued him with a feeling of homeland.

Lenz says now that the writers in Group 47 wished to foment change and justify the issues and conflicts that occupied them. Asked how they sought to influence German society, he replied, "Writing involves a type of intention. It does this by exemplifying a characteristic German biography, typical German loyalty and typical German inference. Writing involves very cautious advice to the reader: 'Try to think about it, it probably relates to your life and it is up to you to extract insight and reach a conclusion accordingly.' It is difficult to explain a writer's exact involvement. Of course, one has certain hopes when writing. Nowadays, when I write something funny, I look forward to reading it to Ulla and I wonder how she might react, whether with humor or sadness."

Lenz recalls his first meeting with Reich-Ranicki: "We had exchanged a few letters before meeting in Hamburg. I had a radio program at the time, and the station director said an important guest had arrived from abroad. He asked whether I could allocate time to interview him. That was the start of a years-long friendship between us."

It was December 1957, and Reich-Ranicki was in Hamburg to examine the local situation ahead of moving from Poland to Germany. In his autobiography he recalls waiting for Lenz outside the radio station. "A very young, very blonde and slightly bashful young man approached me," he wrote. Lenz had already published three short stories, the last of which was a bestseller. Reich-Ranicki added that neither of them could have known that a few years later, Lenz would write one of the most successful German novels of the postwar era, "The German Lesson."

After the radio interview, the two walked a little and Lenz invited the guest to have lunch with him at his home. They talked about Kafka, but in his book the caustic critic revealed that what had really occupied him during the talk was how to build his own future in Germany. In the end, the blonde and bashful young man took Reich-Ranicki to all the potential employers in Hamburg: publishers, editors and radio people. He gave him advice and helped him financially. Lenz shushed me when I asked him about this, saying that helping friends is natural behavior. He added that he was the one who first brought Reich-Ranicki to a Group 47 gathering.

"I also know that I caused Siegfried Lenz pain and that the pain did not abate for a long time," Reich-Ranicki wrote. He was referring to his book "German Literature in the West and the East" (1963), which contained a chapter about Lenz. "Lenz is a writer whose strength lies mainly in short stories and novellas and less in novels," he wrote. "He is like a superb short-distance runner who insists on running long distances." Despite their friendship, he decided not to hide his true opinions about Lenz's literary works, and added that even "The German Lesson" did not make him change his mind.

"I had to accept his criticism," Lenz says. "I did not welcome his objections, but I was amused when he would call and ask, 'Siegfried, how many pages are there in the new book? Six hundred? Achhh.' At the same time, when I received prestigious awards such as the Goethe Prize or the Thomas Mann Prize, my friend Marcel took the podium and read out the judges' reasons, which included much praise, and then he would state in an imperative tone of voice, 'Siegfried, come to the stage, don't be afraid, we will just shake hands and I will give you a kiss. That's all.'"

I point out that these days, when interest in literature is waning in favor of television and the Internet, and popularity ratings are decisive, there is still no substitute for a critic like Reich-Ranicki, now 90, who created order in German literature.

"I know how much the man contributed and what he did for the benefit of German literature, and not only in Germany," Lenz says. "He breathed life into the consciousness of German literature and created interest in it around the world. He indicated the problems of the German writers in a voice so clear that every reader was capable of making his choices. There is no substitute for literature. Four thousand years ago, literature existed through storytellers and was transmitted orally. We would do well to remember the pleasure stirred by the storytellers - they will yet return."

What happened to the members of Group 47?

"Most of them were friends and colleagues. Heinrich Boll was a close friend, as was Robert Walser, along with many others. At the first meeting I attended, in 1951, I met the poet Paul Celan, who had come from Paris. This was after the publication of my first story. Celan and I became friends, and he was a guest in my home several times. Later we corresponded and encouraged each other to go on writing. There was a period when he was sad and depressed. He was a great poet who was much admired, but extremely sensitive. I intend to publish a book of the letters I received from him and from other colleagues."

In 2006, Gunter Grass, who was a member of the group and supported the rehabilitation of German culture and literature after the war, confessed - in conjunction with the publication of his memoirs - that he had served in a Waffen SS division in Dresden. I read to Lenz an excerpt from a letter that Grass sent to the Academic College in Netanya, in which he canceled his participation in a ceremony at which he was to have been awarded an honorary doctorate. In the letter Grass stated that he had been stupid to consider the Waffen SS an elite unit in the army. It was only when he was in an American POW camp, he says, that he learned about the scale of the crimes the Nazis perpetrated in the war. His military service branded him with the mark of Cain until his last day, he wrote.

Lenz listened and said nothing. After a time, he said, "I was astonished. I was surprised both by his confession and by its timing. I had never heard about his army past until the moment he revealed it. I did not ask him why, because we had not spoken for a long time. A person must ask himself why he chose to hide a thing like this. I refuse to speculate about Grass's motives or reasons. He must explain why it took him so long to come out with this confession."

Looking forward

Lenz talks about his private grief. His only sibling, a sister who is five years his junior, arrived as a refugee in East Germany after the war, married and raised a family. After completing her university studies, she taught school for 38 years. Even before the Berlin Wall was built, there was no free movement between the areas of occupation of the Western Allies and the area under Soviet control. In 1952, the border between the two parts of Germany was closed.

"My sister faithfully fulfilled her duties as a teacher for so many years under a harsh regime in a Communist state," Lenz says. "That is one of the atrocities of the war - the separation between members of a family. When I turned 60, she submitted a request for a special permit to travel to the West, but her request was turned down. So that at a personal level, too, we both had cause to be sad and to suffer. For years we corresponded and longed to see each other."

The quality of German thoroughness, which is present in your writing, produces tremendous achievements when it is enlisted in fields such as art and literature. But when it is mobilized for other purposes, the results are sometimes frightful.

"That is one of the reasons I wrote 'The German Lesson.' I felt a need to understand what duty is and what the meaning is of blind obedience. In the book I use the phrase 'the joys of duty.' It is clear that one must not obey at any price and must take into account the circumstances. Goals such as duty and obedience are capable of bringing about horrific madness, in the context of moral dilemmas. The duty to obey orders creates problematic situations, because duty is an ambiguous state."

What advice would you give a novice writer?

"Keep reading and do not stop. Obviously, I read all the time. Recently I read an excellent book, 'A Heart so White,' by Javier Marias, which was published in 1992. The title is from Lady Macbeth's pronouncement, 'My hands are of your color; but I shame / To wear a heart so white.'"

It was 3 P.M. and the light was already fading. Ulla knocked on the door, entered and announced that supper was ready. Reluctantly, she agreed to give us another half hour of conversation. Lenz asked me to go over to the window. He pointed to an apple tree in the yard, which is visible from where he sits. "The black birds die of hunger," he said sorrowfully. "They come to the apple tree in the hope of eating from the fruit, but when they peck, it falls to the ground and is swallowed in the snow. I have never seen birds as disappointed as these are. They dig in the snow with their beak and when the effort fails they move their head with a motion of powerful despair."

What effect does old age have on you?

"In Italo Svevo's wonderful novel 'As a Man Grows Older,' written in 1898, the protagonist is 38, so why should I complain? Age does something good. It is terribly boring to look back in anger, as the title of a play says. My most serious problems are with the empty page: how to manage it and what I will be able to extract from my brain. As for age, it is accompanied by changes in the body that require a type of submission and renunciation; but I still have my writing. I am now writing a novella and after it I plan to write a thick novel, what Reich-Ranicki calls 'a big book.'"

At your age and after dozens of prizes, do you still feel a need for the trappings of glory?

"There are always holes and empty spaces, but it is necessary to look forward and not look back in anger. I expect good tobacco for my pipe and a few more good books to read, and also a few confessional sentences. I am not all that ambitious."

No?

"Erase that. It was a mistake. Of course I am ambitious and always was, at least when it comes to writing. Writing is my whole life. I studied philosophy and I know the meaning of the idea that the world is built on will power and on the imagination."

Aren't you afraid?

"Of death, no. But I would not under any circumstances choose to pursue again the course of my life."

Why not? "It was not tranquil enough. I did not have quiet, which I so much need. I yearn for quiet."

Your protagonists covet quiet and generally find it close by a source of water, such as a sea or a river.

"That is so. Ulla has a book called 'The World of Water,' which was written by a German professor who quotes passages about water from my books."

But the particular type of quiet that your heroes are looking for also shows that their world is blocked.

"Definitely. I do not really care about immortality, that is not my problem. I found quiet, but that does not mean I was spared the circumstances of life. The title of my latest book is 'A Minute's Silence,' and not by chance. I do not believe in love, but it happens sometimes. I think Ulla is waiting for us."

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