The German Lesson

The German Lesson, Seigfried Lenz. First published in English by New Directions Publishing in 1986.

I was leant ‘The German Lesson’ by a friend of my fathers who comes from Norfolk. I never been to Schleswig-Holstein, the setting of this book, but it sounds like it has a fair bit in common with Norfolk. The flatness, the remoteness, the washed out big seaside skyes, the slight otherworldliness of the inhabitants. One assumes that the author chose this particular spot as a device to place his narrative as far away from the central action of National Socialism as possible, while still being part of that story. Because this is a tale all about personal decisions when faced with tyranny: a microcosm of the national experience.

Few books I have read have left me with such rich visual memories. The landscape and mood of this remote part of Germany is powerfully conveyed. The flat romantic bleakness and the dower characters deliberately and determinedly marching out their lives as little specs on the horizon. Small movements and routines are delicately described, detailed reactions documented. Virtually no-one has any hysteria or haste and whatever these people do, whether you think it right or not, they are somehow compelling and beautiful in the way they do it.

The story is told through the eyes of an adolescent boy witnessing and getting increasingly embroiled in a ridiculous, yet serious, conflict between the adults around him. The key combatants being the boy’s father, the local policeman (manning the most Northerly post in Germany), and a painter who lives up the road. The two grew up together, but are forced into conflict when the painter’s work falls foul of the Nazi authorities and it becomes the policeman’s job to enforce an edict banning any further painting.

This starts a battle of wills between the narrow, dogmatic and duty bound police officer and his enlightened childhood friend of world renown talent. Our narrator is torn between these two worlds and left damaged. He tells the whole tale from the confines of a mental institution – having rejected the duty call of his parents, he finds his own efforts at self-determination rejected and punished on all sides – even by the painter in the end.

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