When World War II comes to an end in Siegfried Lenz’s The German Lesson, our young narrator, Siggi, is looking through a microscope at some fish eggs. His biology teacher has forced his class to learn about fish reproduction, even as anti-aircraft guns fire just off the North Sea coast. Siggi is disappointed in what he sees, intestinal cords and “tiny staring fish-eyes,” because he had hoped that seeing things up close would reveal something new, something he never expected, instead of transparent sameness.
Indeed, throughout much of The German Lesson, Siggi attempts to calibrate his focus on his childhood, deliberately zooming in and out on his family, his hometown of Glüserup, Germany, and the paintings of his neighbor, Max Ludwig Nansen. Lenz’s novel is full of lush detail, even if the landscape of Schleswig-Holstein is bare, swampy, and desolate. It’s not hard to see Nansen’s influence on Siggi, as color and image dominate the novel, taking precedence over the plot and narrative.
As we come to learn through this novel’s framing, Siggi is in a juvenile detention center for art theft, and writing his long-winded answer to a German essay prompt about “the joys of duty.” He can’t complete the essay, because every time he starts, he just wants to begin again. He’ll never be done telling the story of the fight between his father—the strict, taciturn, and singular policeman in town—and Nansen. His father is ordered to prevent Nansen from painting, as his Expressionist art is “degenerate” and not for the glory of Nazi Germany. The painter, naturally, doesn’t take this lying down, and continues to paint, draw, and antagonize Siggi’s father, a point Siggi relishes detailing in his ever-expanding essay.
The tension between the two men is the main drama of The German Lesson, a push and pull between two men firmly anchored to two ideas of duty, and a young boy caught between them. It is impossible to not be sympathetic towards Nansen, who feels the natural artistic call to create, politics and fascism be damned. But it’s not as if Nansen is an inherently better man simply because he is an artist. Nansen was also a member of the Nazi party, in fact an early follower, until he left because of their attitude towards art. The overbearing ideology and political atmosphere weighs heavily on Siggi, on Glüserup, on the marshes and on the sand dunes, without ever being explicit. No mention of the Nazi party, Hitler, or fascism ever appears in the text. Instead, two uncompromising versions of duty stand in their place.
Lenz’s novel forces the reader to ask uncomfortable questions about the drive to make art, what it costs its creator, and the artistic process’ effect on those around it. Siggi’s father, Jens Ole Jepsen, becomes obsessed with enforcing the painting ban, spying on Nansen’s house and enlisting Siggi to spy on Nansen for him. But Nansen becomes equally obsessed with flaunting the rules, taunting Jepsen with “invisible paintings,” pieces of oiled paper with nothing on them but that the artist claims to be his latest work. The rivalry between the men, former childhood friends, pulses and subsides like the North Sea tide, but its effects on their families is chilling.
Each of Jepsen’s three children served as portrait models for Nansen, and Siggi feels especially attached to Nansen as an alternate father figure, but their continued affection for him alienates their parents, who increasingly use Nazi language to justify themselves. When it’s revealed that Hilke, Siggi’s older sister, modeled nude for one of Nansen’s paintings, “The Dancer On The Waves,” their parents are horrified, saying that she “offered herself to him,” and that Nansen has turned her “into a gypsy.” The policeman starts to believe that Nansen believes himself to be above the law, his rhetoric turning more hateful as he realizes that he has no power to stop Nansen from working, only the power to burn and destroy his art, even after the war is over and the ban rescinded.
The construction of duty, who gets to decide what one’s duty is and how you carry it out, haunts each character and wind-swept plain. When Klaas, Siggi’s older brother, escapes from the hospital after wounding himself to get out of army service, he hides in a mill where Siggi stashes his “collections” (stolen locks and keys and cut-out magazine pictures), and later in Nansen’s house. But with his father hot on his trail to turn him back in to the authorities, he hides in a peat bog, until a British plane, taking potshots at the locals, winds up shooting him in the gut. Siggi has no choice but to take Klaas home, and while he hangs between life and death, his father turns him in. Rigidly dutiful even as his oldest son lies dying on the kitchen table.
And Siggi is no exception to his two fathers’ curse. He too is bound by duty, concocted on his own and to which he holds himself to beyond all reasonable standards. At first, given his not-irrational fear that his father will continue to destroy all of Nansen’s work, he convinces himself that he can tell which paintings are in danger, and so steals them from Nasnsen’s studio. When his father realizes what Siggi is doing, he turns his son in for art theft, and Siggi is thus sentenced to the detention center. But even while incarcerated on an island, Siggi is dutiful to this notion of fulling telling his story, requesting to be kept in semi-isolation while he writes his memories down into blank copybooks for almost a full year.
What at first is Siggi’s official punishment for not writing the initial essay becomes self-imposed, and he chooses to keep writing even when the Governor tells him he can stop. He keeps trying to see something new under the microscope, to understand these conflicting ideas of duty, but they are still as transparent, vapid, and hollow as ever. Finally, after he finishes writing, for now, he realizes that when he leaves the detention center, and is free to go anywhere in the world, he will still return to Glüserup, tied to this bleak, desolate place for reasons he can’t explain. Dutiful, like Nansen and Jepsen, to the end.
Reading Lenz’s novel, reprinted by New Directions 50 years after its English translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, in an age of rising authoritarian sentiment, begs contemporary readers to consider the unfounded nature of duty, of creating arbitrary rules to follow to satisfy some higher idea or order. And it asks questions about our desire to put contemporary authoritarian figures and followers under our own microscopes, only to realize time and time again, that there is nothing deeper to any of them than what is on the surface: just hatred, resentment, and grievance, an obviously transparent sameness for each and every one. And while Lenz might have been trying to value or hold art above the typical German officer, just doing his duty, Nansen’s commitment to his profession, to color and space, to forced perspective, is just as damaging as Jepsen’s bitterness and self-defeating immolation. All three compliant, complicit soldiers, Siggi, Nansen, and Jepsen, wind up only hurting themselves, restricting themselves to viewing the world from the most limited of points-of-views. Art shouldn’t be constricting but should, instead, be expansive, allowing for the widest variety of voices, perspectives, and persons as possible. The German Lesson is well-worth reading as a damning portrait of three men all hurt by fascism, hatred, and narrow-mindedness, and the false security that duty offers as an excuse for the inexcusable. There is no joy in any notion of duty these men demonstrate, nothing learned or gained, only pain, loss, and remorse.
The German Lesson
By Siegfried Lenz
New Directions Publishing
Published March 30, 2021
Michael Pittard is an English lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has an MFA in poetry from UNCG and is a former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review.