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A minute's silence - Siegfried Lenz

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A minute's silence
Siegfried Lenz
Haus Publishing
UK Publication Date

The delicately paced structure of Lenz’s novella begins with the memorial ceremony for a popular young English mistress, Stella Petersen, seamlessly alternating between this scene and eighteen-year-old Christian’s memory of a summer love affair with his tutor. They keep their mutual attraction concealed at school and as the season goes on the lovers continue to meet discreetly. Tragedy strikes when Stella goes on holiday with friends, sailing around the Danish islands. As the yacht returns to Hirtshafen at the end of the trip, a storm breaks. Before Christian’s eyes his beloved is flung overboard and fatally wounded. Lenz was twenty or thirty pages into writing A Minute’s Silence when his wife of fifty-six years died. Grief-stricken, he suffered from a serious bout of writer’s block and it seemed he would never finish the novel. With the passage of time, Lenz found that he could write again and complete this tender love story. Despite the obvious distance and difference of Lenz’s own long marriage and the brief, youthful passion of Christian for Stella, Lenz has wrought a well-aimed response to Auden’s famous request: ‘Tell me the truth about love.’

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'Some German masters stand at an even more oblique angle to the painful past. In this month of commemoration, we can thank heaven for a small – but exquisite – mercy in the shape of Siegfried Lenz's A Minute's Silence. A colleague of Grass and Heinrich Bll in the Gruppe 47 band of postwar literary pioneers, Lenz has in novels such as The German Lesson and Heritage matched Grass in a fiction of witness and warning that learns from the madness of modern history without being engulfed by it.Its writing interrupted by a grief-stricken period of blockage when Lenz's wife's died after 57 years of marriage, A Minute's Silence is a superbly crafted novella of first love, with a tenderly evocative sense of place, mood and era. As so often, we have Anthea Bell to thank for a flawless translation which captures a prose that shifts in nuance as often as the North Sea winds and currents that run through the story. Christian, the son of a boat-owner and 'stone-fisher' who does harbour maintenance in a small port and resort on the bracing northern coast that Lenz has made his own, remembers a fragile affair he had as an 18-year-old schoolboy. He fell for his English teacher, the athletic, adventurous Stella, and she – apparently – for him, during a summer of delicately drawn parties, seaside outings and the lonely introspection of a youth on the brink of adult emotions. But Stella has died after a freak yachting accident, returning from a holiday in the Danish islands, and ecstasy has turned to elegy. Young love's playful present darkens into the hard work of memory, because 'what's past did happen, after all, and it will last'. The teacher may like, even desire, Christian, but she doesn't rate him as a student. We learn that English culture entered her family's life in 'the skies over Kent': her bomber-crew father was shot down and, as a POW in Yorkshire, befriended by the farmer on whose land he worked. Now, in this quiet corner of the still-divided land of the 'economic miracle', she sets her class Animal Farm. But Christian fluffs his essay as he fails to realise that Orwell's tale is an allegory of 'the miseries of revolution', and a story that 'says one thing but also tells us another'. Does A Minute's Silence do the same? British readers have, perhaps, become a little too keen to read every postwar German fiction as a disguised historical fable of that kind. Suggestively rich in overtones and undercurrents, Lenz's beautiful miniature also stands alone as a masterclass in 'the grammar of farewell'.
The Independent - Boyd Tonkin

Keyword Index
Teacher-student relationships - Fiction.|Women teachers - Death - Fiction.
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