Stella by Siegfried Lenz (trans. Anthea Bell). Other Press. 144pp., $12.95.
A Minute of Silence
Stella opens with a memory that compels: “‘Here we sit down in tears and grief,’ sang our school choir at the beginning of the hour of remembrance.” By the end of the paragraph we know the narrator, Christian, lost his beloved Stella Petersen to an accident. Why read on? Because death, as cliché as this may sound, forms life, and those still engaged in the mortal dance must examine, post-mortem, the nascent creation of love as an element of life. The author, octogenarian Siegfried Lenz, is one of German’s oldest living men of letters. In what may be the last work of the master, the succinct and sparsely woven Stella succeeds in conveying sorrow.
Lenz, a partirarch of Gruppe 47, emerged with Hans Werner Richter, Ilse Aichinger, Günter Grass, and Heinrich Böll, along with other artists, out of war and collective shellshock. Gruppe 47 envisioned a new future for Germany, one that confronted the horrors of atrocity with compunction, responsibility, and reparations. Lenz’s latest novel takes place perhaps twenty years after World War II, although this can only be derived from context. In a similar manner, we assume by the maturity of the prose that the narrator, Christian, writes from an advanced age, reminiscing about a formative relationship he had as an 18-year-old, when he fell in love with his 25-year-old English teacher, Stella. Their student-teacher flirtation evolves to sharing the past. She tells him, “My father was a radio operator in a bomber, his plane was shot down on its first raid, his companions died in the crash but he survived . . . so that’s how I became an English teacher.”
She and Christian grow closer, in part, through literature, communicating by Faulkner, Twain, and Orwell: “‘Christian, if you want to make the grade you really ought to work a bit harder. Read Huckleberry Finn, read Animal Farm.’” And when he misreads, she, showing awareness to their age gap, reprimands, “‘Christian, you have an adequate account of the early chapters, the commandments . . . but you didn’t mention the outcome of the revolution, or maybe you overlooked it . . . you didn’t spot the power struggles in the ruling class, you missed the dreadful terror that set in after the conquest, and finally, Christian, you didn’t notice that the whole thing is a portrayal of human behavior . . . a parable about the rise and the theory of the practice of all dictatorships.’” Lenz shows, through the nuances of literature, Christian’s desire to evolve into her equal, and his regret in not being able.
Christian, when describing Stella, often switches tense. He addresses Stella as they discuss Faulkner: “You also told me about his characters: the masters and the scoundrels who imposed their own law on the wilderness, contributing to the fate of the South.” This technique adds a startling intimacy, as in the passage when Stella is injured: “I saw that you were bleeding from a head injury.” And in the following paragraph: “I wanted to stroke her face, but at the same time I felt a strange reluctance to touch her…” And later, during an elegy for Stella, the narrator reflects, “I imagined how you would react, if you could, to the minute’s silence in your memory.” The German title, I should add, Schweigeminute, comes from this scene, and a previous translation, pubished in Britain, uses this literal interpretation for the title: A Minute of Silence.
Neither of the two suffers from the shared abuse or rejection by society that often places miscast lovers together; their love is not impetuous sexual attraction but an adult relationship cognizant of impropriety. In one of the first tender moments of romance, Stella and Christian cuddle together in bed, clothed, confused about how they wound up together. Christian is in his last year of high school, at the top of his class, a competent swimmer, and destined for a respectable life. Still, he lacks the experience to interpret attraction or decipher her signals of hesitation or why she sometimes does not reciprocate. “I was disappointed by her cool, objective tone. There was no trace in her expression of secret understanding, she did not indicate in any way what we shared was ours.” Later he enters a classroom and observes: “There were printed words in block letters, in English: PLEASE COME BACK, DEAR STELLA, CHRISTIAN IS WAITING FOR YOU.” Thus he understands the necessity to be discrete.
Christian’s father teaches him the art of stone-fishing, and amidst the nautical terminology we learn of how they build reefs and the phenomena of the breakwater; we even join Christian on an occasional dip in the ocean. These details, though relevant to the overall story, do not need to be conveyed in excess. When the novel focuses on the dynamic between Stella and Christian the narrative moves. The two and three page interludes about the intricacies of the stone-fisher’s milieu, while beautifully evoked, slow the pace.
But this quibble over aesthetic is a minor complaint and does not detract from how Christian’s realizations often become aphorism: “I love Stella. And I was also thinking: I’d like to know more about her. You can never know enough when you realize you love someone.” The novel answers all the crucial questions raised. How does she die? How deep was their relationship? How reliable a narrator is Christian? As to the nature of love, perhaps the most explored universal theme of literature, the reader learns and gains. While writing Stella, Lenz lost his wife of 57 seven years, an event that must have influenced the melancholy of the prose. And perhaps this recollection of loss is evident when he writes, “I’ll turn to you and caress you, everything I’ve stored in my memory will come back again.
Caleb Powell‘s recent work is at Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Post Road, and Rio Grande Review. He lived overseas for eight years and his nonfiction guide, The World Is a Class, was published in Canada by Good Cheer.
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