Obituary: Hermann Lenz

David Childs
Thursday 14 May 1998 23:02

HERMANN LENZ explained in an interview in 1978 that for him literature was a possibility of finding himself. He also worked on the principle, "You can only know your own truth and not one valid for all." Despite this existentialist standpoint, he was celebrated towards the end of his life as a chronicler of German life and times.

Born in Stuttgart, Baden-Wurttemberg, in 1913 into a middle-class family, Lenz studied art history, archaeology, German and theology in Tubingen, Heidelberg and Munich. Brought up in an extreme nationalist home, he said later he could not understand his father's passion. He did not, however, attempt to contradict him. He welcomed the restoration of German unity in 1990 but in a quiet way.

Lenz saw action in the infantry in the Second World War serving in France and on the Eastern Front, experiences that subsequently influenced his work. He returned to his "beloved" Stuttgart in 1946, where he married.

He had started writing before the war, publishing several short stories and poems. He broke military regulations by writing during his wartime service. His first post-war work was Das stille Haus ("The Quiet House"), published in 1947. In 1949 Das doppelte Gesicht ("The Double Face") appeared. In the first, the outer demonic world of hatred, destruction and insanity is contrasted with the order of the inner world. Both novels display a dreamlike quality in response to the world and its problems.

These early works seemed to put Lenz on the road to success with other writers of his generation like Heinrich Boll. But he was to be disappointed. His literary activities did not enable him to support himself and he worked from 1951 to 1971 as secretary of the South German writers' association.

Despite this existence as a functionary he did not see himself as a political animal, nor as a political writer like Boll, Gunter Grass, Hans Werner Richter or his namesake, Siegfried Lenz, with whom he is occasionally confused. He got neither the publicity nor the literary acclaim they received in the 1950s and 1960s. He continued writing and in 1959 Der russische Regenbogen ("The Russian Rainbow") was praised for its penetrating psychological insights and lyrical language.

In 1962 Lenz seemed to break new ground with Spiegelhutte ("Mirror Cottage") with its elements of "magical realism". These contributed later on to his introspective observations of the decaying middle class. However, it was in the 1970s that he first achieved overwhelming success: for his Schwabische Chronik ("Swabian Chronicle") featuring an alter ego, the fictional writer Eugen Rapp.

He defended this ploy as giving him greater freedom to write about himself. Rapp first appeared in Abandoned Room in 1966 and survived nine volumes, the last of which, Freunde ("Friends"), appeared last year. These books brought Lenz fame as a "chronicler of our century" and literary prizes followed. He won recognition abroad and was translated into Spanish, French and Italian - but not yet English.

Hermann Lenz, writer: born Stuttgart 26 February 1913; married; died Munich 12 May 1998.

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