Sunday, 21 December 2008

Schweigeminute

It’s short, it’s beautiful, and it was voted “book of the year” by Zeit readers: Siegfried Lenz’s Schweigeminute. David Vickrey at Dialog International enjoyed it too. Sadly, it didn’t rock my boat.

I can understand why people like it. It’s a touching and timeless love story, set in a coastal town with an air of perpetual summer holidays – all swimming and regattas and Blyton-esque islands and smiling photos on the beach. And it’s skilfully told; the Schweigeminute (moment of silence) of the title being a school memorial ceremony for the English teacher Stella Petersen, who died in a boating accident. The narrator, Christian, thinks back to the past summer, when he and his teacher had an affair. Or did they?

The narration is beautiful, switching to addressing Stella directly every now and then, with descriptions of all kinds of maritime goings-on and a very discreet love story. Being teacher and pupil, Stella and Christian are highly secretive about their affair. The encounter is sexual, but the poignant details we get are more of the intimacy of the situation: a shared pillow, hands entwined on a photograph, Christian’s plans for the two of them to move to an uninhabited island together.

Through the 18-year-old boy’s eyes, Stella is a heroine, forever diving into the water to save floundering children, telling him about Faulkner and Orwell, caring for her aged father. Christian himself seems to have little going for him. His pale personality consists almost solely of his obsession with his teacher. The couple come together without much ado, he following her to her hotel room with her tacit acceptance and simply staying the night. It is unclear what Stella’s motivation to start an affair with her pupil might be; she gives only tiny coded indications of her affection for him before her violent death.

And because there can be no witnesses to their love, its very existence is questionable. It could be just the product of Christian’s imagination. Many of the situations that arise could be quite innocent results of a schoolboy crush, albeit an intense one. Christian visits Stella at her home and she talks about Animal Farm, obviously embarrassed as his essay on the book has missed the mark by a long shot. He picks her up in his father’s car and they go to the beach and chat about literature until they are disturbed by some classmates. Stella’s reaction, which Christian interprets as embarrassment at being caught, could well be relief at being freed from his attentions. And most touchingly, Christian is not invited to Stella’s burial at sea, instead following at a distance in his own boat. He is excluded from mourning apart from at the official school assembly, where he steals her photograph for himself, prompting a telling-off from the headmaster. What we see through his eyes as concealed hints from others that they were aware of the illicit affair, but prefer not to mention it, could always be attempts to console him tactfully for the loss of his crush.

Throughout the novella, Christian is achingly naïve, hoarding provisions for the move to the island, suspecting a passenger on his boat of being Stella’s former lover. And the language he uses to describe their affair appears so deliberately vague that I wondered if the character knew anything about sex at all. All this is part of the appeal – that guessing game of did they, didn’t they? It is apparently Lenz's first attempt at a love story (at the age of 82, but why ever not?) and as such I suppose it's an interesting approach.

Perhaps I'm the world's greatest cynic, with a pinch of salaciousness thrown in. Perhaps I read it as too much of a puzzle and ought to have taken it at face value to enjoy it more. Perhaps one has to have experienced a crush on a teacher to appreciate the joy of its fulfilment, whether imagined or not. Perhaps the characters might have been fleshed out more in a full-length novel. But despite recognising its literary quality, I really can’t say I liked the book a great deal, and it comes nowhere near being my book of the year. But at least it didn’t take long to read.

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