Dear Ulla Lenz, ladies and gentlemen, members of the Siegfried Lenz foundation, members of the Siegfried Lenz prize jury, foreign minister Steinmeier, dear friends.
Shalom to all of you.
Thank you, Mr. Steinmeier for your heart-warming and fascinating laudation. This ceremony is both wonderful and very sad for me. Very sad because I was hoping to receive this fabulous prize together with a big hug from my friend Siegfried Lenz.
Many times in my life I have been called a traitor by some of my fellow countrymen. This is one of a few things, which I have in common with my beloved friend Siegfried Lenz. For some German people after the war he was also a traitor. And in some of his wonderful novels the issue of loyalty and betrayal, of standing alone against powerful trends, of making painful moral choices not between black and white but between various shades of grey, ambiguous choices, ambivalent choices, no-win choices, all of those fascinated Siegfried Lenz as they fascinate and haunt me in writing.
The first time I was called a traitor occurred in Jerusalem, still under British rule, when I was 7 or 8 years old. That was before the birth of the state of Israel. I befriended a fat, asthmatic British sergeant who taught me some English while I taught him a little Hebrew in return. That friendship was regarded as treason by many of my friends: How can you befriend our oppressors?
Then I was called a traitor and I am still called a traitor by many Israelis for seeking a painful, unhappy compromise between Israel and Palestine. There is no such thing as a happy compromise. All compromises are painful. But the opposite of compromise is not integrity, and the opposite of compromise is not consistency or idealism. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. The Palestinians have a just claim over the country they call Palestine. The Israelis have a just claim over the country we call Israel. The conflict is a painful clash between justice and justice. (Recently it looks more and more like a clash between wrong and wrong).
The only way out is a painful compromise. Dividing the house into two smaller apartments. As the Czech and the Slovaks did, a few years ago, a peaceful divorce with no bloodshed. Yes, I believe in compromises, having been married to the same wonderful woman for almost 55 years.
The title “traitor” is indeed, in some cases, an honorary badge. I am not referring to the trivial traitors who sell some information for money. No. I refer to people who are regarded as traitors because they are ahead of their time. Sometimes, a traitor is simply a person who has the courage to change – in the eyes of those who do not change, those who fear and abhor change, those who hate change. When Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in America, millions of Americans called him a traitor. When Winston Churchill dismantled the British Empire, millions of Englishmen regarded him as a traitor. De Gaulle was called a traitor when he took France out of North Africa. President Sadat of Egypt when he came to Jerusalem to seek peace with Israel. Menachem Begin of Israel when he gave back to Egypt the whole of Sinai in return for peace. Michail Gorbachev when he terminated communism and knocked down the iron curtain. All of those and many others throughout history, including the few brave Germans who tried to kill Hitler in 1944, were labelled traitors by many of their own people. If we look at this list, it seems like a very nobel list. It is an honour to be even a junior member of this club.
Actually my new novel, Judas, published just 3 weeks ago in Israel and in some other countries and due in German by Suhrkamp Verlag in March, is, among other things, about loyalty and treason. Three or four people in this novel, including Judas Iscariot, are labelled traitors, but actually they are the most idealistic, the most devoted, the most loving believers. It is also a novel about love and lust and loneliness and longing, about desolation and desire and death. This novel, in an indirect way, conducts a dialogue with the works of Siegfried Lenz.
My beloved friend, Siegfried Lenz, who left us just a few weeks ago, lived his life and wrote his books with a certain humorous smile on his face. This was a smile of a very curious child, in fact, full of curiosity, but it was also a smile of a child who has seen a lot. My grandmother used to say: “when you have cried out all your tears, this is the time to start laughing”. Siegfried Lenz’s humorous smile, in his literary works, and outside his literary works, was the kind of smile that comes after the tears.
In his person and in his books, I find this rare and magnificent combination of irony mingled with compassion, of moral integrity tamed by a deep understanding of weaknesses of human nature, of comedy and tragedy conceived not like two different planets, but rather like two different windows through which we can see the same landscape.
One day, in the early 1980s, Liselotte and Siegfried Lenz walked into the little study, which Kibutz Hulda allocated for my writing. I liked both of them at first sight. They were gentle and humorous and, above all, full of curiosity. I love curiosity. I love curious people. Actually, I have always regarded curiosity as a moral virtue: I think that a curious person is a better human being than a person who is not curious; a better spouse; a better parent; a better neighbour; a better member of society; a better reader of literature. I even think that a curious person is a better lover than a person who is not curious (but it is too early in the day to elaborate on this particular aspect of curiosity…).
A curious person is capable of putting himself or herself inside other people’s skins. This is the basic pre-condition for empathy; for solidarity; for compassion; for the realization that, in the words of John Donne: “No man is an island”.
My friend Siegfried was always full of curiosity: I realized this fact as soon as we began our very first conversation in my study in Kibutz Hulda, more than 30 years ago, and I enjoyed his curiosity and his humour and his wisdom, each time we got together. I will never forget the wonderful laudation he gave me in Frankfurt Paulskirche, when I received the Friedenspreis.
Of course I was familiar with some of his work long before I met him for the first time, and he was familiar with some of my work. Writers who have read each other, when they finally meet, they never meet as strangers. Siegfried walked into my study and many of his unforgettable protagonists walked in with him.
My first encounter with Siegfried Lenz’s masterly literary work occurred when his early novel Talk of the Town (Stadtgespräch) was first published in Hebrew in 1975. This superb tale of guilt and courage, of hardship and humanity, taught me a lesson in moral ambivalence. In the novel, forty-four hostages are held by the Nazis in a small Norwegian town during the German occupation of World War II. Unless Daniel, the local hero of the resistance, surrenders himself to the Nazi authorities, his comrades in the underground convince him that his stature as a symbol of resistance is more important than the lives of the hostages. However, when the war is over, everything looks different, and Daniel is doomed to live the rest of his life in the shadow of the dead hostages, dealing with the weight of his decision. This is a low-key, understated novel, subtle, full of doubt and soul searching. The essential ethical problem is left painfully open, and the fine line between courage and selfishness remains fluid.
The Talk of the town is not only a fierce manifestation of ambivalence and ambiguity, it is also a complex existential statement about the human condition and about the painful penalty we occasionally must pay for our moral choices.
Yes it is, perhaps, insufficient to describe The Talk of the Town as a “statement”: it is first and foremost a novel rich with sharp descriptions, with wonderful renderings of character, and with a unique sense of the Scandinavian landscape. The ethical depth of this novel is based on another kind of depth – the depth of language and of sensual rendering. The time, the place, the mountain, the fjord, the village: everything becomes vividly present, even in translation. Reading The Talk of the Town was actually a part of my first encounter with the works of Group 47 that began appearing in Hebrew translations since the mid 1960s.
As the child of a right-wing, nationalistic Jewish-Zionist family, I grew up in an atmosphere of vehement resentment toward anything German. In fact, as a young man I was determined to boycott anything German, just as I had resolved never to set foot in Germany. The only things I did not boycott were the books: after all, if you boycotted books, you became a little bit like “them”.
And so, with a strange mixture of curiosity, resentment, fascination and suspicion I began to read post-war German literature in its Hebrew translation. In particular, I was seduced by the
works of Group 47: The Talk of the Town followed by German Lesson, and the works of Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Ingeborg Bachmann and several others, all of whom made me re-examine my stereotypical notion of The German People. These authors made it impossible for me not to apply some distinctions to my feelings. They helped me to grasp a bit of the ethical complexity of the German experience. Siegfried Lenz, in his German Lesson, made me put myself in the skin of little Siggi Jepsen and in the shoes of his sister Hilke. I had to imagine myself in the place of the persecuted painter Max Ludwig Jensen and – having served for three years as a soldier in the Israeli Army – I even had to imagine myself in the place of the rigid policeman Jens Jepsen. I was forced to examine myself: how would I act under certain orders, not necessarily monstrous or murderous orders – just absurd orders?
The German Lesson, even more than other works by the authors of Group 47, made me change my black-and-white attitude toward post-war Germany. Like The Talk of the Town, German Lesson made me confront ethical ambivalence and emotional ambiguity, and by doing so, Siegfried Lenz prompted me to abandon simplistic stereotypes.
The reason I regard The German Lesson as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century is not just for its moral depth and richness of ideas. For me, the German Lesson is a great work of music – a symphony no less than a work of literature. Here is a description of the North Sea, and I quote: “The sea lapped against the stones of the breakwater, the spray came right up to where they stood, and the water came gushing through the crevices, bubbling and foaming and then slapping back again.” And yes, it is also a wonderful art exhibit, a series of unforgettable landscapes, one of the most sensual, one of the most visual books I have ever read in any language. The microcosm of one seemingly serene and cosy village on the German-Danish border is actually painted in words. It is as if the narrator, Siggi, much like Balthasar (the painter’s alter ego), brings everything into ferocious focus: the village, the cottages, the broken mill, the canal – everything becomes visible, almost touchable. We are taken there with all our senses even before our intellect grasps the absurdity of the struggle. Here is a glimpse of the dilapidated windmill, and I quote: “Its onion-shaped top was roofed with slate, the octagonal weather-boarded tower had twice been struck by lightening. In the high-set, deep, white framed windows all the panes were broken. The wooden structure that had once carried the sails lay broken up and rotting in the grass on the eastern side, among useless old millstones, spokeless wheels, and horseshoes.”
There is some magic about Siegfried Lenz’s writing, a humorous touch that transcends even the gloomiest scenes of the novel, turning man pages into a cheerful, carnivalesque celebration. Take, for example, the following gem, in which Siggi’s impossible grandfather claims that evolution had actually begun right there, right at the godforsaken strip of Nordfrieslandian shore. Here is his summation of the entire saga of evolution. I quote: “One day every living thing, and all the rest as well, rose from the bottom of the sea, crossed the amphibic belt, climbed onto dry land, washed itself from the mud, built a fire and made coffee.” Yes, this novel is gently funny even as it deals with grim reality. It is full of slight absurdities, of cheerful paradox. Here is another example, and I quote: “The sun set behind the rampart, just as the painter had taught it to do.”
There is something basically sanguine, even mischievous, behind the tragic plot. For example, the lasting struggle between Siggi’s two fathers (who hold the diametrically opposed jobs of policemen and painter), both of them stubborn, both of them deeply committed to their respective roles, both of them cunning and even devious – this struggle is indeed a tragicomedy.
Yet the German Lesson is not simply about the battle between art and power. Nor is it simply a study of the deep social structures, which gave Nazi ideology its populistic, grass root support. And this novel is more than a vivid rendering of one picturesque German province, its traditions, its folklore and its prejudices. So what is it? Essentially, the German Lesson is a novel about a quest for love, for the kind of fatherly love that is not overwhelmed by fatherly authority. (It is no wonder that while writing his compulsory and compulsive paper about “The Joys of Duty”, young Siggi almost adopts a third father, the friendly jailor Josweig.
Not all of Siegfried Lenz’s work is available to me, as I don’t read German. Yet I have read, and loved, everything that travelled into Hebrew, and some of what exists in English. And these works allow me to say that Siegfried Lenz was a great writer, a novelist of deep humanity, benevolence, tolerance and compassion. He is also a master of sensual writing who, even in translation, makes the reader hear and see and smell and feel.
Siegfried Lenz is also the creator of several unforgettable characters, scenes, images and metaphors. His sharp eye for details and his sharp ear for idioms reveal a linguistic virtuoso. He has the ability to seize and capture even the slightest modulations of nuance, whether it be of nature or human nature.
At the same time, Siegfried Lenz also served as Germany’s conscience: one of the greatest researchers of the German psyche, especially that of young people, of country folk, of philistine characters. In his novels and stories, Siegfried Lenz provided us with painful perspectives into the complex relations between the seemingly idyllic German past and the monstrous German past. He dealt with the hypocritical dimension of the German present – a present pregnant with secrets, repressions, denials and righteousness. Siegfried Lenz examines these subterranean tensions by means of irony and paradox and sarcasm, but also with a degree of empathy and tolerance. He is a healer, not an executioner.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me conclude this presentation with a few sentences about my personal credo as a citizen and as a writer. At the beginning of this talk, I quoted Donne’s famous words: “ No man is an island” and no woman either. But I dare add to this: indeed no one of us is an island but everyone of us is a peninsula: half connected to the mainland of family, community, language, society, political struggles, but also half detached. There is a part of every one of us which is forever standing alone, its back to the continent, facing the ocean, facing the elements, desolation, desire and death, loneliness and loss and longing. So we are, and so we should be allowed to remain: peninsulas. All my life I resented social and political systems, which tried to turn each of us into a lonely island, cut off from others, in a state of perpetual Darwinist war with all other lonely islands. But I equally object the opposite socio-political ideologies, those ideologies, which try to turn each one of us into no more than
just a faceless molecule of the mainland. We are neither desert islands nor mere molecules of homeland, society, race or religion. We are peninsulas.
My lifetime struggle for an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, for a two-state solution, two independent states co-existing next door to each other in peace and collaboration – this struggle is based on my “peninsula concept”.
In almost each and every one of my stories and novels, I write about women, men, and children who crave to remain peninsulas – neither lonely, cut-off desert islands, nor submissive organs of some overwhelming and oppressive entity.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends, members of the jury of the Siegfried Lenz Literary Prize, may I tell you that your decision to nominate me the first recipient of the Siegfried Lenz Prize is not only a great honour, it is also a deeply moving event for me. He and I were friends for more than 30 years, I loved him dearly as a person and as a novelist. I should better say no more, because even as I am speaking now about my love for Siegfried, I can see him staring at me from the shadows at the corner of this auditorium, giving me his warm, beloved smile, the humorous smile of a child full of curiosity, a child who has seen a lot and who has shown us all a lot.
Thank you. Thank all of you very much.