Stella is a late novel by Siegfried Lenz – who began his writing career in the fifties – originally published in 2008 and almost immediately translated by Anthea Bell in 2009. It is a tragic love story, the tragic nature of which is immediately revealed by its German title, Schweigeminute – One Minute’s Silence. The English-speaking reader does not take long to catch up, however, as the novel opens at a memorial service for a teacher, the Stella of the title, as relayed to us by one of her students, Christian, whose close relationship with her is not hidden:

“I looked at the short black hair I’d caressed, the bright eyes I’d kissed on the beach of Bird Island.”

The affair between Stella and Christian happens in the world of boats and beaches, far from the setting of the school. Christian works with his father, a ‘stone fisher’, who uses his boat to lift and place rocks in order to create breakwaters, a perhaps ironic endeavour giving the intent of calming stormy seas at the same moment when Christian’s emotional life will experience the turmoil of falling in love. It is Stella who, seeing Christian from the beach one day, asks to come aboard his father’s boat. Does she initiate the relationship? This is certainly implied later when she asks to visit the stone fields with Christian and they end up stranded on Bird Island:

“You leaned your head against my shoulder. I dared not move. I let you take my hand and lift it to your cheek, and you left it there for a moment.”

They are rescued from the island but spend that night together in Stella’s hotel room:

“Stella didn’t ask me to accompany her, she simply assumed that I would, and she did the same in the hotel, where there was no-one at the reception desk.”

The difficulty comes in the diverse expectations they have afterwards, Stella offering silence in reply to Christian’s, “We’ll see each other again.” Similarly, he is disappointed on their return to school, expecting that they would “communicate in secret ways”:

“I tried to meet her eyes but she took no notice, and the glance she gave me was almost indifferent.”

Christian’s longing for Stella is such that he cannot, or will not, see any reason they cannot be together. Stella, unsurprisingly, is more realistic. When he turns up at her home, she asks him, “Do you know what it means for me? And for you?” Others begin to suspect. A photograph of them together clearly reveals that they are more than pupil and teacher: Christian’s mother, on seeing it, says in an under-stated fashion, “And you like each other. I can see that too.” His neighbour Sonja, although a child, picks up the same message:

“Well, if you love each other, Christian, they’re sure to make you repeat a year at school.”

Sonja’s inclusion in the narrative is a rare implied criticism of the relationship – when she first meets Stella she tells her she is Christian’s ‘boyfriend’ and it’s reasonable to assume that the age difference between her and Christian is around the same as between Christian and Stella. On the other hand, Christian’s father is more sanguine: “a difference in age is sometimes an advantage.” This betrays the novel’s setting well before its publication date, something that is revealed by Stella’s back story when she tells Christian that her father was shot down over England during the war and put in a POW camp. After the war, he takes his family back to England and Stella is inspired to learn English and become an English teacher. This places the novel in the 1960s when teacher-pupil relationships (where the pupil was ‘of age’ – Christian is eighteen), though not encouraged, were neither criminalised nor regarded with quite the same moral outrage. Even for a modern reader, opprobrium is blunted by the fact the pupil is male and the teacher female.

For Lenz this is the story of two lovers separated by circumstances, firstly as a result of both their ages and their roles, and then finally by death. Stella’s death is not the result of her love for Christian, but a sailing accident in a storm; no matter how hard we try, some forces just cannot be controlled.


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3 Responses to “Stella”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting on a number of levels. The setting being in a time when this kind of thing was less frowned on, the choice of gender for each character (if the pupil had been female even back in 2008 we woudl have been more judgemental) and of course the death of the transgressive female – a common theme in literature back to Tolstoy and beyond!

  2. German Literature Month X Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] Lady Sophia Sternheim (1) (2) Lazar: The Poisoning (1) Lernet-Holenia: Count Luna (1) Lenz: Stella (1) The Turncoat (1) (2) Mann Heinrich: The Loyal Subject (1) Mann Thomas: Death in Venice (1) Young […]

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