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Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz, right, (Photo by H. Christoph/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Racine, Lenz and Me: a story of love, hate and failure

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Book of a Lifetime | 10 minute read
The German writer that made him, and the French dramatist who broke him... Ian Plenderleith thinks back to a seminal moment, and a slim volume unread in youth that haunts him still.

It’s been more than 30 years and I’m still not over the slim volume that broke me. It stands out even now as the text that was able to scare, to depress, to traumatise me; that gripped hold of my destiny, choked it, slammed it down, and then hurled it out of the ring. Yes, this book was a melodrama. It pulled out and pulped my emotions even more brutally than the tanned, unattainable, impossibly gorgeous hockey player in the year above, who surely never knew my name.

What terrible depth and poetic sagacity lay within the words of one text to so radically disrupt a young life? Of course, at the age of 16 and 17 I was susceptible to many influences, for better and worse. A mere book, though, could surely not have played such a malevolent role compared to the standard channels of deviance on offer in 1980s England – indolence, drugs, drunkenness, impossible infatuation, petty theft, and after-hours violence.

Look, I never actually read the book. That was the problem.

I only have the vaguest clue when it was written, and no idea at all what it was about. I can tell you three things about it. It is called Andromaque, its author is Racine, and it was in French. And that it was some sort of play written in the classical style, so not really a book at all. The play that changed my life. The playbook that I didn’t, just couldn’t, study.

If I’m coming across as overly theatrical, here’s some background. I was studying English, German and French for my A’levels. For English, we were given ten works of literature, and for German and French four each. That was 18 novels, memoirs and plays altogether. And with 17 of those works I had no problem whatsoever. I conscientiously read them all, many times over, and even came to appreciate the ones that initially turned me off. Troilus and Cressida started out as toil and stress and too many turgid monologues, but its caustic wisdom crawled out and eventually it became my favourite Shakespeare play. EM Forster’s A Passage to India seemed an ordeal under the midday colonial sun until our teacher started talking about phallic symbols and the sexual imagery of caves. My classmates and I were all determined not to be the kind of Englishmen who arranged everything coldly on shelves.

Andromaque, though, stayed cold on my shelf for the whole two years. It was a very old edition, in a plain green cloth cover. It had already tortured generations of students at De Aston Comprehensive School in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire – such an unlikely place for the dissection of classic texts in a foreign language. Andromaque was thoroughly divorced from the life of farm labour in the surrounding countryside that – whenever I let my gaze edge towards the classroom window – distracted me from the play’s endless acts of flowery prose. In my near vision were rugby pitches that staged a sport I despised. If you don’t pass your A’levels, this is where you’ll stay – that was always The Lincolnshire Threat. A place where hulking lads flatten each other in to the mud on Saturdays and then drink 16 pints while singing about tits, beer and bestiality. Yet compared to reading Racine, digging potatoes seemed like sweet liberation.

Who made the decision that I had to read, study and analyse this book? Some embittered Englishmen whose personalities were entirely repressed by their chafing tweed jackets, announced to themselves only, “We had to read this bloody thing, and we had to live through the war too, so why should the pampered degenerates of today have it any better?”

Our French literature teacher, Mr Berry, was a very decent bloke, and for 75% of the course he’d chosen well. Molière’s The Miser was a comedy, and a good one too, while Pagnol’s Topaz was a cynical romp about the corrupting effect of money that sat well with my hard-core neo-socialist interpretation of the world. I also identified with the sombre, despairing narrator of André Gide’s Strait is the Gate, shut out by his one true love, Alice, who preferred a wholly ascetic life devoted to God. This fit my conviction that my inability to attract a girlfriend was only because I was a thwarted, swooning romantic whose ideals were too elevated for mundane smooching in the Prefect’s Room. Finally, though, Mr Berry must have opted for balance. We needed to digest the whole oeuvre of French literature, from the funny to the political through the melancholy and on to the classical. We needed a struggle.

By the time we got around to Andromaque, I had decided to study French at university. I had been learning it since I was seven years old, and almost every year we went there on holiday. I was interviewed at Birmingham University, and my raving about Gide must have convinced them of my profound love for Gallic literature. Or I fulfilled a quota that said they had to take a certain number of students from the potato flatlands. Either way, they offered me a place, contingent on a B grade in French, and a combination of a B and a C in my other two subjects.

Meanwhile, I was suppressing the problem of Andromaque. I eked out two sides on the set question for homework, and the next week Mr Berry was quietly but firmly merciless in tearing apart my flimsy analysis in front of the class. D minus was a more than generous grade. The class – there were only seven of us – laughed, and I laughed too. Did I take Mr Berry to one side and ask for extra tuition because this book was in danger of wrecking my life plans?

No, I just refused to engage with the work, and must have convinced myself that my understanding of the other three writers would be enough to paper over the crack of Andromaque.

Jean Racine ( 1639-1699) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I suppressed the memory of the final exam too, where I wrote furiously for three-quarters of the allotted time. There was an insurmountable problem with the two offered questions about Andromaque, though. I had no idea how to answer either of them. Why had I not seen this coming when I ignored the book during my weeks of otherwise carefully planned revision? I managed to write no more than half a page but I might as well have left it blank.

Without me even noticing, though, my life had found a way to correct itself. Just down the corridor from Mr Berry’s class was the German room. Access to German only started when we were 14, so in my case French had a seven-year head-start. My very first German composition essay began, “On a beautiful summer’s day, the Hitler family set out for the zoo.” Our teacher, the unfeasibly tall and willowy Mr Williamson – Lurch – read it out to the class in his deep, laconic drawl, and they all snickered.

The stragglers and expectorators had all fallen away by the time we reached A level, though, and Lurch informed us that we would not be studying works by Schiller and Goethe. “They made us do all that at university,” he said, “and so I’m not going to put you through the same misery.” Instead, we focused on plays about collective guilt. Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Siegfried Lenz, and a pre-war novel by Ödon von Horváth. The war was no longer funny. We all knew why it had happened – because of Hitler and the Nazis. But how did Hitler and the Nazis happen?

Lurch and I had a bit of history. He’d been refereeing a house rugby game that I’d been forced to play in due to low numbers, and when I received and successfully caught the ball (an unusual event in itself) I made a run for glory but got crushed into the mud just short of the try-line. I lay on the ground in tears while hard lads with cigarettes on a nearby hillock sneered, and Lurch cried out, “Play on – he’s not hurt!” As the game continued I staggered back to the school building, my skinny arm broken in two. I later wrote it up as one of my German composition essays. Lurch claimed to have no memory of the incident at all and gave me a C (for Cry-baby).

Another time, possibly because I’d not portrayed him that sympathetically in my essay about the rugby incident, he upbraided me in front of the class for having “no respect for anyone at all”. I started to deny it, but he stopped me and said, “Don’t worry about it too much. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Although he could be moody, taciturn and downright miserable, I started to like him. He was, after all, sparing us Goethe and Schiller. Now we were blessed with Siegfried Lenz instead.

Lenz wrote a radio play in the early 60s, Die Zeit der Schuldlosen. It translates roughly as The Guilt-Free Age, though no translation quite evokes the irony of the original German. Nine normal, ‘innocent’ citizens from various backgrounds are arrested and locked in a prison cell with a communist agitator. They are told that they will be free to go just as soon as the communist dies. There follows a long night of moral debate about what to do, but when dawn comes they all go free, because the communist is now just a corpse. It’s not clear exactly who killed him, but it’s very clear that, despite the actors’ remonstrations to the contrary, they were all complicit in not preventing his death.

I loved not just the intense, furious dialogue and the issues raised, but the fact that it threw into question everything I thought that I believed in, which included a naive entertainment of the idea that if we could not persuade people of the need for global socialism, then perhaps we needed to impose it on them by force. The play was a manifesto for scepticism. It was an object lesson in how the personal is always political, and that responsibility is a full-time endeavour. Lenz, Lurch told us, believed that doubt was a form of commitment. Though when I ran that by a Communist Party friend a couple of years later, his response was, “I doubt it.”

Yet all the while that I was struggling with Racine and thriving on Lenz, it never once occurred to me that I should change direction. I was also finding the grammatical rules of German simple and logical to understand, while the use of the subjunctive and the past historic in French had suddenly begun to confuse me. France, however, was familiar – croissants, onions, garlic, berets, wine and war cemeteries. They were still our Allies. When we drove around Normandy in the summer, kids saw our number plate and gave us the Victory sign. Germany was still tanks and jackboots. Their football team always won, or at least made it to the final, with annoying and joyless Teutonic inevitability.

Lenz corrected Racine. I got a B in my German ‘A’ level and, so I later found out, an A grade on my literature paper. The next day, a man with a voice like a Radio Four announcer called me from Birmingham University. Listen, young man, would you consider studying German instead of French? Like all my major life decisions, I made it on the spot.

I would have had no problem going down the French route. I would, however, have had a completely different life. Or would it just have been a parallel life in another tongue, in a different post-code? It doesn’t matter, because there’s not a single thing to regret.

Only, at some level, Racine’s Andromaque still troubles me. It could be the fact that it was the one text that ended in my defeat. I gave up on it. I wasn’t intelligent enough, wasn’t diligent enough. It probably irks me that the book I hated most was the one that, however passively, radically altered my life. So every now and again I have this dream, identical every time. I’m 17 years old, and I have an exam to take. There are three months to go before this exam, and there is one specific book that I haven’t yet read. I haven’t even bought it yet. The name of the book is never specified.

The exam, the exam! The scenario fades and on the other side of the bed I register the spread of my wife’s hair, soundly asleep. I realise that there is no exam, no book shop, no book. And although it’s a little disappointing that I’m no longer 17, everything’s fine. I got clean away with not reading Andromaque.

Ian Plenderleith’s memoir, The Quiet Fan, will be published by Unbound in August, but you can still pledge for a copy here