AN EXEMPLARY LIFE by Siegfried Lenz


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Contemporary or at least very recent Hamburg is the scene of this funny-sad exercise in sustained irony, first published in West Germany in 1973 as Das Vorbild (""The Model""). Three people meet to choose an admirable life that will be presented in a school reader for students to emulate. It seems an easy enough task--the selection will take up only one chapter--but their views are so disparate and their own lives in such a muddle that it becomes maddeningly difficult. Two of the selectors are male teachers: one elderly, pompous and clearly out of it, and the other desperately trying to be as young and iconoclastic as his pupils. The third is a chain-smoking freelance woman editor who never quite comes into focus, although we learn a lot about her erratic driving habits as she careens around Hamburg. The city is a fourth character as badly mixed up as the others: an ancient Hanseatic port with rock concerts, anarchic youth and inflatable furniture. Counterpointing these unraveling destinies is the near--saintly life of the model finally chosen. She is a scientist who forced herself to live as badly as the political prisoners in Greece to express solidarity with their lot under the regime of the Colonels, weakening herself so much that she dies of pneumonia. The writing is almost too lively, as if the author wanted to compensate for the depressing tale he projects of the triviality of modern life, and of characters, indifferent at best, who distance away from the reader.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1976
Publisher: Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux