Posts Tagged ‘Bernhard Schlink’

I stumbled upon Bernhard Schlink’sThe Woman on the Stairs‘ recently. I haven’t read a book by him in a while and so I thought I’ll read this now for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The narrator of the story is a German lawyer. He is in Sydney on a  work-related trip. During a break from work, he goes to the art gallery. He is surprised when he sees a painting there called ‘The Woman on the Stairs’. We discover that there are mysterious past events that connect him to the painting and the people related to it. Our lawyer tries to find out who owns the painting, but hits a dead end. Then he hires a detective to find that out. What happens after that, when our lawyer goes on a quest for a secret from his past and tries to find the mysterious woman in the painting forms the rest of the story.

I don’t want to tell you anything more on the plot, but I can’t resist saying this. The next passage is my own opinion, but I think it is also spoiler-ish. Thought I’ll warn you in advance 😊

The Woman on the Stairs‘ is a beautiful homage to Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. It is a beautiful love letter to Irene Adler. Atleast that is what I think. What happens when, after many years, Sherlock Holmes stumbles upon a clue and goes on a quest for Irene Adler? What if Sherlock Holmes is not a detective but a lawyer? What if it is not Bohemia of the 19th century but the Germany of the contemporary era? And what if Irene Adler is, well Irene Adler? 😊 Well, this is the story we get. It is beautiful. I loved it.

I had forgotten how much I liked Bernhard Schlink till I read this book. I loved his books, ‘The Reader‘ and ‘Homecoming‘, and some of the stories I read in ‘Flights of Love‘. Then I read his book ‘The Weekend‘ and hated it and I stopped reading Bernhard Schlink. Now I realize that he was probably having a bad day when he wrote ‘The Weekend’. Because his stories are consistently good. His prose is spare, his sentences are short. Every sentence moves the plot. There is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. Occasionally there is a beautiful passage. Perfect reading if you don’t want to tax your brain too much, but want to relax and enjoy the story, and read the occasional beautiful paragraph. This book had all this, it was vintage Schlink. He has written one more book after this, ‘Olga‘. It looks fascinating. I want to read that soon.

This particular passage in the book made me smile 😊

“In our family, we did, and still do things by the book: no loud fights, no love fests or orgies of joy, no lazing about, as much work as possible, as much rest as necessary; day is day and night is night.”

When I was a kid, this was how my family was – no loud fights, spoke in low tones, didn’t show happiness or sadness or anger in an explicit way. I remember when my dad got angry, he spoke in a low menacing voice and it sent a chill down our spines. My sister, who was never scared of anyone, even she was scared of him at that time. All this changed when I got older. Now, I scream when I get angry at home  I scream when I am filled with joy, especially when watching a sporting event on TV – when Leyla Fernandez is match point down and she hits a delicate drop volley, or when Barbora Krejcikova is set point down and she hits a flowing forehand winner, or when Mohammed Hafeez delicately teases a ball between two fielders to the boundary and Alan Wilkins says on commentary – “Professor Hafeez is playing chess with his cricket bat…He is toying with the bowling with the delicacy of a surgeon” – I can’t stop screaming when I see that 😊 I love lazing about sometimes (or many times 😊) not doing anything, I rest a lot sometimes but do with very less rest on most days. And last but not not the least, day is night and night is day in these parts 😆 It is like night owl has gone rogue here 😆 I used to be the guy who followed all these rules, and now I’ve broken every one of them that it makes me smile 😊

I’ll leave you with some of my other favourite passages from the book.

“I read about the history of Australia, the convicts in chains, the settlers, the land grant companies, the gold miners, the Chinese. The Aborigines who died first from infections, then from being massacred, and then had their children taken away. The taking was well intentioned, it brought tremendous suffering to both parents and children. My wife would have nodded; she liked to say that the opposite of good is not evil, but good intentions. But the opposite of evil is not evil intentions, but good.”

“I sat back down on the bench. Should I go to the firm? I could still put in a day’s work. I didn’t want to. When, in the Botanic Garden, I remembered that morning by the river, it occurred to me that I had never done that again, fritter away a day. Of course, with my fiancée, then wife, and then with my children, there were days when I didn’t work. But on those days I did what I owed my fiancée, my wife and children, what served our health, education, togetherness. Pleasant activities, certainly, and a nice change of pace from work. But just to sit, and watch the world go by, and close my eyes against the sun, and daydream hour after hour, to find a restaurant with good food and wine, take a little walk, then find another place to sit and watch, and close my eyes against the sun, and dream – I did that only that day, and now again in Sydney.”

“The wind felt weird. It came without clouds, and without rain; it had no right to show off, but it did. It did not blow on me, but around me and through me and let me know how frail I was, as it let the house feel how fragile it was.”

“It takes many masons to build the cathedral of justice; some hew blocks, others carve plinths and cornices, still others, ornaments and statues. They are all equally important to the project: prosecution and defence are as important as judgement; the drafting of rental, employment and inheritance contracts is as important as the implementation of mergers and acquisitions; the lawyer for the rich as important as the lawyer for the poor. The cathedral would still rise without my contribution. It would rise without this cornice, or that ornament, but still they are part of it.”

“Or is it the small defeats that we can’t get over? The first tiny scratch on a new car is more painful than a big one later on. The small splinters are harder to remove than the big ones and sometimes won’t come out however much you poke them with a needle, and they fester until they work their way out. The big early defeats change the course of our lives. The small ones don’t change us, but they stay with us and torment us, little thorns in our side.”

Have you read ‘The Woman on the Stairs‘? Which is your favourite Bernhard Schlink book?

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I loved Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Homecoming’ and ‘The Reader’ and I thought at some point that I would like to read every one of Schlink’s works which has been translated into English. When I heard about ‘The Weekend’ and how it has polarized readers – with some loving the book and some hating it – I thought that I will read it for German Literature Month and see where I stand on it. I had high hopes because Schlink had a hundred percent strike rate for me till now and typically that is the sign of a favourite author for me. I finished reading ‘The Weekend’ yesterday. Here is what I think.

The story of the ‘The Weekend’ is set during the weekend in a house in the German countryside. Jörg, who had been convicted for more than twenty years, for his violent activities when he was part of the RAF / Baader Meinhof group, has been pardoned by the President and is going to be released from prison. His sister Christiane arranges for a welcome party for him at her countryside home. She invites their common friends for the party – friends who once had the same political thoughts as Jörg, but who have since then, become part of the mainstream. Though Christiane thinks that it is going to be a nostalgic and warm weekend, things don’t go as planned. There are a few verbal battles between Jorg and one of his old friends Ulrich, a few secrets come tumbling out of the closet and everyone is not what they seem.


When I read a Bernhard Schlink book, I expect a few things in the book, which I like. They include things like – a first person narrator, not too many characters but a few characters which are well fleshed out, long monologues by the narrator on life, love, truth, philosophy, law and justice, one or two surprises in the plot, many beautiful passages. ‘The Weekend’ didn’t have most of these. There is no first person narrator. There are too many characters. At the beginning of the book, I had to keep referring back to find out who is who. There are a few monologues here and there but they were not as good as one expected them to be. There are one or two surprises but they don’t have the impact that one expects. There is a tacked in 9/11 scene which feels totally out of place. There are one or two beautiful passages but not enough number of them.


The basic premise of the book – a few old friends some of whom have controversial backgrounds meet during a weekend and relive their past – is quite interesting. It raises the reader’s expectations. But I think not anyone can pull this off. I think this kind of setting would have worked well in an Agatha Christie novel. Or an Anton Chekhov play. Or maybe even a film. It didn’t work so well here.


I didn’t really like most of the characters in the book – I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t like them either. However, there was one character whom I liked. She was Margarete,  Christiane’s friend. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the space she deserved.


‘The Weekend’ is not Schlink’s best work. It was quite disappointing. Still, I think Schlink’s two good books out of three is a good strike rate though it is down from the rarefied level of a hundred percent. I hope my next Schlink novel is better.


I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book :


      The dawns are quiet, and they are melancholy – like the noontimes and evenings, like the mornings and the afternoons. They are melancholy not only in autumn and winter, but also in spring and summer. It’s the melancholy of the high sky and the wide, empty land. The eye finds no purchase among the trees, the church tower, the electricity supply with its masts and cables. It finds no mountains in the distance and no city nearby, nothing to set boundaries and create a space. The eye loses itself. The visitor who lets his eye wander loses himself along with it, and it saddens him and is at the same time so compelling that he is seized by the longing to merge with it. Simply to lose himself.

      Anyone who was born and bred here, and who sets about taking a job and founding a family, has to make his mind up. Stay or go. Staying small under this sky and in this void or growing at the cost of a life away from home. Even those who do not consciously make the decision sense that if they stay, their lives will be small even before they have really begun, and that if they leave, they are leaving behind not just a place but a life. A life whose small format is full of beauty – that’s why the visitors come back and buy themselves a house or a farm and yield to the desire to lose during the weekend.


You can find Caroline’s review of the book here.


Have you read Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’? What do you think about it?

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I read Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Homecoming’ last year and liked it very much. I have wanted to read other books by him since then, especially his more famous book ‘The Reader’. So when German Literature Month arrived this year I added ‘The Reader’ to my ‘Must read’ list. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

I am not going to bore you with the plot outline of the story, as you have probably seen the movie version of ‘The Reader’ (for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar). What I would like to say after reading the book is this. The movie stays more or less faithful to the book with some minor liberties to the screenplay. When I read the book and the parts about Hanna, Kate Winslet’s face kept coming to my mind. That is one of the problems of seeing the movie version before reading the book.


Which one is better – the movie or the book? I saw the movie a few years back when it came out and I can only talk about what I remember now about the impression the movie created on me at that time. With our memory being unreliable most times, I would take my own comparison with a pinch of salt. But if I stick my neck out and make the comparison, I would say that the movie and the book were good in different ways. The movie was good in terms of creating a visual picture of the story and saying things which cannot be said in words. The book is good with respect to the philosophical discussions which are explored through the narrator’s voice, which is difficult to do in a movie. The reasoning behind Hanna’s reluctance to reveal her secret is also better explained in the book. It also leaves many clues to the central mystery which I don’t remember the movie doing. The book also mentions many German books and writers – Intrigues and Love by Schiller, Schnitzler, Heller, Fontane, Heine Morike, Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, Lenz – one can make a ‘TBR’ list out of it 🙂 The things about Bernhard Schlink’s prose in ‘Homecoming’ that I liked very much were all there in ‘The Reader’ – the deceptively simple prose which hides the depth of the philosophical ideas and questions he addresses, the insightful observations on different things, the quotable quotes in every chapter. I thought that as I knew the story already, the book wouldn’t affect me that much. But inspite of that, the ending was still heartbreaking. Hanna is a beautiful, haunting heroine and I will never forget her. I wish things had turned out differently.


If you have seen the movie version of ‘The Reader’, I don’t know whether I should recommend the book to you. It is good in its own right, but all the surprises have been revealed if you have already watched the movie. But if you haven’t watched the movie, then I would recommend that you read the book first and then watch the movie.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


      Then I began to betray her.

      Not that I gave away any secrets or exposed Hanna. I didn’t reveal anything that I should have kept to myself. I kept something to myself that I should have revealed. I didn’t acknowledge her. I know that disavowal is an unusual form of betrayal. From the outside it is impossible to tell if you are disowning someone or simply exercising discretion, being considerate, avoiding embarrassments and sources of irritation. But you, who are doing the disowning, you know what you’re doing. And disavowal pulls the underpinnings away from a relationship just as surely as other more flamboyant types of betrayal.


      ‘I…I mean…so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.

      Everything was quiet for a moment. It is not the custom at German trials for defendants to question the judges. But now the question had been asked, and everyone was waiting for the judge’s answer. He had to answer; he could not ignore the question or brush it away with a reprimand or a dismissive counterquestion. It was clear to everyone, it was clear to him too, and I understood why he had adopted an expression of irritation as his defining feature. It was his mask. Behind it, he could take a little time to find an answer. But not too long; the longer he took, the greater the tension and expectation, and the better his answer had to be.


Now escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere. And the past I arrived in as a legal historian was no less alive than the present. It is also not true, as outsiders might assume, that one can merely observe the richness of life in the past, whereas one can participate in the present. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides.


Have you read ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Homecoming’ by Bernhard Schlink a few years back during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. Schlink was more famous for his book ‘The Reader’ which was made into a movie of the same name and which won Kate Winslet her first Oscar. ‘Homecoming’ appealed to me because of its bookish cover and the plot. I thought I will read it for German Literature Month. It was gripping from the first page to the last. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘Homecoming’ is the story of a boy, Peter Debauer, who discovers a few pages in his grandparents’ home which have the story of the homecoming of a German soldier who escaped a Russian POW camp after the Second World War. But, unfortunately, the ending of the story is missing and the boy is not able to find it even after searching for it in his grandparents’ home. In later years, after the boy has grown up, he doesn’t forget this story and later in adult life, he resumes his search for the story ending. He discovers that the house described in the book resembles a real house and starts his investigation there. He also wants to know more about his mysterious father, who is supposedly killed in the Second World War and about whom his mother is silent. He goes on a quest to find the story ending and the secret behind the disappearance of his own father. The shocking secrets that Peter discovers and how the two story arcs come together form the rest of the book.


I loved ‘Homecoming’. I loved it first for its bookish cover. I also loved it for the pleasant font and the font spacing. The generous font spacing made me read faster than usual and I couldn’t believe the rollicking pace at which the story moved. I am not able to tell whether this was because of the font and the spacing or whether it was because the story was fast-paced. Despite the rollicking pace, the story didn’t shy away from complex ideas, like the distinction and deep connection between good and evil, the deconstruction of law and the complex nature of love. Bernhard Schlink also doesn’t write those page long sentences which German writers are fond of, but writes shorter sentences, though some of them are a few lines long. (I don’t know whether this was truly the case, or whether it was because the translator did it that way. Sometimes, in a translated work of literature, we don’t know how much of the translation owes to the original writer and how much to the translator.) I think this must have also contributed to the fast pace of the book.


Starting from the first paragraph which went like this :


When I was young, I spent the summer holidays with my grandparents in Switzerland. My mother would take me to the station and put me on the train, and when I was lucky I could stay put and arrive six hours later at the platform where Grandfather would be waiting for me. When I was less lucky, I had to change trains at the border. Once I took the wrong train and sat there in tears until a friendly conductor dried them and after a few stations put me on another train, entrusting me to another conductor, who then in similar fashion handed me on to the next, so that I was transported to my goal by a whole relay of conductors.


the book gripped me till the end. I liked the description of the narrator’s time with his grandparents during summer, how rural Switzerland looked like, how his grandparents loved literature and poetry and history and how the narrator fell in love for the first time.


Schlink paints precise, interesting portraits of different characters in the book and I liked that aspect of the novel very much. For example, here is a description of Peter’s grandparents.


I don’t know whether it was a happy marriage; I didn’t even know whether it makes sense to speak of the happiness of their marriage or whether they ever thought about it. They lived a life together, took the good with the bad, respected each other, relied on each other. I never once saw them have a serious argument, though they often teased and even poked fun at each other. They took pleasure in being together and showing themselves together, he the dignified personage he had become in his old age, she the beautiful woman she had remained.


The descriptions of his mother, by the narrator, Peter, are some of the most interesting passages in the book. Here is one :


She would have been a good doctor : she was precise, she had a good eye for what mattered and what did not, and she kept on top of things. What she lacked in warmth, she would have made up for in vigilance and commitment : her patients might not have liked her, but they would certainly have felt they were in good hands.


And another :


Sometimes I brought all the ingredients and cooked. My mother did not like to cook and was not good at it : I was raised on bread, cold cuts, and warmed-up canned foods. Seldom did I see her so happy and gay, so girlish, as when I was at work at the stove and she was doing some unimportant task for me or was simply on her first glass of champagne.


And another :


My mother was good at making me feel guilty. It was the way she brought me up to be good in school, to do my house and garden chores, to deliver my magazines on time, and to see to the needs of my friends. The privilege of getting an education, living in a nice house with a nice garden, having the money to pay for necessities (let along extras), enjoying the company of friends and of a loving mother – all this had to be earned; moreover, it had to be earned with a smile : my mother had solved the conflict between duty and desire by decreeing that I was to desire to do my duty.


In another place, Peter describes his relationship with his mother in a beautiful passage. It goes like this :


The relationship between single mothers and only sons has a bit of the married couple to it. This does not make it a happy one : it can be just as loveless and aggressive, just as much of a power struggle as a marriage. As in marriage, though in its own way, there is no third party or parties – no father, no siblings – to drain off the tension that inevitably arises in so intimate an association. The tension does not truly dissipate until the son leaves the mother, and often the dissipation takes the form of a nonrelationship much like that of a divorced couple. It may also turn into a lively, intimate, tension-free relationship, and after years of going through the motions with my mother – seldom making trouble and always a bit bored – I was looking forward to our week together as a promise of better things to come.


One of the interesting things that made me smile in the book was that for quite a while, we don’t know the narrator’s name. I had crossed nearly one-third of the book and still I didn’t know the narrator’s name. I wanted to find out how long the author was going to carry on with this game and whether he will ever reveal the narrator’s name in the end. Then suddenly there is a scene, where the narrator meets the heroine, Barbara, and he says ‘My name is Debauer. Peter Debauer.


One of my favourite parts of the book was the depiction of the relationship between Peter and Barbara. It starts with how they first meet when Peter is trying to discover the ending of the story, and then it describes how they fall in love, Barbara’s complex background, how their relationship goes through ups and downs and whether they get back together in the end. It is a delightful subplot to the overall theme of the book and I liked it more than the main story. Barbara was one of my favourite characters in the story, starting from how she looked, the way she smiled and what she said. Some of my most favourite passages in the book were about the love between Peter and Barbara. For example there is this conversation which is one of my favourites :


‘Is it important to you that we be married? It makes no difference to me.’

      ‘Well, it does to me.’

      ‘Are you afraid we’d lose each other the way we did the last time?’

      ‘Let’s say I learned then how strong the bonds of matrimony can be. I think you really loved me, yet you stood by your husband.’

      ‘Not because he was my husband. He fought for me; you sulked.’ The dimple over her eyebrow had come out, and her voice was hard. ‘Have you forgotten? Have you forgotten that I called you, called you again and again? That I stood in front of your door and knocked and shouted? That I wrote to you? But you preferred to make a victim of yourself, the poor man ill used by the evil woman.’


And this conversation :


‘I love this place. It’s a good place. I love its big, bright rooms, I love the balcony, I used to take my nap on, even when it rained. You can hear the rain in the trees, hear the birds singing, and the air is cool, but you’ve got a roof over your head and you pull the warm blanket up over your ears and you feel safe. Try it sometime.’

      I thought of the daily nap I took during the first few summers I spent with my grandparents. If it was warm enough, I could take it on the balcony, and when it rained they covered me with a blanket, just as Barbara had described. How could I have forgotten?


And this beautiful description :


I was too happy with Barbara, happy to wake up with her, shower with her, happy that we would brush our teeth and hair together, that she would put on her makeup while I shaved. I loved our breakfast conversations about the shopping to be done, the errands to be run, the plans for the evening; I loved coming home to her, seeing her get up from her desk, feeling her arms around my neck or, if I came home first, looking forward to seeing her and spending the evening with her, whether at home or on the town, and then preparing for bed together and knowing that if I happened to wake up in the night I would hear her breathing and it would take nothing at all to touch her or snuggle up to her or wake her. Sometimes she teased me, saying, ‘What a bourgeois match I’ve made. You’d be happy just to stay at home and read, listen to music, watch television, and chat, plus an occasional promenade along the river.’ But she would laugh as she said it. ‘What do you mean?’ I would say, laughing along with her. ‘I like walking up the hill too.’

      Had she wanted me to, I would have taken her every night to a movie or play or concert or to see friends. But it wasn’t staying home that I enjoyed; it was the routine of love.


When Peter’s and Barbara’s relationship went through ups and downs, I, alternatively, rejoiced and panicked. My heart went through a rollercoaster ride and I dreaded what will happen in the end, because I really liked both of them and wanted them to end up together and happy. Schlink kept me in tenterhooks till the end, before I could discover whether they ended up happy.


The story is structured like Homer’s epic ‘The Odyssey’ – both the story that Peter reads and his own quest for the ending of that story and the secret behind his father’s disappearance.


One of the things I noticed in the story was the way time lapses. Sometimes a day or an hour is described in many pages. Sometimes whole years and decades lapse, in a few lines, in the blink of an eye. At one point of time, the narrator has passed out of university and is working with a publisher. He is having problems in his love life and his quest for the secrets he is searching for is not getting anywhere. At that point, I thought he must be in his late twenties. Then suddenly the narrator says that he is forty-five! I didn’t see that the years have passed by in a blink. I saw the whole story in a different light, then.


There were beautiful passages in the book on history, deconstruction, law and ethical dilemmas. Like this :


History is clearly in no hurry. It respect daily activities like work, shopping, cooking, and eating; it understands that bureaucratic processes, sporting events, and get-togethers with family and friends must go on. Presumably the same rules applied to the French Revolution : it is all very well to storm the Bastille on July 14, but on July 15 the cobbler must return to his last, the tailor to his needle; they must make up for lost time. After a morning at the guillotine, back to nailing and sewing. What is there to do all day at a Bastille already stormed? Or a Wall already scaled?


And this :


I learned that deconstruction is the separation of a text from what the author meant it to say and its transformation into what the reader makes of it; I learned that it went even further to reject the notion of reality in favor of the texts we write and read about reality…As far as I could make out, if texts are not about what the author meant to say but what the reader makes of them, then the reader, not the author, is responsible for the text; if reality is not the world out there but the text we write and read about it, then the responsibility for murder falls on neither the real murderers nor their victims – they having lost their existence – but on their contemporaries who lodge the complaints and prosecute the plaintiffs.


And this :


What we take for reality is merely a text, what we take for texts merely interpretations. Reality and texts are therefore what we make of them. History has no goal : there is no progress, no promise of rise after fall, no guarantee of victory for the strong or justice for the weak. We can interpret it as if it had a goal, and there is nothing objectionable in that, because we must always ‘act as if’ – as if reality were more than text, as if the author were speaking to us in the text, as if good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies actually existed, and as if the institutions of law actually functioned. We have the choice of either droning back what had been droned into us or deciding for ourselves what we want to make of the world, who we want to be in it, and what we want to do in it. We come to our truth, which enables us to make decisions, in extreme, existential, exceptional situations. The validity of our decisions makes itself felt in the commitment we make to carrying them out and the responsibility we take for carrying them out, responsibility in the sense of the iron rule…


I made a list of stories, poems and books which were mentioned in the book, which I want to read. The list has the following.


  • John Maynard by Theodor Fontane
  • Hutten’s Last Days by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer
  • Clothes Make the Man by Gottfried Keller
  • As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me by Josef Martin Bauer


I loved ‘Homecoming’. I loved the beautiful passages, the love story of Peter and Barbara, the wonderful character sketches, the font, the line spacing and the bookish cover. It is a book which satisfied me in every way. I want to read more books by Bernhard Schlink. All of them 🙂


Have you read this book or any other books by Bernhard Schlink? What do you think of them?

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