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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, December 27th, 2001


 

Flights of Love: Stories

by

Immorality Play

A review by Ruth Franklin

That bad books are the books most widely read is an entirely mundane phenomenon of contemporary culture. Every week the major book reviews assess a dozen books in a variety of genres, of varying quality but deemed of sufficient significance or originality or beauty to merit a thousand words or so. With only a few exceptions, these books then vanish forever: good books get reviewed, but bad books get bought.

Once in a while, though, books of "literary merit" do take a spin on the best-seller list. These are often just bad books in disguise — Corelli's Mandolin, or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. With regard to style, both of those books are credible imitations of the real thing; but unlike the "designer" handbags hawked on the street, what gives away these knock-offs is not their detailing but the absence at their core. Under the weight of all their trappings — pseudo-historical documents, lengthy digressions on esoterica, winking self-referentiality — they shudder with emptiness.

The best recent example of the disguised bad book is surely Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. Schlink was a professor of constitutional law who wrote mystery novels in his spare time, but with the publication of The Reader in 1995 he erupted onto the literary scene in Germany and around the world. The book already ranks among the best-selling German paperbacks of all time, and around two million copies have sold in the United States alone, fueled largely by Oprah Winfrey's endorsement. Der Spiegel deemed Schlink's book "one of the greatest triumphs of German literature since the novel The Tin Drum." If Gunter Grass's epic was the quintessential novel of the wartime generation, The Reader was aimed squarely at the "second generation," the lucky but oppressed ones born later.

There is every indication that Flights of Love, Schlink's first collection of short stories, may fare similarly. Sandwiched between J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, it has been a presence on the German best-seller lists since its publication last year. German critics have praised Schlink as a "master of the craft" and his stories as "virtually perfect." One writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has mordantly proposed that the stretch of highway between Frankfurt and Stuttgart be nicknamed "the Flights of Love Stretch," since it is the same duration as the playing time of the audio version of Schlink's volume. Oprah's vast flock will no doubt snap it up in its English translation.

Schlink's disguise is well-made. He is a master of appearances, but only of appearances. His books appear to have serious themes: in The Reader, the difficulties of the second generation in reconciling with the Nazi past; in Flights of Love, the jealousies and infidelities and sublimities of love affairs. Both books owe the entirety of their momentum to the machinations of plot, but the plot is spun charmingly and contrivingly enough that you hardly have a chance to discover that the characters are vacant, virtually without interior lives. Schlink's style is perfectly calibrated to appeal, spare enough to earn the intellectual-sounding description of "minimalist," but more Calvin Klein than Donald Judd. The sex scenes in The Reader are submerged in a gentle haze of nostalgia, while the courtroom drama seems to glow with fluorescent light. Schlink's diction is simple, lucid, with a touch of allusiveness: just enough to give one the sense that something might be happening beneath the surface, but not enough to make it imperative to find out exactly what.

And Schlink's work is not only mediocre, it is also pernicious. What makes it pernicious is that it offers moral shortcuts as well as literary ones. The Holocaust was very much at the forefront of the German psyche in 1995, which saw the fifty-year anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of World War II. The coming-to-terms-with-the-past movement, which had been muffled in the tumult following the crash of the Iron Curtain, surged up again. In the midst of the ceremonies and the public apologies and the debates about reparations, The Reader, which hints at very serious ethical questions but does not make an effort to provoke any kind of rigorous thought, offered an alternative: a way to feel as though one is therapeutically "working through" the problems of the past while in fact remaining comfortably aloof from them. No heavy lifting is required.

From the start, The Reader offers itself as a parable. It is the 1950s, and Michael, the narrator, is ill with hepatitis — Gelbsucht, literally "yellow mania," as reminiscent of the yellow star of the doomed Jews as of the jaundice associated with the disease. The town in which he lives could be any West German town, with street names that are the run-of-the-mill equivalents of Main Street or Elm Street. His illness begins in the fall and ends with the coming of spring: "The colder and darker the old year turned, the weaker I became. Not until the new year did things start looking up." He meets Hanna when she discovers him vomiting in the courtyard of her apartment building; she makes him help her to clean up the mess and then leads him home. The implications are clear: postwar Germany is sick, and it can begin to heal only through its encounter with the Nazi past.

Michael's relationship with Hanna is steeped in moral difficulty from the start. After his recovery, he takes her a bouquet of flowers to thank her, but flees her apartment after she catches him watching her get dressed. Afterwards he scolds himself for his inability to stop fantasizing about her, while simultaneously devising excuses for seeing her again. "Did my moral upbringing somehow turn against itself?" he wonders. "If looking at someone with desire was as bad as satisfying the desire...then why not the satisfaction and the act itself?...That is how I rationalized it back then, making my desire an entry in a strange moral accounting, and silencing my bad conscience." Considering Hanna's past — is there anyone who does not know, or could not guess, the premise of The Reader? — these justifications for action despite one's better judgment take on an ominous tone. And so does Michael's explanation for finally going to see her again: "I don't mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources."

Much has been made of the eroticism of Michael and Hanna's relationship — particularly by the Oprah audience, which found the prospect of sex between a fifteen-year-old boy and a thirty-six-year-old woman "unhealthy." (Schlink has mocked this American preoccupation, commenting that "I have never experienced a discussion like this with readers in Germany or France.") But Schlink, layering on the symbolism, repeatedly associates Hanna with the maternal. Before she and Michael have sex for the first time, she greets him from the bath with an outstretched towel and dries him. Throughout the narrative Michael makes reference to the twenty-one-year gap between their ages, noting again and again that "she could be my mother." References to milk and to milkiness also are scattered through the text. And of course there is the central motif of reading aloud, typically an activity in which parents engage with their children, though The Reader reverses the roles. Germans will easily make the connection with Germany, Pale Mother, a well-known film made in 1980 that dealt graphically and hauntingly with the aftermath of the war, taking its title from a famous poem by Brecht. The "mother," of course, is the Nazi past, of which Michael is a child.

This becomes even more explicit in the second part of the novel, in which Michael, now a law student, recognizes Hanna among the concentration camp guards on trial in a case that his class is observing. It is the 1960s, and the first inquiries into the Nazi past are just getting under way. "We students in the seminar considered ourselves radical explorers," Michael says. "We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst." This is the classic dilemma of the second generation in Germany, which Peter Schneider and many others have thoroughly explored: that the "perpetrators" were in many cases one's own parents. Even if, as in Michael's case, one's parents were technically guilty of no crime — Michael's father lost his job as a philosophy professor for lecturing on Spinoza, and spent the war editing hiking maps — there could be no absolution from the general collective guilt.

But Hanna, it turns out, is guilty of a heinous crime. With a few other guards, she led a group of several hundred women prisoners on a death march, and on the way the women took shelter in a church for the night. The church caught fire, and the guards, who had remained outside, allowed the prisoners to burn to death rather than unlock the doors. Hanna conducts herself oddly in the courtroom, appearing to have no knowledge of the normal procedures and speaking more openly than she should, and the lawyers for the other defendants are able to make her out to have been the ringleader. Finally the judge demands that Hanna give a handwriting sample so that the court can determine whether it was she who wrote a report about the incident, and rather than do so she confesses to writing the report and receives a life sentence.

Suddenly Michael realizes that Hanna is covering up the fact that she can neither read nor write — and more: that her desire to conceal her illiteracy has guided her steps throughout her life. For she joined the SS only after being offered a promotion at her factory job, to a position in which she would be unable to hide her illiteracy. The SS had been recruiting at her factory at the time, and so she signed up. The same situation occurred during her affair with Michael: the streetcar company where she had been working as a driver offered her a promotion, and to avoid being found out, she unceremoniously left town without saying goodbye, wounding Michael forever.

"Why," Michael wonders, would Hanna "opt for the horrible exposure as a criminal over the harmless exposure as an illiterate?" With its attempts to answer this question, which constitutes the moral center of The Reader, the novel falters in a way from which it cannot recover. The problem is not only that it is quite implausible that anyone would choose to be exposed as a Nazi rather than as an illiterate. It is also that Michael views Hanna's unusual trajectory — the fact that, owing to her illiteracy, she made truly terrible life decisions — as exonerating. "No, Hanna had not decided in favor of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and fell into a job as a guard." But this is a ludicrous distinction. Michael has already acknowledged the truism that to decide against something is, practically speaking, as good as deciding for its alternative. And what about the people of his parents' generation whom he has already criticized for "tolerating the perpetrators in their midst"? One could easily argue that they simply happened to live next door to Nazi Party members — that they just "fell into" their circumstances as well.

If we accept Michael's assessment of Hanna's accidental Nazism, we have two choices. Either she is the tender exception to the usual brutishness — the book seems to support this interpretation, since the other defendants are depicted as crude and harsh — and so she is not really a Nazi, and so Michael's love for her does not really present that much of a problem. Or perhaps many others were, like her, victims of circumstance; and they, too, were motivated by convenience and the need for employment, not by ideology. Is it fair, then, or is it even possible, to punish those who regarded the SS as simply a line of work?

Schlink can offer no guidance out of this morass. "The pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate....I was guilty of having loved a criminal," Michael says, thus implicating the entire German second generation — for who among them is not "guilty" of having loved a parent or spouse or friend or relative who was either a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer? And this, too, is wrong. One can love a criminal without also taking on the responsibility for his or her crime. Is the mother of a convicted murderer who pleads for mercy for her son also guilty? One assumes a measure of guilt only by abetting a crime, or by supporting the criminal in its conception or its execution. The second generation certainly has a responsibility to understand the crimes of its parents, but it is not guilty of them.

But what may be the most disturbing thing about The Reader is that Michael seems to believe that by learning to read, as she does in prison, Hanna takes an important step toward repentance for her crimes. Michael himself plays an important role in this development: he records books on tape and sends them to her, and by following along she teaches herself to read. Michael selects the books carefully — during their affair he had enjoyed reading Russian literature to her, but now he puts Hanna on a strict diet of German classics, starting with Goethe and Fontane and progressing up to the mid-twentieth century. He records the title of each one in a notebook:

Taken together, the titles in the notebook testify to a great and fundamental confidence in bourgeois culture. I do not ever remember asking myself whether I should go beyond Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, and Lenz, and read experimental literature, literature in which I did not recognize the story or like any of the characters. To me it was obvious that experimental literature was experimenting with the reader, and Hanna didn't need that and neither did I.

But the evidence of history demonstrates that Michael's "confidence in bourgeois culture" is misplaced. It is well known that Hitler enjoyed Wagner and that Goebbels was a fan of Shakespeare; and that "ordinary Germans" had the highest rate of literacy in Europe. In the face of this evidence, only a naÔf could have such faith in the humanizing power of literacy and of literature. Cynthia Ozick has concluded, for this reason, that Schlink's characterization of Hanna is calculated, and suspects that she is "the product, conscious or not, of a desire to divert from the culpability of a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur."

Once Hanna is able to read, she turns systematically to books about the Holocaust, of which she manages to amass a small library — Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Eichmann in Jerusalem, "books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards." Michael interprets this as a sign that Hanna has "dealt with it [her past] intensively." And this, again, poses a contradiction. For Michael himself has acknowledged that books can have the effect of distancing us from history:

Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around in it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie's Choice and especially Schindler's List, actually moves in it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed

on the mind again and again, until they froze into cliches.

Hanna, presumably, is in no danger of allowing the Holocaust to freeze into cliches; she has her own memories to draw upon, and need not depend on Steven Spielberg. Tacked onto the ending of The Reader, Hanna's dutiful absorption of the Holocaust studies curriculum seems no more than a cheap sympathy-rousing device.

Flights of Love is much less ambitious than The Reader, and so its failures are less spectacular. Strangely uneven, it includes a small handful of respectable stories and several more of bewildering incompetence. Schlink has branched out a bit: only one story deals explicitly with the aftermath of World War II. The rest touch on other aspects of what one critic has called "the theme park of Germany": the relationships between East Germans and West Germans, between Jews and Germans, between German men and German women. One has the sense of a mind choking, having bitten off more than it can chew.

The first story in the collection, "Girl with Lizard," is the most accomplished. Here Schlink is on familiar territory — the crimes and the misdemeanors of the Nazi past — and the story takes up many of The Reader's themes and motifs. Again the plot turns on an absurdly obvious revelation that is coyly concealed until its exposure renders it an anticlimax. Again it is the 1950s, and again a young boy is obsessed, though this time the object of his affection appears to be somewhat more innocent: the painting that hangs in his father's study. The family leads an elegant bourgeois life, but the boy (who is never named) has the sense that "his parents ... seemed to be holding back, hiding something." Soon it becomes clear that the painting, which depicts a girl and a lizard, is at least one of the things that they are hiding; when he wants to use it for a school project, his father tells him that it must be kept private. "Don't you keep things just to yourself sometimes, too?" is the only explanation.

Just before he is to start college, the boy visits an art museum and discovers the work of a painter named René Dalmann, including a masterpiece lost in the war, Lizard with Girl, that is the mirror-image of his painting of the girl and the lizard. He learns that the French-born Dalmann fled from Berlin back to Strasbourg with his Jewish wife around the time of the notorious exhibition of Degenerate Art, in which Dalmann's work was displayed; and after the German invasion of Strasbourg they were never heard from again. Meanwhile the boy grows increasingly obsessed with the painting; he talks to the girl with the lizard, and when he brings girls back to his room he feels that he is cheating on her.

For a moment it looks as if the boy will seriously engage with the Nazi past: he removes the frame from the painting, revealing parts of it that were previously hidden, including the signature, which is of course René Dalmann's. Thus the mystery, if it was a mystery at all, is solved; but there is more. The boy goes home and confronts his mother about the painting's history (his father has since died), and he learns that his father, who was serving as a judge in Strasbourg during the late 1930s, had an affair with the artist's wife and probably acquired the painting by blackmail. Years later his father would lose his job when it was revealed that during the war he had condemned to death an officer whom he had himself turned in for helping Jews. And if this were not enough, the boy learns that when his mother confronted his father about the affair, he raped her, and their son's conception resulted.

He was standing in the middle of the room and looking at this order. The order of books in the bookcase, which reminded him of the ordered books in his father's bookcase. The same shabby tidiness that his mother had summoned up to counter the family's decline. Girl with Lizard, no longer in its golden frame but a canvas stretched on wood, yet as dominating as it ever was in his parents' house. And just as had been the case at home, the painting was a treasure, a mystery, a window onto beauty and freedom, and at the same time a commanding, controlling power to whom sacrifices would have

to be made.

That night he takes the painting to the beach and throws it onto a bonfire, and as it blazes the Girl with Lizard canvas curls back to reveal the other lost Dalmann painting, Lizard with Girl, concealed beneath it. Then both are consumed.

Like Michael in The Reader, the nameless boy in "Girl with Lizard" appears at first to be making an effort to come to terms with the Nazi past, in this case by investigating the history of the painting. And like Michael, in the end he fails to properly come to grips with it. But where The Reader ends with a lame attempt to bring about Hanna's rehabilitation through literacy, in "Girl with Lizard" Schlink does not shrink from his character's failure. Though the burning of the painting could be read as a purifying gesture — its immolation redeems the sins of the boy's father in coming to own it — it is more likely a gesture of futility, a misguided attempt to incinerate the past and start anew. Perhaps burning the painting is the only way in which the boy is able to handle the past. But the past cannot be incinerated, and the boy will forever be haunted by the destruction of not one but two great works of art — the story's last sad turn.

Since Schlink has trouble sustaining a distinct idea or metaphor over the course of an entire story, he is most readable when, as in "Girl with Lizard," the events of a story are gripping enough to carry it along. In "The Circumcision," one of the lower points of Flights of Love, he leaves the characters largely plotless, leaving them to their own devices to fill pages with conversation and argument. Andi, a German exchange student in America, is in love with Sarah, who is Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors. Their relationship grows fraught with the tension between their cultures. Andi does not want to convert formally to Judaism, so he asks a friend who is a doctor to circumcise him, hoping this gesture will save their increasingly combative relationship. But when he returns from Germany, where he underwent the operation, Sarah does not notice the change; and when he points it out, she fails to understand what has taken place, assuming that he must always have been circumcised.

Though Schlink's depiction of Sarah and her family has an undeniable ring of truth, it is hard to think of a similarly stereotypical portrayal of Jews in all of contemporary literature. Certainly many American Jews hold opinions about Judaism and about Germans similar to those represented in "The Circumcision," but Schlink's unsympathetic, deadpan recitation of them is weirdly lacking in perspective. "He must not be lost. Not one more must be allowed to be lost," one of Sarah's elderly relatives intones upon the bar mitzvah of his great-nephew. Sarah's sister unapologetically tells Andi that the worst thing that she can imagine happening to her young sons is for them to marry non-Jewish women, and cites statistics about intermarriage. Sarah criticizes Andi's analytic tendencies, and when he takes her on a trip to Germany she makes fun of the country's orderliness and cleanliness: "Everything here looks as if you'd just finished the job." It is hard to imagine why a woman with such stereotypically narrow-minded relatives and attitudes would ever date a German man in the first place. (And certainly it would not escape such a woman's attention that her boyfriend was uncircumcised.)

But Andi's obtuseness is even more difficult to understand. When Sarah's sister makes her pronouncement, he wonders: "Was what Rachel had said the same as if he'd said the worst thing for him would be for his son to marry a non-German, a non-Aryan, a Jew, or a black?...As a German, wasn't he allowed to think that like every religion Judaism lives from being voluntarily chosen and dies when that is no longer the case? Did Rachel believe...that the Jews were in fact a chosen people?" Later, he asks Sarah: "How would you feel if I were to say to you that I love you even though you're Jewish? That my friends look for what is Jewish about you? That they actually think it's a bad thing that I'm going with a Jewish girl, but still like you anyway?"

Both Sarah and Andi are so insensitive to the other's concerns that it is no surprise that their relationship suffers. The mystery in this story is what brought them together in the first place, since Schlink makes no attempt to depict either as a person rather than a stereotype. By the time we get to Andi's circumcision — "What sort of religion is it that isn't content with the symbol of surrender, but instead demands that the surrender leave an irreversible physical mark? A surrender that the mind may betray, but to which the body must forever be faithful?" — we, too, have lost all sympathy.

Of the remaining five stories in Flights of Love, four take infidelity, both men's and women's, as their subject. Two of these are generally inoffensive, and even mildly evocative. In "A Little Fling," another creature of its time, the narrator, a West German man, becomes friendly with an East German couple. Their relationship unravels after the fall of the Wall, when he sleeps with the wife after her discovery that her husband spied for the Stasi. Though the story is hampered by Schlink's romantic clichés — the narrator continually longs for the woman to let her hair down — the friendship among the three is sketched generously and elegantly, and the narrator's relationship with the couple's child is especially affecting.

In "The Other Man," a widower learns from reading his wife's letters that she once had a brief affair. He seeks out her former lover and strikes up a friendship with him, only to find that he is a phony and an imposter. The reasons presented for the wife's interest in this strange figure are not as interesting as Schlink thinks they are: "Lisa stayed with you because she loved you," the man tells the widower, "but she was happy with me. And I'll tell you why that was. Because I'm a braggart, a blowhard, a loser. Because I'm not the monster of efficiency, righteousness, and peevishness that you are. Because I make the world pretty. You see only what it presents to you on the surface, and not what's hidden underneath." But Schlink has again taken a peculiar scenario and spun something human out of it.

All that is good in these stories, though, is erased by the bizarre "Sugar Peas," another story that consists of nothing aside from its meandering and incredible plot. Thomas, a successful architect married to his business partner, is cheating on his wife with two different women, the gallery owner who represents his paintings and a much younger dental student. (One of this story's most plausible elements is that the architect finds painting to be a highly profitable sideline.) Their demands on him increase, he lacks the will to end any of the three relationships, and one day he simply runs away and spends a year traveling around Europe dressed as a monk, severing contact with all of them. (With two of these women he has children.) Then, in a freak accident, his cassock gets caught in the doors of a train and he is paralyzed. After several months Thomas is transferred to a hospital in Berlin, and when his rehabilitation is over his dentist girlfriend picks him up and takes him back to the apartment where he used to live. His wife and his other girlfriend are waiting. They explain that as payback for his disappearance, he must transfer the rights to all of his future work to them, or they will take revenge. Here is the dentist:

"You're a cripple in a wheelchair and you need help....Don't be silly and force us to turn off the elevator and cut telephone service or let you develop a bed sore or two or a urinary tract infection. Besides, you'll have your reputation as an architect, an artist, and the founder of a dental clinic empire. If you won't play along, then we'll find a young artist who can paint in your place, and Jutta will design the bridges, and I'll take care of myself and my dental clinics. Meanwhile you'll be stuck up here, without an elevator or telephone, and we'll have shutters put on the windows."

It is hard to decide what is more depressing, the women's tone of glee or the resignation with which Thomas submits to their abuse. Though neither men nor women come off especially well in Flights of Love generally, "Sugar Peas" truly verges on misogyny in its depiction of the cruelty of women scorned.

The Reader and Flights of Love have been praised for their impeccable contemporaneity, their aura of being exactly and faithfully of their time. In 1995, a season of commemorations, Schlink delivered The Reader as if on cue. Flights of Love, too, is indeed a "theme park" of all the German obsessions of the 1990s: the transformations wrought by the fall of the Wall, the uneasy cohabitation of Germans and Jews, the emotional and financial issues surrounding restitution of property stolen or lost during the war.

But books that are so precisely of a particular moment set themselves a limit that is very difficult to transcend. The characters and the situations that they present are fresh in the mind, but they are so familiar as to be indistinguishable from clichés. One thinks of Salman Rushdie's recent disaster Fury, a romp through the New York of last year — who knew that so soon it would seem a paradise? — with knowing glances at Jennifer Lopez and Hillary Clinton. Populating one's novel with the characters of yesterday is just another literary shortcut: since evoking them involves no creative strain on the part of the writer, the reader's imagination remains uninspired as well, and what ensues is a cartoon rather than a fully-formed person.

Like mascots at the theme park, Schlink's protagonists stamp their way through their predetermined plots. Morality plays, with their rigid archetypes and their easy allegory, have been popular for centuries. But Schlink has come up with something new: the morality play without a moral. His disguise may get him as far as the best-seller list, but after that he is on his own.

Ruth Franklin is associate literary editor at TNR.


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