Certain themes suffuse Bernhard Schlink’s fiction: memory, mystery, secrets, guilt, shame. Schlink mixes them in various permutations and intensities, but they are ever present in novels that have vaulting philosophical ambition beneath their simple narratives.
His most famous book is The Reader (1995), an award-winner and best-seller, nominated for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, and made into a star-studded film (2008). Yet the story of a boy seduced by an older woman, who turns out to have been a concentration camp guard, was not universally admired. Some critics saw an apologia for passivity in the face of Nazism and the defence of ignorance. Some admired Schlink’s simple writing style; others found the simplicity simplistic. I found the book interesting enough to finish, but unconvincing.
The Weekend (2008) tackled later German history. In it, a left-wing terrorist confronts his country’s fascist past. It was a syndrome of the 1970s in the previous Axis powers: the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy were violent residues of World War II. Again, the critics I agreed with found his simple style simplistic, his political arguments pedantic on the page, delivered by cardboard cut-out characters.
His new book, The Woman on the Stairs, suffers from all of the same. Yet the story is intriguing, and the final section would be considered revolutionary if feminism were accorded the same significance as liberation movements propelled by the other half of the species.
Two men – a wealthy businessman called Gundelach and an artist called Schwind – wage a power struggle over an arresting painting and the woman who is its subject. Wife of the businessman who commissioned it, and subsequently lover of the painter, Irene is depicted in the painting naked, walking down a stairway. The narrator of the book is, in the first section, a young lawyer engaged to arbitrate between the men. He, not entirely convincingly, falls in love with the woman in the painting at first sight, and then with the real-life subject after a couple of brief legal meetings. Under her spell, he helps her to dupe both men and escape with the painting, disappearing from all their lives.
At the other end of his life, a widower and a senior partner in a successful Frankfurt law firm, he is startled to find the picture hanging in the Art Gallery of New South Wales during a business trip to Sydney. Transported back to his first encounter with it, and the emotional turmoil that ensued, he impulsively sets business aside and begins a hunt for the woman – and for himself. He discovers that she, too, is in Sydney, illegally, and off the grid, on an island only reachable by boat. Meanwhile, the story of the painting’s rediscovery – the painter is now world famous and the work dubbed a masterpiece – has run in the New York Times. Soon enough, the ex-husband and the ex-lover also track her down. They arrive, stretching Schlink’s predilection for coincidence, at the same time.
The extended conversation that follows is faintly reminiscent of Sándor Márai’s brilliant, conversation-based novel Embers (1942), in which two elderly men spend a night at the castle of one of them, rehashing the event that broke their friendship. In The Weekend, too, Schlink collected his characters in a confined space for a political and emotional talkfest, though without Márai’s compelling craftsmanship.
In The Woman on the Stairs, Schlink uses dialogue for similarly didactic purposes. One thing lacking, though Irene is the pivot around which the three men turn, is any real exploration of sexual politics, though Schlink does try. At one point, Irene tells the narrator, ‘I was the young, blonde, beautiful trophy, only the packaging counted. For Schwind, I was a muse, the packaging was enough for that too. A woman’s third stupid role, after the trophy and muse, is the damsel in distress who must be rescued by the prince. To stop her falling into the hands of the villain, the prince takes her into his own hands. After all, she belongs in the hands of some man.’ The narrator mentally lists his firm’s childcare policy, his own kindness to his wife and daughter, and thinks: ‘I don’t need to be lectured on feminism.’ Is this Schlink’s own response?
Most importantly, the men discover, and we read briefly, that Irene had been involved with radical politics in East Germany after she ran from them, and was in Sydney evading the German police. And yet, while the men pontificate about politics and law during their uncomfortable reunion, she talks only about those topics unreconstructed men of Schlink’s generation presume women prefer: herself and her own emotions.
For the most part, Schlink’s writing so lacks affect that it is as dry as a legal brief. Even the humid, raffish beauty of Sydney in summer fails to come alive. The voices of the characters and of the narrator are identical. If one can’t read the original, it is difficult to tell whether the translators – Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmitt here, different to his previous novels and short stories – have helped or hindered his style. His non-fiction works on law and political psychology are more compelling.
The narrator’s, and the author’s, redemption comes in the final section, in his tenderness towards Irene’s ageing and ailing body and his equivalence in appraisal of ageing for man and woman. The surreal, deliberately confusing juxtaposition of reality and what-might-have-been contains the only beautifully written passages in the book.