Are words pointless?

Benjamin Markovits

  • Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink, translated by John Woods
    Weidenfeld, 309 pp, £12.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 297 82903 3

The generation battle, in its particular post-Third-Reich incarnation, runs through Bernhard Schlink’s work, both his bestselling The Reader and Flights of Love, a collection of short stories loosely arranged around various break-ups and infidelities. Reviewers tend to discuss the books together, partly because Flights of Love develops plots, characters and arguments already present in The Reader, but mostly because The Reader is better, more interesting even in its failures than this sequel. The Reader is a first-person account of a boy’s love affair with an illiterate older woman, Hanna, and his subsequent discovery that she had acted as a concentration camp guard in her youth. It has won great praise for its sensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject, and drawn angry criticism for its insensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject: a lesson that impossible subjects and heightened sensitivities tend to produce a range of responses. Critics have pointed out that the book’s premise wrongly suggests that German brutality stemmed from a kind of lower-class illiteracy, from an absence of culture. Hanna learns the full horror of her involvement only when she learns to read, and begins to absorb the best of bourgeois literature: Keller, Fontane, Heine, Mörike, Kafka, Lenz etc.

There is some truth to this charge, but it partly misrepresents the book, and generally misses Schlink’s point. Hanna is no idiot before she learns to read; she is warm, curious, sensual, adventurous, greedy equally for love and knowledge. Even in the camps, she delighted in being read to. Her young lover carries the practice on through their affair: they tackle Schiller and Tolstoy together. Illiteracy, in her case, stands not so much for her own lack of sophistication, as for the incomprehensibility of the world around her, and the narrowness of her choices within it. Illiterates learn by rote, and she acted in the camps according to her duties. As one character explains the role of an executioner, ‘he’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them.’ Hanna is brought to trial, along with a group of other female guards, for her part in the camps. She is the only defendant to acknowledge the truth: that the guards knew prisoners were being sent to their deaths, that it was their job to choose between them. ‘So what would you have done?’ she asks the judge. This – rather than ‘How much did you know?’ – proves the hard question, and the judge has no answer for it.

Hanna’s illiteracy is not the most important thing about her. The Reader, like its sequel, centres on a love story. The love story is more than the sugar-coating, in William Golding’s phrase, to sweeten the pill of the novel’s message; it is the bitter pill itself. Hanna is lovable, capable of arousing the full passion of first love, of raising the pitch of life to memorable joy. Schlink writes best when he looks and breathes the part of the heart-sick youth. Hanna’s qualities, physical and intellectual, make her the defining passion of the narrator’s life. After the affair both life and prose dry up, fall into argument and analysis. The question the novel poses is this: what to do with such a love, and the guilt it provokes, less by association than continuing affection? As the narrator declares,

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.

Either way, he feels ‘guilty of having loved a criminal’.

There are some things, in an individual’s and a nation’s history, about which it is nearly impossible to be honest. Honesty measures not only the accuracy of an account, but the speaker’s attitude towards it; he must be free from sentimentality and other kinds of evasion, without slipping into a clinical objectivity that cannot feel what it describes. The difficulty of total – even appropriate – honesty lies at the heart of Schlink’s work. Hanna, alone among the accused, admits to her role in selecting the prisoners to be sent away; this was the guards’ job, they all did it. She also admits to knowing the prisoners would be killed. They ‘all knew’. In doing so she may have displayed greater courage than her co-defendants, but her confessions also fail to strike the right note. ‘She admitted what was true and disputed what was not. Her arguments became more desperate and more vehement. She didn’t raise her voice, but her very intensity alienated the court.’ She realises that ‘what she was saying wasn’t doing her case any good. But she couldn’t say anything else. She could only try to say what she was saying better, to describe it better and explain it.’ Some things, however, cannot be explained ‘better’ or more honestly; rather, for them honesty is little better than dishonesty. At least lying shows some awareness of the need to lie, acknowledges the horror of the truth.

Flights of Love opens with similar concerns. A story called ‘Girl with Lizard’ describes the way a young man comes to terms with his father’s Nazi past. The title refers to a painting that has fascinated the young man since boyhood. It comes to dominate his life: it prompts family disputes while he is growing up, sits over his bed when he goes to college, scares off girlfriends and begins to consume his intellectual energy. As he learns more about the painting, the work of a well-known Jewish artist who disappeared during the war, he comes to learn more about his father’s role in such disappearances. Eventually, after his father’s death, he confronts his mother with the familiar question: ‘What did Father do during the war?’

The answers are too uncertain to be satisfying. He served on ‘the military court in Strasbourg’; among other things, he once sentenced an officer to death for helping Jews. In his defence, he claims to have had no choice. He had himself worked with the officer, forging the papers, but the Jews might have been caught if he displayed any suspicious leniency towards his co-conspirator. The painting was their gift to him, for helping them escape. Nevertheless, when all of this comes out years after the war, the father loses his job and the family falls on hard times. The son asks his mother what she believes. She gives him a file the father kept of his self-justifications. ‘What did I think?’ she says in reply to his demand. ‘He weighed every sentence. They couldn’t have used a single word to lay a trap for him.’ The son breaks in: ‘He copied paragraphs directly from the penal code. He copied them to demonstrate that he couldn’t be punished. But it makes for appalling reading. It reads as if he would be willing to acknowledge everything, but insists he did nothing punishable by law.’ As Hanna also learned, a certain kind of confession fails to persuade by its very precision. It is almost impossible to be appropriately honest about such events.

‘The Circumcision’ addresses the difficulty of such honesty – between generations, between cultures – most clearly. A German exchange student, Andi, and Sarah, a New York Jew, fall in love. The more their love grows, the more difficult honesty becomes, a fact for which both their cultures are to blame. Sarah’s sister tells Andi that the worst that can happen to one of her sons would be to ‘marry a woman who wasn’t Jewish’. Andi finds that none of Sarah’s relatives inquire into his history, though he makes a point of being curious about theirs. ‘Why should they pester you to tell your story? They know you’re German,’ Sarah explains. ‘In view of which,’ Andi considers, ‘all else is irrelevant, is that it? It was only a thought, he didn’t ask.’ When Sarah meets Andi’s father, she asks about his experiences in the war; and the father reveals more than he had ever told his son. ‘I had to,’ he explains, ‘or she’d be mistrustful for ever.’ The ‘knowing, friendly look’ that accompanies this remark prompts Sarah to complain that ‘he would have an answer for everything that would put me and my mistrust in the wrong, but would never tell me anything.’ Once again, honesty and the trust that follows it have become impossible.

‘Are words pointless,’ Andi asks himself, ‘because they help you to understand another person, but not to tolerate him, and because what really counts isn’t understanding but tolerance?’ Eventually he decides that people ‘tolerate each other only because one side or the other abandons what they are . . . What was necessary was to give up the normal world that separated you from the other person . . . You really tolerate only your own kind.’ The story doesn’t quite work, largely because Schlink’s description of this ‘normal world’ isn’t good enough. The affair is less like the passionate beginning of The Reader than the desiccated conclusion to it. It reads like an argument. Schlink, it should be said, weights the argument slightly on Andi’s side. This is understandable: he knows more about it, and writes movingly of the difficulty of being German and ‘not being taken for the person I am, but some abstract idea, some construct, some creature of prejudice. With the chance, but also the burden of exonerating myself.’ But he also captures the conflicting needs of the lovers beautifully: for the German, to complicate everything, because only complications can in some measure redeem his past; and for the Jew, to simplify, because only simplicity does justice to such immeasurable mourning.

The best story of the bunch is probably ‘A Little Fling’, which shifts the realm of secrets from the Third Reich to East Germany under the Stasi. Schlink’s descriptive powers never match the early sweetness of The Reader; he is at his best here when he writes with a journalist’s eye for the signs of the times. ‘My friendship with Sven and Paula was my only East-West friendship to survive the Wall,’ he begins. ‘The others ended almost as soon [as] it came down.’ The story describes the narrator’s relationship to an East German couple and their daughter, and the part he plays in their marriage after Reunification. As Stasi files are made public, Paula discovers that Sven had ‘betrayed’ information about her radical associations in exchange for clemency towards her. She wonders with whom he was honest: the Stasi officer, as he joked about their love life and her harmless enthusiasms; or their friends, for whom he played the part of a supportive radical? The need for secrets creates two kinds of lie: both his public and private assertions come into question. ‘You don’t get it,’ Paula screams at him. ‘You didn’t save me, not the me I am, but the me that pleased them.’ As the title suggests, Schlink wants to compare sexual and political infidelities, which may have proved interesting had he gone into it in greater detail.

In ‘The Other Man’, Schlink concentrates on sexual infidelity. Again he is concerned with secrets and the way they corrupt even what is known to be true. Bengt Benner, a recent widower, receives a letter addressed to his dead wife Lisa. It turns out to be from a man seeking to revive an old affair. Aimless and miserable, Bengt begins to investigate the man who cuckolded him. He earns his trust under a false name and plots revenge. ‘Sometimes he asked himself which was worse: that the person you love is another person with someone else or is in fact the person you know so well.’ Here Schlink puts Sven’s political betrayal of Paula in sexual terms. How can one stop the rot of betrayal, cut what is true and honest away from the infidelity – a question of broader significance for a generation coming to terms with their parents’ role in Nazi Germany. Eventually Bengt understands his own part in Lisa’s adultery. Her former lover, Rolf, a flattering conman down on his luck, proves to be ‘a braggart, a blowhard, a loser’. But Lisa was happy with him, as Rolf boasts when Bengt at last confronts him, because Rolf was ‘not the monster of efficiency, righteousness and peevishness that you are’. He made things ‘prettier than they were’ and Lisa loved him for it. Bengt comes to believe Rolf: ‘the beauty he praised contained within it not only a higher truth, but a robust one.’ The recognition lightens the widower’s mourning.

The problem with the story is that Rolf’s higher truth doesn’t persuade. He remains a braggart and a blowhard and a loser. His exaggerations are no more insightful than Bengt’s ‘righteous peevishness’. Both seem loveless in the end. Their failing is characteristic of the book as a whole. ‘Flights of Love’ suggests the English phrase ‘flights of fancy’; and though the stories are fanciful enough, the German title, Liebesfluchten, comes closer to the spirit of the work: ‘Love-escapes’ might be a nearer translation, whether ‘into’ or ‘out of’ the individual stories themselves make clear. Again and again, Schlink’s men (they are always men) retreat into some corner of their personalities to avoid the demands of love, chief among them the passionate attention to detail that makes Hanna so memorable a character.

In The Reader, Schlink describes the numbness that attends horror; the narrator’s concentration on a reasoned and reasonable response to compensate for the death of feeling. Ordinary unhorrified middle age seems to bring about a similar shift in sensibility – Bengt’s ‘righteous peevishness’. Schlink turns again to such numbness in ‘Sugar Peas’, an account of the accumulating careers and affairs of a successful man who eventually spurns both sexual love and material comfort to concentrate entirely on his work. The story is deliberately improbable, but the tenor is sadder perhaps than Schlink intended. It reads a little like Kingsley Amis’s account of sexual impotence, Jake’s Thing, in which the end of sex prefigures the end of love, but here the prose suffers most of all. The vivid passion of Hanna’s affair has dried up, and no adult preoccupation seems capable of replacing it. Analysis and argument, even if their subject is love, cannot make up for the absence of the feeling itself.

For much of Flights of Love, Schlink seems to have bitten off more than he was hungry for. His concerns are heavy enough, but hung on slender incidents, emblems and insights that cannot bear the weight. A father’s painting rules and ruins a boy’s life; it may stand for a more complex inheritance, but it is still only a painting. Plot and character should take this into account. German and Jew split up over cultural differences. The German’s circumcision, undesired, unrequested, seems a poor short-hand for the struggle that leads to his change of heart: ‘He got up and dressed. He opened the apartment door, set his shoes and suitcase out in the hallway, and pulled the door to so gently that it barely clicked. He put on his shoes and left.’ In the final story, a happily married man encounters on holiday the living image of a familiar dream: a woman in shop-worn clothes serving him at a gas station. Surely such a coincidence is too slight to precipitate the desertion that follows. Schlink ends this story, and the book, on a note of restrained optimism:

The next morning he walked to the sea. Once again fog hung over the beach, the sky and sea were grey, and the air was warm, damp and muffled. He had the feeling he had an infinite amount of time.

All his heroes are good at leaving. In Sidney Keyes’s phrase, ‘their love and luck lie only in their partings.’