The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Tales of lost eroticism, lyrical unions and desolate departures

flights of love By Bernhard Schlink, Pantheon, $ 18

Bernhard Schlink takes his time. Six of the seven tales in the book are long short stories. They evoke the rhythm and close-woven texture of the novel, yet never offer a break till the last twist reminds the reader that it is a short story he is reading. These are stories of love and division, of growing apart through increasing closeness, of lyrical and mysterious unions and desolate departures or rejections. But none of these tales of lost eroticism is free of the incursions of the past. Histories — personal, political and religious — inform every encounter, determine the course of events and, to a great extent, decide the resolution.

The form and length of the stories reflect the intricate relationship of the past and present. Something is hidden, a picture, a betrayal, a double life, a dream, an affair, a willingness, the state of a marriage. Love causes the concealment and also draws out the hidden. “Hiding things is exhausting,” says the librarian in “Girl with lizard” to a young man in search of a past for the painting he is in love with. Perhaps this story best exemplifies the acute irony of Schlink’s technique. The young man moves patiently and inexorably towards a recognition of his own inheritance by uncovering the history of the painting. He is, as the librarian teasingly tells him, a little detective. But it is not easy to work off the exhaustion of hiding things, or to work out what discovery means. The narratives wind through strange byways of the mind where the past and present meet in startled encounter as the lovers move towards acceptance, incomprehension or despair.

The detective’s role is Schlink’s too. He is the author of four crime novels besides the bestseller, The Reader. It is with the same luminous patience of a detective that he uncovers the secret seams within desires and emotions. A German man, one of a group of observers for the elections in a trouble-torn land in “The Son”, draws into his shell as his colleagues display family photographs and discuss their children. He cannot talk about the son from whom he has grown distant since his divorce. Yet suddenly the memories come. In one, his ex-wife and her new boyfriend come to claim the child for the rest of a holiday that father and son were enjoying together. The man had given in, in betrayal of a love he could not acknowledge then: “Had he wanted to make things easier for his son' Or for the boy’s mother' Or for himself' Was he secretly glad that his son was gone and he could get back to work'”

The most powerful attraction, the most lyrical love in Schlink’s world carries its own unique distance with it. In “The circumcision”, when Sarah asks Andi why he loves her, he says, “I’ve never met a woman who sees so much, who looks at things with so much care and sympathy. I love you for that. I feel safe within your gaze.” But even that sympathy and sense of safety may begin to fail in the face of histories and origins they thought their love had overcome. They cannot rid themselves of inherited Germanness and Jewishness. “Is there only an either-or'” Andi wonders. “Either German or American, Christian or Jew' Are words pointless because they help you to understand another person, but not to tolerate him, and because what really counts isn’t understanding but tolerance' But as for tolerance — do we ultimately tolerate only those who are like us'…Can any good come of it [difference] if our differences call fundamentals into question'”

Andi’s and Sarah’s is an obvious difference. But in “A little fling”, the difference, not any the less divisive, is between East and West Germany — after reunification. For Schlink, it is not even necessary to find another history for separateness. It is enough, as in “The woman at the gas station”, to be two human beings married for a long time and in the middle of a celebratory second honeymoon to be forced to come out with it — that which always lay hidden: “I can only run away.” The strongly cerebral quality of Schlink’s prose, translated by John E. Woods, prevents the ecstasy, shock and bewilderment in the stories from collapsing into sentimentality. Instead, the underlying tragedy is glimpsed through irony. The irony may range from the compassionate to the cruel, as in “Sugar peas”. Schlink’s narration is deceptively matter-of-fact; it cunningly points up the drama and warmth of the emotions through its unruffled evenness.

Perceptive and disturbing, the stories seem to draw predominantly on men’s experience of love. The differences in failure are subtly gendered. It is only in “The other man” that a husband comes to a painful understanding of his dead wife, and of himself, through the realization that in giving her love to two men she was not depriving either. Both the love and the anger of women are unconventional, unexpected and therefore not fully explicable in a world of manmade definitions and categories. Understanding this may not always be a pleasant experience. The contrast between a man’s selfish but unthinking exploitation and his women’s concerted and calculated reply makes up a frightening tale in “Sugar peas”. It is the morality of love, not amorality, that interests Schlink. The unrelenting prose is the perfect vehicle for the agonized honesty of the characters. Its measured pace creates an illusion of broad spaces, in terms of both geography and time, and disguises the perfection of the short story plot. Schlink is telling stories of the strange workings of love; his success lies in seducing the reader into an uncomfortable but fascinated recognition that the tales are not so unfamiliar after all.

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