Bril­liant minds, im­moral lives

In his new novel, Bern­hard Sch­link charts a gen­er­a­tion’s emo­tional jour­ney of self- dis­cov­ery in a cul­ture tainted by sin, writes Daniel Stacey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

BERN­HARD Sch­link isn’t in­clined to think too heav­ily about where his sto­ries come from. ‘‘ I can only write what’s on my mind,’’ he tells me over the phone from his res­i­dence in west­ern Ber­lin. He’s made the same point in pre­vi­ous in­ter­views, al­though ex­press­ing him­self in the an­a­lytic, pre­cise lan­guage that comes nat­u­rally to a re­tired con­sti­tu­tional court judge: ‘‘ I’m re­ally un­in­ter­ested in the epis­te­mol­ogy of my writ­ing.’’

When his best- sell­ing Holo­caust novel The Reader was re­leased in 1997, how­ever, the mo­ti­va­tions be­hind his choice of story were des­tined to suf­fer scru­tiny. Why, for in­stance, had he ren­dered one of his chief char­ac­ters, Hanna, a for­mer con­cen­tra­tion camp guard put on trial for war crimes, an il­lit­er­ate? Crit­ics such as au­thor Cyn­thia Oz­ick saw this as a cop- out, claim­ing the novel was ‘‘ the prod­uct, con­scious or not, of a de­sire to di­vert ( at­ten­tion) from the cul­pa­bil­ity of a nor­mally ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tion in a na­tion famed for Kul­tur ’’.

Hanna was work­ing- class, un­e­d­u­cated and obe­di­ent, and it was in­evitable that her rel­a­tively pow­er­less po­si­tion as an in­di­vid­ual un­der the Third Re­ich would be seen by some as loaded with tacit de­nials: an at­tempt to in­duct Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors into the an­nals of vic­tim­hood.

This small but vo­cal band of crit­ics were drowned out, how­ever, by nu­mer­ous plau­dits and Sch­link’s ap­pear­ance on Oprah’s Book Club in 1999. The novel went on to sell 750,000 copies in the US, 500,000 in Ger­many and 350,000 in Bri­tain.

But whether by de­sign or, as his the­ory goes, sim­ply as the prod­uct of what he is in­ter­ested in now, his fol­low- up novel, Home­com­ing, is a di­rect ri­poste to those crit­i­cisms of The Reader . It ap­proaches the legacy of World War II through char­ac­ters who are not just lit­er­ate but highly cere­bral: pub­lish­ers and celebrity aca­demics, trained lawyers, writ­ers, schol­ars and free thinkers.

‘‘ I was al­ways in­ter­ested in the in­tel­lec­tu­als of the Weimar pe­riod and how they be­came in­volved or not in­volved in the Third Re­ich, in fas­cist the­ory,’’ says Sch­link, 63. ‘‘ Lawyers, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists, le­gal philoso­phers: it’s all very close to what I do.’’ Nazism’s sweep through univer­si­ties and pub­lish­ing houses in the 1930s and ’ 40s con­fronted many of the pe­riod’s great­est aca­demics with the op­tion to flour­ish through col­lab­o­ra­tion. Prom­i­nent philoso­pher Martin Hei­deg­ger, for in­stance, in­sti­tuted the anti- Semitic poli­cies of Na­tional So­cial­ism while rec­tor at the Univer­sity of Freiberg in 1933- 34.

In the same pe­riod ju­rist and philoso­pher Carl Sch­mitt, whose es­say The Con­cept of the Po­lit­i­cal you will find on the phi­los­o­phy read­ing lists of most con­tem­po­rary univer­si­ties, co- opted and pro­moted the ide­olo­gies of Nazism at Ber­lin Univer­sity. And lit­er­ary the­o­rist Paul de Man, whom Sch­link ad­mits is the ba­sis for the char­ac­ter John de Baur in this novel, wrote pro­pa­ganda for the Nazi mouth­piece Le Soir in Bel­gium through the early ’ 40s be­fore mov­ing to the US, where he taught at Yale Univer­sity and was in­stru­men­tal in in­tro­duc­ing the the­ory of de­con­struc­tion to an Amer­i­can au­di­ence.

John de Baur, the mys­te­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual at the heart of this book, is like­wise a for­mer col­lab­o­ra­tor, the au­thor of anti- Semitic news pieces for Nazi news­pa­pers such as Goebbels’s Das Re­ich , who has fled to the US and be­come a cynosure of le­gal phi­los­o­phy at Columbia Univer­sity, keep­ing his past a se­cret. His in­cred­i­bly slip­pery brand of de­con­struc­tion­ist the­ory is mixed with a bru­tal po­lit­i­cal re­al­ism sim­i­lar to that of Sch­mitt and Thomas Hobbes, cre­at­ing a com­plex the­ory of in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity that seems to ab­solve him of guilt for his ac­tions in World War II.

De Baur’s ideas are




novel’s nar­ra­tor, Peter, who at­tends one of his cour­ses: ‘‘ 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.’’

In his aca­demic trea­tise, The Odyssey of Law, de Baur ar­gues that mur­der is pun­ish­able only be­cause those left be­hind value the life of the per­son killed. ‘‘ The way we cut up the worlds in which we live and the or­der we im­pose on them is our do­ing, not the mur­derer’s. He does not com­mit the mur­der; we do.’’

Sch­link, a pro­fes­sor of the phi­los­o­phy of law at Hum­boldt Univer­sity in Ber­lin and a for­mer judge who has also ar­gued cases in the Ger­man Fed­eral Con­sti­tu­tional Court de­fend­ing proabor­tion laws, was in­flu­enced in his younger years by Sch­mitt and Hei­deg­ger. Rec­on­cil­ing th­ese bril­liant minds with their im­moral pasts has al­ways been an ob­ses­sion for him.

‘‘ Re­gret, of course, is one op­tion to in­te­grate what one shouldn’t have done into what one wants to be,’’ Sch­link says. ‘‘ But that was not an op­tion for many in­tel­lec­tu­als and not an op­tion for de Baur in this book. And so how do they in­te­grate it?’’

At the time de Man’s past was dug up posthu­mously in 1987, it elicited up­roar and para­noia about the po­ten­tially mol­li­fy­ing use de­con­struc­tion might have been put to by some Euro­pean aca­demics. In a Newsweek in­ter­view in 1988, a French pro­fes­sor at Bos­ton Univer­sity, Jef­frey Mehlman, ig­nited de­bate af­ter claim­ing de Man’s du­plic­ity was ‘‘ grounds for view­ing the whole of de­con­struc­tion as a vast amnesty project for the pol­i­tics of col­lab­o­ra­tion dur­ing World War II’’.

James At­las, writ­ing for The New York Times in the same pe­riod, saw nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples in de Man’s main works where his approach to de­con­struc­tion seemed to be mo­ti­vated less by truth and more by a de­sire to cleanse his past: ‘‘ Time and again, es­pe­cially in the late es­says, one is stopped by a phrase or idea that seems to leap straight from de Man’s un­con­scious. For in­stance, his en­dorse­ment of Ni­et­zsche’s re­pu­di­a­tion of the past as a thing ‘ so threat­en­ing that it has to be forgotten’. Or his in­sis­tence, in a 1979 es­say on Rousseau’s Con­fes­sions , that we can never dis­tin­guish be­tween ‘ fic­tional dis­course and em­pir­i­cal event’, a predica­ment that ‘ makes it pos­si­ble to ex­cuse the bleak­est of crimes’.’’

The con­fu­sion and para­noia that comes from con­tem­plat­ing th­ese du­plic­i­tous lives is a com­mon theme for Sch­link’s gen­er­a­tion, Ger­many’s equiv­a­lent of the post- war baby boomers, who came of age in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s and be­gan search­ing for fam­ily and cul­tural se­crets, un­earthing the crimes and com­plic­ity of their par­ents. Al­though Sch­link’s par­ents’ wartime ac­tiv­i­ties were in­no­cent — his fa­ther was a pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy be­fore be­ing sacked on in­struc­tion of lo­cal Nazi au­thor­i­ties for his mem­ber­ship of the Con­fess­ing Church, a group that protested against Hitler’s poli­cies — other fig­ures in his up­bring­ing weren’t so pure. Sch­link’s gym­nas­tics teacher had an SS tat­too that was never spo­ken about; one of his pro­fes­sors re­mained se­cret for many years about an anti- Semitic book he wrote in the ’ 30s.

‘‘ That was our ex­pe­ri­ence: and we didn’t know what lies were hid­den, what se­crets were in the closet. It was a bur­den for the re­la­tion­ship many peo­ple my age had with their par­ents. And some­times se­crets came out at a later point in life, but some­times par­ents died, and their chil­dren found out by a let­ter, a diary, with­out be­ing able to talk to them about it.’’

The ti­tle of his novel Home­com­ing refers to this process: the jour­ney that many Ger­mans have gone through try­ing to dis­cover who they are, what cul­ture they’re a part of and where guilt lies in a so­ci­ety rid­dled with se­crecy.

Home­com­ing sto­ries are also tra­di­tion­ally a variety of pulp fiction, im­mensely pop­u­lar in Ger­many im­me­di­ately af­ter the war. They are usu­ally tales of tri­umph over ad­ver­sity, where pris­on­ers of war or refugees travel across vast and war- torn re­gions in search of their home. Sch­link’s grand­par­ents edited a col­lec­tion of th­ese books af­ter the war un­der the ti­tle Ro­mane zur Freude und zur guten Un­ter­hal­tung, or Nov­els for Your Read­ing Plea­sure and En­ter­tain­ment. His aunt wrote one, too, a med­i­cal ro­mance that Sch­link still owns ti­tled Emer­gency at Mid­night .

Th­ese sim­ple tales are the be­gin­ning point for Home­com­ing , their ro­mance and ad­ven­ture lead­ing our young nar­ra­tor into his own life­long jour­ney of home­com­ing.

‘‘ Th­ese nov­els were im­mensely pop­u­lar af­ter the war be­cause it was not just pris­on­ers of war who even­tu­ally hope­fully came home.

‘‘ We had mil­lions of refugees from mid­dle and east­ern Europe who had lost their homes and had to at one point de­cide: ‘ Will I keep long­ing for my old home? Will I find a new one? What does home­com­ing mean, does it mean only to come home to where you ac­tu­ally come from? Or can it mean build­ing a new home and com­ing home there?’ ’’

The home­com­ings in this book are about the jour­neys of a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion, though, the de­scen­dants of the wartime Ger­mans. Th­ese are less phys­i­cal and ge­o­graph­i­cal home­com­ings, and more about emo­tional be­long­ing: about un­rav­el­ling the mys­ter­ies of cold and love­less fam­i­lies and fac­ing an in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture tainted by its past sins.

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