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
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.