Post- war Germans trace line between guilt and responsibility
BERNHARD Schlink’s casual observation about his progress as a writer, ‘‘ Whenever I started something new I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t finished with Selb’’, alludes to the continuities linking his novels and short stories and the ways in which they reflect on his life and times.
Gerhard Selb, an ageing private investigator and former Nazi prosecutor sacked by the Allies, is the narrator of Schlink’s cryptic detective stories and a source of insights into Schlink’s moral preoccupations. Selb is not only the detective’s name but also the German word for self. Selb’s Betrayal could equally well be translated as Self Betrayal.
Born in 1944, Schlink became a lawyer, Constitutional Court judge and a law professor in Berlin and New York, but it is through his fiction that he seeks to define his identity as a member of a ‘‘ second German generation’’, those whose parents were involved in the maelstrom of Nazism and the Holocaust, which bequeathed a harrowing moral legacy to the perpetrators of that evil and to their children.
In 1997, two years after the publication of Der Vorleser ( literally, ‘‘ one who reads aloud’’), an English translation of it, The Reader , achieved an international success unmatched by any German novel since Gunter Grass’s masterpiece, The Tin Drum. The Reader is an almost terse, Selb- like account of narrator Michael Berg’s life, told during three distinct stages but linked by an increasingly complex and powerful exploration of the nature of guilt and responsibility that blurs the boundaries of history, fiction and autobiography.
Vomiting as a result of hepatitis on his way home on a tram, 15- year- old Michael is cleaned up and returned to his parents by conductor Hanna Schmitz. Days later, they begin a ritual of bathing, making love and his reading to her from works of German literature. After a few months, Hanna disappears. Years later, now a priggish law student, he recognises her as a defendant in a trial of former Nazi Auschwitz guards.
During her imprisonment, Michael sends Hanna audiotapes of his readings of books, copies of which she borrows from the prison library and painstakingly learns to read and write. It is only then that Michael realises that Hanna was a victim of illiteracy. Hanna commits suicide the day before she is to be released, leaving Michael a note to give her money to the woman whose writing led to her imprisonment. Michael wanted ‘‘ simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But ( for him) it was too terrible for that. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was not room for understanding.’’
Schlink sees Michael’s almost impossibly compromised love for Hanna ‘‘ as, in a way, the fate of his own generation, a German fate’’. It mirrors Schlink’s dilemma over how the Holocaust had impinged on his and later generations of Germans. The Reader is, Schlink has said, a novel that is ‘‘ also my biography and that of my generation’’.
His recent collection of short stories is rather surprisingly entitled Flights of Love , given that they tend to focus often on stolid, dull and unpreposessing lawyers. In the collection Schlink revisits in Girls with Lizard the theme of a young man’s psychological anxieties over his father’s detached, emotional coldness and the shadowy evidence that he may have illegally acquired a portrait of a ( Jewish?) girl while working in a Third Reich military court: ‘‘ It had to do with the way his parents seemed to be holding back, hiding something.’’
In many ways, Girl with Lizard , The Reader and, possibly, Selb’s Betrayal can be seen as necessary pre- reading for anyone opening Homecoming for the first time.
Homecoming begins with the young Peter
Debauer being put on a train by his mother to travel alone to spend the summer holidays with his grandparents in Switzerland who, he discovers, had edited a volume of fiction. Peter reads part of the story of a soldier’s homecoming but, because he had inadvertently torn out the last pages to use their blank backs for his homework, he cannot read the story’s conclusion. This frustration becomes an obsession. He must discover what happened to the German prisoner of war who, finally escaping from a Russian camp and enduring seemingly endless dangers, returns home to his wife, who thought he was dead.
For Peter, the search for the conclusion to the work of fiction becomes linked inextricably with his own, equally preoccupying search for the identity and, if he is still alive, location of his absent father.
Although there are echoes in Homecoming of the forensic detective work of the Selb novels, Peter’s searches are at once more compelling and profound, the insights that he develops are ultimately psychological ones, even though the journeys he embarks on cross many countries. Like his grandparents, he becomes an editor and translator, and one of the texts he is sent for translation is written by a revered American academic who seems likely to be his father.
Although he finally succeeds in identifying his father, Peter never reveals this fact to him. Closure of that kind is not what Homecoming is really about.
Peter’s journeys, like those of Odysseus, to which he frequently refers and which shape his imagination as well as his travels, are far more than merely physical.
As with The Reader , which is to be adapted into a film directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Nicole Kidman and Ralph Fiennes, Homecoming must be read, certainly before you go to see Schlink at the movies. John Hay retires as vice- chancellor of the University of Queensland on December 31.