Flights of Love
by Bernhard Schlink,translated from the Germanby John E. Woods
Pantheon, 308 pp., $23.00
Flights of Love is the second work of fiction by the German writer Bernhard Schlink to appear in English. Schlink became famous following the publication in 1997, in the United States, of his novel The Reader, published in 1995 in German under the title of Der Vorleser, a German word that denotes one who reads aloud to others. It has no precise equivalent in English. The Reader had the biggest international success of any German novel since The Tin Drum. It would be satisfying to say that the popularity of this short, intelligent, and beautifully written work in the US was entirely owing to critical recognition of its high literary merit. In fact, Schlink’s novel received a powerful boost in 1999 from its selection by Oprah’s Book Club. Schlink is also the author of a trilogy, Selbs Justiz (1987), Selbs Betrug (1994), and Selbs Mord (2001), which records the exploits of the eponymous central character, Gerhard Selb, a rather lovable former Nazi prosecutor practicing, in the style of the more intellectual members of that profession, as a private eye in an imperfectly denazified Germany. He wrote yet another thriller, Die gordische Schleife (1988), whose protagonist is a lawyer called Georg Schlink.
Bernhard Schlink was born in 1944. He belongs, therefore, to what he has called in The Reader the second generation: Germans who were children during World War II, or were born soon after it, and thus had not, in either case, any personal involvement in the crimes their countrymen committed during the war, or any direct moral responsibility for them. But the members of the second generation all had fathers and mothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, older brothers and sisters, and neighbors who could not claim the same alibi. That being the case, could these younger Germans say to themselves, if not to the world at large, I am not my elders’ keeper? What kind of relations of trust or distrust, or love or hatred or indifference, could they have with those elders? As might be expected from a remarkably gifted novelist who, as though by predestina-tion, has also been a professor of law and a judge, Schlink explores these questions in The Reader scrupulously, delicately, and without pretending to provide unshakable answers. The short stories collected in Flights of Love seem to me to continue and extend that research, and for that reason are best read with the novel as background.
The Reader begins in the manner of a beguiling, nostalgic Bildungsroman. Not long after the war, one may suppose in 1960 or thereabouts, in a small West German city, a fifteen-year-old-boy, Michael Berg, born into a solidly bourgeois and anti-Nazi family (the father, a university professor of philosophy, was chased from his job for undertaking to give a lecture on Spinoza), is seduced by a good-looking woman in her thirties, one Hanna Schmitz, who happens to be a streetcar conductor. She is a wonderfully maternal lover, although her temper can flash: in one moment …