Bernhard Schlink
Bernhard Schlink; drawing by David Levine

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 of anger, she hits him so hard on the face with a leather belt that his lip splits.

Among their rituals one is especially important: her insistence on being read to aloud. Although Hanna clearly has little education, she is receptive to great novels. Thus Michael reads to her all of War and Peace. It is a certainty in literature, if not in life, that the affairs boys or very young men have with women sufficiently old enough to be confused with their mothers will end sadly. One need only think of Madame de Warens, the maman in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, Madame de Rênal in The Red and the Black, or Colette’s Léa in La fin de Chéri. Thus Michael “betrays” Hanna: he doesn’t want his friends to see him with her; he won’t talk to them about her. One day, after such a betrayal, she disappears.

The next time Michael sees Hanna, he is already a law student and, as a member of a seminar on “retroactive justice,” attends a trial of a group of former SS guards, including Hanna, at a concentration camp that was a sort of tributary of Auschwitz. One of the questions the seminar is considering is whether it should be sufficient for a finding of guilt that the laws under which the guards are tried were already on the statute books when the crimes were committed regardless of how the laws were interpreted and enforced at the time. Or would it have to be shown that the people on trial violated laws that were in fact applied to guards at the time? It is obvious that the case is going badly for Hanna, in part because she doesn’t seem to understand her situation as well as her codefendants do. A crucial question in the trial is to establish who wrote a particularly incriminating report on the death march that the guards had forced inmates to make after the collapse of the eastern front. Hanna is asked for a sample of her handwriting. Rather than submit it, she testifies that she wrote it.


By now, Michael has understood a fact of capital importance: Hanna can’t read or write. Hence she could not have written the damning report. Her illiteracy explains some of the mysteries of her behavior, such as the passion for being read to and her rages when it seemed that her ignorance was about to be uncovered. Michael believes that Hanna would appear less malevolent to the judge and the jury if they knew that she is illiterate, and her sentence would be less severe. Although Michael realizes that Hanna has seen him in the courtroom, he has made no attempt to speak to her or establish any other sort of contact. But shouldn’t he immediately inform the judge that she was not the author of the report because she doesn’t know how to write?

One would suppose that the answer had to be yes, but Michael finds that he is in a moral dilemma. Has he the right to divulge a secret that Hanna has struggled so hard to hide? It is, he realizes, a secret that led her to enroll in the SS, in preference to accepting a promotion to a factory job that required the ability to read and write. And it is because of the same secret that she precipitously left the town in which she and Michael lived, when once again she was threatened by a promotion for which she couldn’t qualify. Michael turns for advice to his father, a man difficult to approach. (Schlink writes, “For a long time I believed there must be a wealth of undiscovered treasure behind that uncommunicative manner, but later I wondered if there was anything behind it at all.”) But his father is a philosopher who has written about Kant and Hegel, and this is precisely the sort of difficulty in which he should be able to offer advice.

Michael puts the case to the father in abstract terms, and the father answers in kind, saying one must consider “the human being as subject and the fact that one may not turn him into an object.” He concludes that there is no reason why Michael’s view of what is best for the person in the hypothetical example should take precedence over that person’s own conception of the good. This is what Michael wanted to hear: he is not duty-bound to inform the judge, indeed has no right to do so. He could, consistent with the father’s advice, seek Hanna’s permission to disclose her secret, but feels he cannot do so without giving her some vision of an acceptable future once she has served out her term. The truth is that he prefers not to face her. And so Hanna is sentenced to life, while the other guards receive shorter terms.

One is tempted to see this dismal failure as something more than the inability to speak to each other that afflicts Schlink’s fathers and sons. Schlink may have intended to epitomize a peculiarly German form of refusing to take responsibility, by which a concrete and urgent need to act, for instance to stop a brutal assault on a neighbor, is transformed into an abstract problem calling for the reconciliation of conflicting duties. The answer derived from philosophizing may be ambiguous enough to justify remaining on the sideline and avoiding troublesome or dangerous commitments. If Michael and his father had spoken not about what was owed to a “person” but about the duties owed to Hanna in her concrete circumstances, the outcome might have been different.

But even before Hanna’s trial, Michael has turned into a man marked by a “juxtaposition of callousness and extreme sensitivity.” He is unable to find fulfillment in his work or form lasting attachments to other women, perhaps because they aren’t Hanna. He suffers from a form of fatigue, observing that “coming to grips with our parents’ guilt took a great deal of energy.” He realizes that there are monstrous, unanswered questions to be confronted: “How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them—how could they have anything to say to their children?” In the case of the children, he asks, was it a “fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes?” In his own particular case, he could not point an accusing finger at his parents. Thus:


The zeal for letting in the daylight, with which, as a member of the concentration camp seminar, I had condemned my father to shame, had passed, and it embarrassed me. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her.

Only in the first of the seven stories assembled in Flights of Love, and elegantly translated by John E. Woods, the chilling and eerily poetic “Girl with Lizard,” are we explicitly brought close to the central question of The Reader: the predicament of a son whose father may possibly have been guilty of war crimes. In the second story, “A Little Fling,” the connection is in the corrupting political consequences of the lessons taught and learned in the Communist period. The remaining stories are understated morality tales suggesting obliquely the impact that the “lived reality” of collective guilt has had on Schlink’s contemporaries. Transmitted like original sin from father to son, but impossible to wash away, the sense of past crimes has left them numb, with feelings that their lives are unsatisfactory and unsatisfied. The main characters of these stories are loners, men uneasy in their existence, incapable of losing themselves in a relationship with a woman, indifferent as fathers and uncaring as sons. They bear the marks of acedia, the sin which is the absence of charity and joy. A curious aspect of Schlink’s vision is that the curse is visited on the sons only; female German children appear to have been spared.

Like The Reader, “Girl with Lizard” is the story of a boy’s growing up in a dignified, bourgeois family. The father is a judge; the parents lead the life of provincial city notables. It is as if Hitler had never come to power, and World War II had never happened. There are peculiarities, though. The boy’s parents

seemed to be holding back, hiding something. They were on their guard. If someone told a joke they did not immediately burst out laughing, but waited until others laughed. In conversations with guests they kept their own opinion to themselves…. If sometimes his father could not avoid taking a position or expressing an opinion, the strain of it showed.

The parents guard their space carefully. The boy is not allowed to enter his parents’ bedroom and has never entered it, even as a small child. They do not come into his room either without knocking and waiting to be invited in. Another, far more important peculiarity is the presence in the father’s study, over the sofa on which the boy is allowed to take naps, of a luminously beautiful painting of a girl, about eight years old, at a beach, leaning on a rock on which sits a lizard, mouth open, flicking out its tongue. The painting is at first the subject of an argument between the parents: the mother refers to it as the painting of a Jewish girl, the father denies this. Later, they never mention it. One day the boy’s class is given an assignment, to describe a picture. The boy goes home and, sitting at his father’s desk, with the painting before his eyes, writes about it. When the father comes home, his reaction is bizarre. Although he finds that what the boy has produced is very good, he forbids him to hand it in. The painting, he says, is “not for other people.” A little later he explains that the painting

is worth a great deal, and I don’t know if I could protect it if people wanted to steal it. Wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t even know we have it?

Perhaps a year later, the father resigns from the bench and takes a job with an insurance company. We learn later the reason. His wartime past has been uncovered. Rather quickly, the family is déclassée. They move from a stylish building in a fashionable neighborhood to an apartment in a subsidized project at the edge of the city; the piano is sold and piano lessons stop; the boy goes to a different school with coarser students; his mother works as a police department secretary. The father begins to drink heavily and is fired.

The boy is about to graduate; he has decided to study law at a university away from the town where they live and, therefore, away from his parents. His obsession with the painting has not diminished. When he visits the nearby large city he stops at the museum of modern art, and comes upon a painting by an artist he has never heard of that reminds him of the girl with a lizard; something links them powerfully. Returning home, he questions his father about the painting, but the father’s answers are evasive or make no sense. He claims that he knows nothing about the painter, that although the painting is very valuable, they would have gotten nothing had they tried to sell it; he has tried hard to protect it so that the boy will someday have it.

The mystery is solved partially, and slowly. During the boy’s third year at the university, his father dies in a drunken accident. The boy goes to the funeral, stays with his mother, and talks to her about the future, which for him mainly concerns what will happen to the girl with a lizard. She gives the painting to him. Henceforth, it hangs over his bed in his student’s rented room. He learns more about the artist who painted it: he was very prominent, something of a Surrealist, and was included in the Munich exhibition of degenerate art; his wife was Jewish; in 1940 he was in Strasbourg and, after the entry of German troops, he and his wife vanished. The girl with a lizard is indeed valuable.

At last, he questions his mother about what his father did during the war. It turns out that he was a military judge in Strasbourg and after the war claimed that, when he found that the family with which he was billeted were Jews with forged Aryan papers, he protected them. Out of gratitude they gave him the painting. The boy doesn’t believe this version of the past. He asks why his father stopped being a judge. Reluctantly the mother tells him a story that seems closer to the truth: he was accused of having condemned a German officer in Strasbourg to death for having helped Jews to escape the police; moreover the officer was his friend, and it may be that the father informed on the officer himself. His father had recorded his own version of the case in a big file in which he rebutted the accusations against him. These are mostly technical corrections to articles that had appeared in the press about the case. When he asks his mother what she thinks of the rebuttal, she replies that it is “as if you admit you poisoned someone’s food, but insist that you followed every line of the recipe in The Joy of Cooking—that’s the way it reads.”

There is no certainty about what really happened, and the boy doesn’t want to go on searching for it. Nor does he want to press his mother to confirm a sudden suspicion: that she has always held him at a distance because he was conceived when his father raped her, after she had rejected him, knowing what he had done in Strasbourg. The girl with a lizard has become in turn the boy’s own guilty secret, as well as his obsession. She has come between him and every woman who has tried to be close to him because he does not want the painting to be seen. One evening he solves the problem. He takes the painting to the beach outside the Baltic town where he lives. Young people are sitting around fires, having parties. He builds a fire himself and burns the painting. At least he will not enjoy the fruits of his father’s crime; whether the sacrifice will lift from his shoulders the weight of the father’s guilt is far from certain.

“A Little Fling,” a wistful story of love and betrayal, begins in a still-divided Berlin where the surveillance of the Stasi is pervasive but largely invisible to the visitor. The narrator is a young West German administrative judge assigned to a welfare court, unmarried, solitary, a new arrival in Berlin without contacts other than with his professional colleagues. Then he makes friends with Sven, from East Berlin, a chess player he meets in a beer garden who challenges him to a game. The friendship expands beyond chess. Sven has a wife, Paula, who teaches classical Greek, and a two-year-old daughter, Julia. The judge loves children, and children take to him immediately. Ancient Greek makes for a bond between the judge and Paula that parallels the bond between the two chess players, but the bond between the men is deeper, perhaps homoerotic, although never overtly. The foursome, if you count Julia, go on a vacation together, in Bulgaria, one of few places where citizens of the GDR may travel. Occasionally, Sven asks the judge to pass a message to the West.

Then the Wall comes down, and a wave of consumerist well-being sweeps over Sven and Paula. People seem more self-absorbed. The judge and the couple realize that their friendship is one of the few that have survived the end of the old era. Other relationships sour with the opening of the Stasi files, and what they reveal to one friend about another. Sven does well, obtaining a tenured position at the university as a professor of Bulgarian and Czech languages; Paula now also teaches at the university, no longer at a Protestant church institution. They celebrate the grant of tenure to Sven, as usual à quatre with Julia, and the narrator senses an unpleasant tension between Sven and Paula. He stays up so late with them, and has drunk so much wine, that they persuade him to spend the night at their apartment instead of driving home. He is still awake when Paula comes into his room. They make love. There had been nothing of the sort between them before.

The judge falls asleep after she leaves him, and is awakened by Julia, now a much bigger girl, who tells him she can’t sleep because her parents are arguing so loudly. The judge hears them quarreling about the Stasi files. Sven, he learns, has informed on his friends, including the judge, and in a sense also on Paula. He revealed to his Stasi handler intimate details of their sexual relations. He claims he wanted to protect Paula from the consequences of her rather childish antiwar activities. But had he the right to protect her by informing? Didn’t she have the right to assume the consequences of her actions, even if it meant imprisonment in Bautzen? One is reminded of the quandary of Michael Berg in The Reader: Has he the right to help Hanna by giving away her closely guarded secret? So Sven has betrayed Paula and the judge, harmlessly, to be sure, in that neither of them has suffered any punishment or public embarrassment; and the judge and Paula have betrayed Sven under his own roof. In Paula’s case it was perhaps to take revenge on Sven for his betrayal of her. All three of them feel soiled, irremediably. They break off contact, until Julia’s tenth birthday, to which she invites the judge.

Amid the general unease, she stands up to give a speech. It’s a pity, says Julia, that friends from the East and the West don’t come together as often as they used to, when people had more time. They may lose sight of each other, “‘unless,’ she said with a serious, determined look, ‘we women hold everything together.'” And then they all laugh at each other. Thus, unusually for him, Schlink provides a tender ending; but it is a screen behind which there is a wound that will not heal. In one way or another, this persistence, the awful certainty that what has been done cannot be undone, is the recurrent theme of Schlink’s best work.

This Issue

January 17, 2002