- Bernhard Schlink, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
- Pantheon Books
- 229 pp.
- Reviewed by Harriet Dwinell
- October 8, 2012
Deceit runs through the author’s latest collection of short stories.
Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell
“Epiphany” is one of those highfalutin’ words that Mark Twain warned us against. When linked to the modern short story, it refers to a sudden insight on the part of the main character that allows readers to feel that the story has come to a satisfying end. No such comfort is available to readers of Bernhard Schlink’s new collection of seven stories Summer Lies, which leaves its readers in the same limbo Schlink leaves his characters, awash in uncertainty, ambiguity and apathy.
Schlink, a former judge who teaches law in Berlin and New York City and is best known for his novel The Reader, links these stories by the theme of deception, whether self-deception, deception of others or, more often, a mixture of the two. These stories are also deft explorations into the relationships between adult children and their aging parents. Even those stories that center on romantic relationships among the younger generation — people in Schlink’s stories in their late 30s and 40s — usually contain a distant father or an overbearing mother. Schlink’s range is narrow, his key minor. There is not a happy or likeable person in the lot. And yet these stories are compelling and affecting, for Schlink, like a surgeon, delves tissue by tissue into the human psyche until the pretense in which we wrap ourselves lies bare.
Some stories are told against a backdrop of harsh economic facts, where even the talented might have to cobble together sources of income in order to live, and men, historically the primary breadwinners, are paired with women who earn more or outshine them professionally. Such is the case in “After the Season.” Richard, a German flautist in the New York Philharmonic “who does not like rich people,” takes his vacation on Cape Cod “after the season” because prices are lower, lodging at a B&B. When he enters into a passionate relationship with Susan, who turns out to be filthy rich, with a “Big House” on the Cape, a duplex apartment in New York City and a career in philanthropy in Los Angeles, he shuts his mind to the sums he’s amassing on his credit card and the streetwise life in New York that he’ll have to give up if he is to be with her.
More extreme is the case of two novelists, the unnamed protagonist and his wife Kate, in “The House in the Forest,” which, as its title suggests, resembles a fairy tale. Like many in this collection, the protagonist is German and initially the more successful of the two, but he develops writer’s block, and Kate becomes so successful that to escape the pandemonium that has developed around her in New York City, they find an isolated cottage in upstate New York where Kate can complete her third novel while her husband takes care of the house and their young daughter.
The protagonist does not seem to mourn his lost career; he fears the breakup of their idyllic life in the country, so much so that he goes to horrifying lengths to preserve it. Schlink traces the protagonist’s fears back to his childhood in a brutal household where his parents sank into “a morass of spite, screaming matches, and violence,” making him feel “as if the ice were cracking beneath” his feet. “His dream of love and family was thick ice, solid enough to walk on.” His wife Kate was the promise of thick ice, and when she tries to break out of the idyllic prison he has forged, he goes mad.
Two stories deal with the older generation of women. In “The Last Summer,” a retired philosophy professor was successful in his career but never really happy, for although he had often been able to gather “the components of happiness” around him, he always remained on the outside. Secretly dying of cancer, he has gathered around him at his lakefront house a set of components: wife; children and their spouses, all successful; grandchildren; longtime best friend; and, oh yes, a magic “cocktail” that will send him into death the moment he decides he can endure his pain no more.
For once, during this last summer, the professor joins in life: he makes pancakes for his family; he makes love to his wife. But his wife wonders what’s going on. When she finds the cocktail hidden behind some bottles, she lets words fly. Earlier, she had said, “I had imagined our marriage different, but that’s apparently not how it went, and so I came to terms with the way it actually was.” Now she is enraged that her husband kept her out of the most important decision of his life. “You go, and I don’t know you’re going? … And you’re not saying goodbye to me, you’re saying goodbye to yourself, and you want me there to act as a sort of movie extra.”
Such cleansing outrage is not the path of Nina, protagonist of “The Journey South,” the only story seen through a woman’s eyes. The story opens with Nina declaring she had stopped loving her children — her love suddenly disappeared the way her sense of smell had disappeared several years earlier. Like most characters in these stories, Nina is only named in dialogue; otherwise, she is “she,” or “Grandmother,”a faceless entity whose life, she recalls now, was given over in service to others: her husband, who cheated on and eventually divorced her, and her children, successful to the world but shallow and materialistic in her eyes.
Any daring hope of unbridled joy, as opposed to the satisfaction that comes from doing one’s duty, was snuffed out years ago when her lover abandoned her. The truth of this abandonment and her cowardly complicity emerge during a trip south with her granddaughter, with a renewed possibility of hope. But Nina, who in her childhood dreams always “longed for something bigger and more wonderful than her everyday life,” turns her back and sinks once more into apathy.
Other stories deal with a playwright who eventually lives up to the dim view his lover takes of him, a physicist who studies randomness and is astounded by the extraordinary random event that has come into his life on a transatlantic flight, and a newspaper reporter whose outrage at what he perceives as the coldness of his father, a distinguished jurist, turns in on himself. Taken together, these stories are one dispiriting lot. And yet, literature is not only to entertain, it is also to instruct. The deceptions and self-deceptions embodied in these stories may not replicate our own, but they force us to take a sober look into the ways we live out our own lies.
Harriet Douty Dwinell, director of the editorial board of The Washington Independent Review of Books, is a Washington writer and editor.