In the High Peaks

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Final Words about Bernhard Schlink

Last evening, Saturday, I began my wrap-up commentary about Bernhard Schlink's writings. I was not able to finish. This morning I have finished my comments, the entire body of which you will see in the previous entry. Those who only received the first set of ramblings may now see that I was headed...somewhere, at least.

As most of you know, I don't review books in the standard sense or in any other sense, really. What I do, as my Reader in the Wilderness subtitle suggests, is give my personal reflections on the books I read and on the authors I admire.

Thank you to everyone who participated in Bernhard Schlink Week!!!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Being German, Writing Fiction, and the Holocaust

Yes, it's November 17, and supposedly the final day of Bernhard Schlink Week. Please feel free to comment after November 17 or post links for me to add post hoc.

I would like to quote from Schlink's nonfiction book Guilt about the Past, particularly the chapter I appreciate most, "Stories about the Past."

"As an author, I was often criticised for depicting Hanna, the woman protagonist of my novel The Reader, a former concentration camp guard who committed monstrous crimes, with a human face.

I understand the desire for a world where those who commit monstrous crimes are always monsters. We all have the deeply-rooted expectations that a person's acts and character, outer and inner appearance, behaviour in one context and behaviour in another context should conform...Our language reveals this when we talk about someone looking beautiful but being awful, looking warm but being cold, looking cultured but being amoral...The world is full of this tension.

Not seeing its [the world's] multifaceted nature is simplistic and misleading. Maybe I insist on this point so strongly because my generation experienced again and again that someone whom we loved and respected turned out to have done something horrible during the Third Reich.

I remember my English and gym teacher, a wonderful teacher to whom I owe my early love for the English language and also an early insight into the relativity of justice...During training we students saw the tattoo on his arm that all SS officers and solders had that indicated the person's blood group. But it was the fifties, and we still believed that the Waffen SS was just an elite troop and that only the Concentration Camp SS was bad. Even if we had known better, we wouldn't have suspected his involvement in crimes of the Gestapo...that only came out after his retirement."

Schlink's generation? I suppose that is mine as well, though in a different, or not so different, society. The cruel internment of Japanese Americans, the bitter anti-Semitism, the brutality of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, the US Army's deliberate and institutionalized starvation of German civilians, mostly children, women, and elderly men, in collusion with the British and French armies, in the immediate aftermath of war, 1945-1947.

War dehumanizes.

In more recent years, for many Americans, there comes the discovery that the Catholic priest we knew so well and who was such a kind contributor to members of the church community turned out to be, in the courts, a perpetrator of sex acts against young altar boys.

What about the kind, well-educated, respected businessman who, when he drank too much, brutally beat his wife and children into senselessness?

And, scroll way back to the 19th century, to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War:
What about the Radical Republicans who sheltered and cared for fugitive slaves on their pre-war journeys to safety in Canada, then after the war legislated the starvation of women, children, and old men of the South, white and black?

I could go on and on, as could you.

These ambiguities and these people who commit both good and evil deeds--they are everywhere, as they have always been.

I will continue with Schlink:
"I remember the nights I worked in a factory as a student in the 1960s...My impressions of my fellow workers, who had all fought in the Second World War, were always as nice, decent, and helpful people. But in the hours between two and five am they sometimes talked about the war and where, when, how and in what capacity they had been involved. They didn't talk in detail, but it was very clear that some had been involved in evil things that they could neither forget nor repress..."

The finishing piece I was too tired and too harried by dinner prep to write last evening:
So what is my point, you may well be asking?

My point is that this duality, this good and evil, which so often travels together, can exist in each country, each society, each group, each religion, and, yes, I may go so far as to say, in each person. And believe me, this is no apology for a country that commits genocide and/or inflicts a catastrophic war on the world. Far from it!  And from my reading of Schlink--his speeches, his interviews, his entire ouevre--he would be the first to declare this fact, and indeed he has, many times. He makes no apology for German atrocities, even though his experiences have shown him how multi-faceted and how intricately complex the conflicting moral issues can be--in one family, in an individual, in one group.

So what about good people? Good people struggle against the darkness within themselves, their society, and their country. They are not silent when they see injustice. They are not too busy to act when they see it. But how many of us are entirely good?

I now believe that one of the chief reasons why I feel a special kinship or resonance with Schlink's work is that my life as an American, as a white person, as an historian, and as a person who grew up in a family where this duality was everpresent, has made me seek out a writer who dissects and then scrutinizes these complexities.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Schlink Link--A Key to Understanding

Please also check my earlier entry today, right below this one! Reviews from participants in Schlink Week!

For Schlink Week, I've been reading, among other things, his nonfiction book Guilt about the Past, which is an edited collection of the six lectures he gave at Oxford in 2007. I find the collection impossible to categorize: it's philosophy, history, and law, I suppose, interpreted through Schlink's very personal, distinctive lens. And to be more specific, it is a moral discourse on collective guilt vs. individual responsibility. 

The essay I found most compelling and pertinent to understanding Schlink's oeuvre is the final and briefest lecture, "Stories about the Past," in which Schlink addresses the moral dilemma and burden of writers who set their novels in a disturbing, traumatic, hideous (?) historical past. As an unpublished writer of historical fiction about traumatic national pasts, I agree with some points, but vehemently disagree with others. Nevertheless, my disagreements with Schlink's philosophy about writing about the historical past do not extend to his novels. I get them. I get them, I believe, because since childhood, I've been weighed down with survivor's guilt.

Let me pass this along: Yesterday I managed to connect to an online version of the book through, which allowed me to access this final chapter, through ebrary, but alas, only two pages of it. Google phrase: Guilt about the Past Schlink online. Then click on "ebrary." They will allow you to see two pages of that final chapter.

Of course, two pages is just a tease. I will try to quote from it tomorrow.

Schlink Week: Readers' Reviews Abound

Forgive me for having a tongue-tied morning, or finger-tied in the blogging sense. Words are absent from my head this morning!

Yet I do want to direct readers to a number of new book reviews and commentary concerning Bernhard Schlink.

Katrina of Pining for the West has reviewed and offered thought-provoking commentary on The Homecoming. I can't wait to respond to it.

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat has reviewed The Weekend.

And Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life has reviewed the new short story collection, Summer Lies.

I'm returning later today to reply to all comments! Hopefully my cerebral matter will have improved its functioning by then.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Summer Lies & Other Schlink Tales

Thank you, Stu Allen, of Winston's Dad, for your review of Summer Lies, Bernhard Schlink's 2012 collection of short stories. Of all the bloggers I know, Stu's reviews reach to every corner of the globe, including countries that are not yet recognized for their literature and that have not cultivated and supported their writers. I'm thinking of Montenegro and other Balkan countries, tiny African nations, and remote South American societies.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bernhard Schlink Week Begins Sunday: November 11-17

Tonight I'm jumping in to Bernhard Schlink Week, which begins right here at Reader in the Wilderness starting on Sunday, November 11 (tomorrow), right through Saturday, November 17.

There is still time for everyone to contribute their reviews, comments, thoughts, and whatever you want to say about Schlink and his oeuvre.

I truly hope you will feel completely free to participate, whether you are currently reading or have read one or more of Schlink's novels or volumes of short stories in the past. If you haven't read a Schlink work recently, it makes no difference, you may comment as much as you like. I'm hoping that readers will PLUNGE in with their innermost thoughts about Schlink, whatever they may be.

When I read several of the stories in Summer Lies, Schlink's most recently published collection of short stories, I noticed a lighter tone and a distinct change in setting. Although Schlink does not reveal the locations, several stories seemed to me to be set in the Northeast (U.S.). Schlink has stated that he splits his time now between Germany and New York City. Yet a journalist recently reported that he was speaking with Schlink at "his home" in "The Berkshires" in Massachusetts. The beautiful Berkshires are located in western Massachusetts and are a sought-after second-home and vacation spot for New Yorkers (although not for Bostonians who prefer the Atlantic coastline, New Hampshire, and Vermont for their getaways). I'm not certain, of course, but it seems to me that Schlink is currently spending the majority of his time in the U.S.  Why have I bothered you with this trivia? I have one question: Why is he spending so much time here? To achieve psychic distance?

Katrina of "Pining for the West", months ago, forwarded to me an article published in The Guardian, "Bernhard Schlink: Being German is a Huge Burden" , an in-depth look at some of the themes and moral forces fuelingn Schlink's literature.

More to come!!