Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 14, 2017

The Woman on the Stairs, by Bernard Schlink, translated by Joyce Hackett & Bradley Schmidt #BookReview

the-woman-on-the-stairs

It’s been ages since I read anything by German author Bernard Schlink.  Like everyone else I read The Reader when it was published in 1995 and was impressed, and then (although he published other things in between) wasn’t very excited about Homecoming (2006).  And now I’m not very excited about The Woman on the Stairs… unless…

Unless this rather slight, rather dull, and rather implausible story is a metaphor for something else.  It’s quite possible I’m seeing something that isn’t there out of a desire to make more of the book than it deserves, but bear with me…

At surface level, the book is about three men and a woman who come together to reflect on what they’ve made of their lives.  It begins with a German lawyer’s chance discovery of a painting in the Art Gallery in Sydney, a painting of a woman who used him to play off between two other men who both wanted her and the painting.  The rich Frankfurt businessman who commissioned the painting of his wife wants her back when she goes off with the painter because he is the sort of man who thinks a woman is his property, and the painter wants his painting back because he’s the kind of man who obsesses about the things he’s created.  The lawyer, then a young man, is hired to sort out the matter, and he falls for the woman too and – uncharacteristically for such a law-abiding, pompous and professionally respectable person – gets involved in her heist of the painting.  All this comes together when she manipulates the situation so that they all turn up in Australia to confront each other.

(Here is the place BTW to say that I wish when authors lob into Australia to set their books here, that they would – out of respect and courtesy – do some rudimentary homework.

#1 The narrator reads a history of Australia to while away the hours and to familiarise himself with our country:

I read about the history of Australia, the convicts in chains, the settlers, the land grant companies, the gold miners, the Chinese. The Aborigines who died first from infections, then from being massacred, and then had their children taken away. The taking was well intentioned, it brought tremendous suffering to both parents and children.  (p.38, Italics mine.)

Wrong, Herr Schlink.  ‘Well-intentioned’ is an inappropriate word to use to describe the intention to ‘breed the colour out’ and it is not for you to sanitise our history.

#2 He reads on…

The history of Australia is short, so the book quickly reached the present day. (p.62, again, Italics mine)

Wrong, again.  The human history of Australia began 60,000 years ago.

While I’m digressing from the main game, there is also this extraordinary unchallenged generalisation made by one of the characters when he is talking about how the world hasn’t changed:

“History goes on.  But our world doesn’t change.  Nothing threatens it now, no communism, no fascism, no young people who want to turn it upside down.  Since the end of the Cold War there’s no alternative to our world. Name one country that doesn’t live under the laws of capitalism – even China’s communism is capitalism now. The word of the prophet, for which the Muslims kill and die, is no alternative – it’s a task for the police and the military. (p. 141, again, Italics mine)

This took my breath away.  The Muslims, not ‘extremist Muslims’ or even ‘some Muslims’.  No, by implication, he means all of them.  Is this Schlink’s character being Islamophobic, or is it the author? And no editor or translator picked up this generalisation so unfair and insulting to moderate Muslims who live peaceably among us? Didn’t anybody stop to think that an author from the nation that vilified the Jews as a prelude to the Holocaust ought to choose his words carefully?? No editor suggested that perhaps one of the characters might well have challenged this statement to make it quite clear that it’s the opinion of a bombastic man and not a ‘fact’.

#ShakesHeadInDismay

Anyway…

Once these four characters are together in an isolated spot on the NSW coast, they begin the blame game, and the unnamed narrator starts searching his soul too.  He considers that his part in the heist of the painting is the one exciting thing he’s done in his life.  He’s been very respectable, he’s always done the right thing, but his life has been dull and meaningless.  He’s never taken any risks.  He hasn’t actually achieved anything except to merge companies and to have a family.  And this is where I began to think, could this sense of aggrieved discontent conceivably be a metaphor for postwar, post-Holocaust Germany? Is there a yearning in Germany to slough off its dour, respectable, economy-driven persona and do something interesting even if it’s a bit risky?  *chuckle* Do they perhaps envy France with its risqué presidents, its outrageous flouting of international norms to achieve its nuclear arsenal, its repudiation of multiculturalism and its proud assertion of its Frenchness?  None of this is in the book, I hasten to add, but if The Woman on the Stairs is just a rather clumsy examination of a mid-life crisis, then it’s got nothing much to recommend it at all IMO.

PS In an author note Schlink tells us that a postcard of Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) has been on his desk for many years, but that that the painter and the painting of this novel is purely fictional.

Author: Bernard Schlink
Title: The Woman on the Stairs
Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett & Bradley Schmidt
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, 2016, first published 2014
ISBN: 9781474604994
Review copy courtesy of the publisher


Responses

  1. You are such a perceptive and honest reviewer, Lisa! Well done for picking up the historical inaccuracies, and yes you would have thought a good editor would have picked up the generalisation about Muslims. I’ve read his novel The Weekend and selections of short fiction, plus extracts from Schlink’s non-fiction Guilt About The Past – his exploration of the behaviour of individual Germans and the nation as a whole and the aftermath of WW2 is well worth a read as he wears his philosophical and legal hats and doesn’t shy away from the hard questions or judgements.

    • Yes, I should explore those, it’s a topic that interests me a lot because I see similarities between the way Germans behaved under the Nazis and the way we Australians are sidestepping the issue of the treatment of people in offshore detention.

      • Yes, indeed! I read him because if I’d gone ahead with my PhD to explore how Highlanders (my ancestors in particular) came here after losing their own land and took the land from Aborigines, guilt or lack thereof and all the associated issues very important. My relatives first settled in Warrnambool and reading of the massacres of Aborigines in Victoria it’s hard to believe some were not involved. I know Little Johnny coined the black armband view of history but I believe discovering and acknowledging history is an ongoing necessity to understanding who we are – warts and all.

        • I like to think we’re getting there, little by little.

  2. For all the reasons you spelled out, why cut the author any slack, he’s written an ill-informed book about yet another boring mid life crisis, if he wants to write parables about upright, modern Germany then it’s up to him to make himself clear, not up to the reader to guess.

    • I was interested to see on GR that German readers who have otherwise been fans reckon it’s a weak novel. But I’m not so sure. He’s a major talent, and perhaps it is a parable of sorts.

  3. Your post made me realize I have a huge literary gap when it comes to German authors. I’ve read so few of them. And I am of German heritage… Sounds like this one wasn’t so hot, though.

    • LOL I just looked to see how many I have in my archive, and discovered that they’re dominated by Thomas Mann and Hans Fallada. Hardly anything contemporary.
      And if I look at my German shelves at Goodreads, I find that there are heaps of books on my 1001 Books wishlist to get through, so there is no shortage of well-regarded books to read, though again, since my edition is the 2006 one, the list is dominated by C20th writers.
      But if you look at Stu’s archive at Winston’s Dad, there’s lots of recent books to choose from, see https://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/category/books-from/germany-books-from/

  4. I didn’t care for The Reader that much to be honest

    • I think it was notable because it dealt so honestly with German guilt…

  5. This is how I feel every time I read a novel featuring a journalist that isn’t written by a journalist: they get the gist of it right, but there’s usually a telling detail they missed or something that’s completely wrong which destroys all that precedes it! Do you think it might have been a translation issue?

    Like you I read The Reader when it first came out, but not anything by him since… this doesn’t sound like something that would float my boat, however.

    • I don’t know, I know next to nothing about the German language, I’ve never had any inclination to learn it. But in learning French which is a gendered language, I’ve come across sentences where we in English would omit the definite article and they don’t, so I can see that this might raise difficulties. But translators of contemporary authors have the luxury of being able to *ask*, when you wrote this did you mean this, or that?

  6. I was one who also loved The Reader, but I’ve never found anything of his to match up to it. I read at least two of his “Self” thrillers but they were basically unmemorable. And the sloppiness of this is definitely offputting – thanks for an honest review!

    • Oh, lawyers who write crime fiction, LOL they’re like teachers who write novels set in schools…they live in worlds too small for me.

  7. Thank God – I’m not alone! I found this dull too, and very poorly edited. For example: when the narrator says he loves the botanical garden in Sydney he says it is bordered by a cathedral to the north and by the Opera House to the south. Wrong! It’s the Opera House to the *north*, the cathedral to the *south*. I did finish it, but was very disappointed.

    • I had a little hunt for it on your blog, are you going to do a review of it?

      • Disappointingly, John seems to have stopped reviewing nearly 2 years ago. I’m very cross with him!

        • *chuckle* yes, my question was a little hint. I miss him.

          Talking of absentees, whatever happened to Tom from A Common Reader? I know he decided to take a break to travel, to do grandchildren and to follow his interest in music, but his blog seems to have been hacked by someone who writes inane stuff in Spanish and I can’t locate his old blog or any of the reviews he did. I think I owe him thanks for The Great Swindle, but he has simply vanished into cyberspace.

          • Yes, I miss him too. His reviews were great, and he read a similar range to us. Grr is what I say to him …

            As for Tom, I haven’t looked for his blog since he last posted from it months ago now. He recently popped up on Instagram but that’s just images. Another sad disappearance I agree, but that’s awful if his blog has been hijacked.

            • Yes, it’s a shame.

              • You two! I love the prompting… maybe one day I’ll be back.

                • Tsk tsk, I hope so, but if not, perhaps you might put a note on the blog to say you’re taking a break? People worry that something has happened to you, and they have no way of knowing that you’re alright. (Not us, because *smile*, you drop by and chat on our blogs, but other readers).

                • Ah so you noticed the broad hinting John! Very perceptive! We really do miss you, but also understand if blogging became just too demanding.

  8. I’m originally German and well-meaning friends gifted or lent me copies of two of his Self crime novels, The Reader and this one, since Schlink is also a legal academic, which is what I used to be. I must say I’ve never liked him as an author and this one was even worse than The Reader, including his comments about Aborigines and Muslims. Like you I wondered whether the novel was meant to be a parable of sorts, but couldn’t figure it out…
    But I was disappointed by your comment at the end – “Is there a yearning in Germany to slough off its dour, respectable, economy-driven persona and do something interesting even if it’s a bit risky? *chuckle*” You have such a high reputation as a blogger that I was surprised to see such stereotyping and disdain, I must say.
    BTW, entirely agree with you about the Indie’s short list for fiction – Georgia Blain and Emily McGuire should definitely have been up there!

    • Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend in that way, I hope you have seen my previous comments about Germany being a beacon of light in its current treatment of refugees, and deserving of international admiration for that. I meant it in the context of this book, where the character yearns to do something carefree, risky and irresponsible, even illegal, just for a bit of excitement, and too bad if anybody disapproves. And I remembered thinking when Germany bailed out half of Europe during the GFC that perhaps privately they could have thought, with justification, that it was a bit unfair that they who had been prudent with their economy were having to prop up the Euro for countries who had overspent.

      • I’m only a new subscriber, so no, haven’t seen those. I guess I’m very allergic to stereotypes in general, whether it’s one author standing for all Germans or all Germans wanting the one thing (or Aussies for that matter)

  9. […] And then just a few days ago, John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) commented on Lisa (ANZlitLovers) post on Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, Woman on the stairs. He agreed with Lisa’s criticism of the book, saying: […]


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