As Bernhard Schlink’s new novel The Woman on the Stairs opens, an unnamed German lawyer views a painting titled ‘Woman on the Staircase’ in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In the novel it is attributed to the painter Karl Schwind. Thought to be lost, the painting has an intimate connection to the lawyer’s past and this coincidence provides the novel its scaffolding.
The painting is actually Gerhard Richter’s photo-realist painting ‘Ema (Nude on a Staircase)’. A large format photograph of the original painting, one of an edition of twelve, is owned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Richter’s painting is itself an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, one of the canonical images of modernism. Where Duchamp’s painting assembles a series of abstract shapes to convey the notion of movement, Richter’s painting is sensual, even classical in style. Unlike Duchamp, Richter depicts the woman in the stillness of a moment, a theme Schlink echoes in his novel, as his protagonist finds himself in a rare lull. In an author’s note, Schlink notes that though the canvas in the novel is Richter’s, the artist Karl Schwind is ‘purely fictional’, and so too are the circumstances of its acquisition.
The lawyer, who is in Sydney to handle the German component of a corporate acquisition, delays his return flight to uncover the identity of the painting’s anonymous donor. Schlink’s protagonist and narrator is never named, appropriately, since he is curiously blank himself. He has devoted himself to his career as a corporate lawyer. Now a senior partner at his firm, he lives a comfortable existence in Frankfurt. Mergers and acquisitions are what he is good at, he tells us ‘the years themselves had become a ritual faithfully adhered to, case by case, client by client, contract by contract.’ Lawyers, judges and legal scholars populate Schlink’s fictions, vessels for the author’s preoccupation with moral and ethical dilemmas.
In a series of flashbacks we learn that as a young lawyer the narrator represented Schwind in a disagreement with the wealthy businessman Peter Gundlach, who commissioned the painting. The painting becomes repeatedly damaged and via the lawyer, Schwind asserts his right to restore it. The subject of the painting is Gundlach’s wife Irene, who left her husband for Schwind; Gundlach sabotages the painting as means of retaliation. Convinced of his own genius, Schwind declares that the painting will one day ‘hang in the Louvre, or the Met, or the Hermitage’. He wants it back. Gundlach suggests the lawyer draw up a contract requiring the return of the painting to Schwind in exchange for the return of his wife. Though the lawyer obliges, he alerts Irene to the arrangement. In the meantime he too becomes infatuated with Irene and colludes with her in deceiving both Gundlach and Schwind to steal the painting. Irene double-crosses him and he doesn’t hear from her — until he comes across the painting in Sydney more than four decades later. The lawyer stays in Sydney and enlists a private investigator to find Irene, who turns out to be living in a secluded coastal location north of Sydney under the pseudonym ‘Irene Adler’ (a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’).
Described this way, with its love triangle and accumulating deceits, The Woman on the Stairs sounds like melodrama and yet these early machinations are misleading. The bulk of the novel deals with a quieter issue about the importance of feeling over thinking and the painting’s significance becomes thematic.
The painting, now worth millions, lures Gundlach and Schwind to Irene’s secluded location; Gundlach arrives by helicopter, Schwind by boat. The lawyer’s presence is incidental and yet, after Gundlach and Schwind have converged and departed, the novel abides with Irene and the lawyer. In the final section, we discover Irene is critically ill. The lawyer remains to care for her, despite his lifelong disdain for neediness in others. He tells us,
…again and again I have difficulty understanding why people become emotional in difficult situations instead of solving the problem rationally…
At another point, he observes, ‘Crying: that cheap trick women use to put us in the wrong.’ Such statements are symptomatic of the lawyer’s withdrawn emotional state. In fact, the encounter with Irene in his early years as a lawyer was the only occasion he ever acted on impulse. We discover that the lawyer’s marriage was more practical alliance than romance. He was the financial provider, his wife raised their children. In an offhand way, he recalls the death of his wife,
It’s ten years since she died, and to this day, I do not understand how, in early afternoon, she could have had a blood alcohol concentration of .16 and driven off a country road into a tree.
His wife rarely drank and his estranged children hold him responsible. His career did not skip a beat.
Schlink has never been a particularly descriptive writer. The force of his prose has always been its plainness. His fiction is characterised by a lawyer’s skill for precision: embellished details are rare, imagery minimal. Sentences accumulate with an unnerving directness, like clauses in a contract. This simplicity is generally appropriate in Schlink’s fiction, because his books are concerned with knowledge and ignorance about the past, and the attendant culpabilities for those states of mind. The subtleties of these dilemmas would be lost if Schlink did not write in such direct prose. Take this sentence from his short story ‘Girl with Lizard’, published in his 2002 collection Flights of Love:
The boy noticed that his parents seemed uncertain; they wanted to find their way into their new world without denying the old, and acted either too cool or too intimate.
Here Schlink tells us what a reader might have gleaned from the description of a few choice interactions. But the point in ‘Girl with Lizard’ is the boy’s inchoate awareness of his parents’ collusion with the Third Reich. The story’s title refers to a painting the family acquired as a result of his father’s position as a judge; the boy’s love of the painting makes him feel complicit to his father’s crimes.
The Woman on the Stairs differs from much of Schlink’s earlier fiction in the extent to which he has his protagonist describe the landscape. After concluding negotiations for the merger in Sydney, the protagonist has a rare moment of downtime, something he’s not entirely comfortable with. He eats lunch in the Botanic Gardens and sees Carmen. He tells us,
I like the Botanic Garden, its Art Gallery, its Conservatory, the way it is bordered by a cathedral on the north, the Opera House on the South – its hills with their view onto the bay.
This description is scrupulous in geographic accuracy, situating the protagonist in relation to the city’s main attractions. It continues,
It has a palm garden, a herb garden and a rose garden; ponds, arbours, statues; many lawns with huge trees; grandparents with grandchildren; lonely men and women with their dogs; picnickers, lovers, people reading, people napping. On the veranda of the restaurant in the middle of the Garden, time stands still: old iron columns, an old cast-iron railing, trees filled with fruit bats, a fountain full of colourful birds with long, curved beaks.
Description by list is a stylistic trait for Schlink, but this passage is curiously devoid of botanical detail. Not a single plant, tree or flower is described in detail. In fact, apart from the fruit bats, there are very few particulars to identify this city as Sydney. The technique shows us the degree to which the lawyer is disengaged from the natural world.
The lawyer describes the harbour after taking a trip to the Heads:
The ferry went past a small island, fortified long ago for an imaginary war with some imaginary enemy, past rusty, gray, bobbing warships, past waterfront houses where life was cheerful and light, past woods, a swimming beach here and there, and a marina.
Sydney Harbour is recognisable, the island is presumably Fort Denison. Yet, the details are vague: not a single house, person, or boat is given intimate description. For an international reader these descriptions might evoke the city as an abstract concept but not as an inhabited space. Schlink’s lawyer visits Sydney as a tourist and like the eye of a tourist his descriptions glide across the city’s surface. Even though this superficial view fits with the lawyer’s character, the lack of specific detail is jarring to a reader familiar with the city.
For a different literary tourist’s view of Sydney, it’s worth comparing Schlink’s prose to this description of the city in the novel Tom Is Dead, by French writer Marie Darrieusecq:
A morning sea, deserted and relaxing. Blue, yellow, white. A big fresh breath.
Shortly after, city people in fluorescent bathing costumes run along the promenade and, on the beach, creatures in Zen clothing do tai chi like herons. And behind the hill, Sydney – I can’t see it, but I sense it, like a great mass that governs gravity, the hot, heavy spot around which space revolves. Skyscrapers, harbour, Opera House, suburbs.
Darrieussecq’s narrator gathers arresting details – her city throbs whereas the lawyer gives us only outlines. The ‘big fresh breath’ of the ocean reflects the protagonist’s state of mind, who has recently immigrated with her family. Darrieussecq’s Sydney becomes a container for her protagonist’s grief – her four-year-old son dies suddenly soon after her family’s arrival. Her fractured relationship with the city echoes the discontinuity brought about by her extreme grief.
Schlink is a very different stylist to Darriessecq, but Tom is Dead nonetheless provides a useful counterpoint to The Woman on the Stairs insofar as it depicts the estrangement of a foreigner in a new city and shows that the tourist’s gaze need not be superficial. In Tom is Dead, the descriptions of place allow us to share the dislocation of being in a new and unfamiliar environment; in The Woman on the Stairs rather than feeling the lawyer’s detachment from the place, it is his detachment that prevails. Schlink’s descriptions tend to lack the details that allow readers to get a visual hold on his scenes. Only very occasionally we do get a sense of Schlink’s protagonist inhabiting the city, for example a hail storm.
The air chilled and then ice burst from the sky, hailstones that pounded the roof of the entrance, as if wanting to shatter it. I stepped back into the lobby and watched the hail cover the square, a vibrating layer of white.
There is a sudden vividness here — and the strange contradiction of ice amid heat hints toward at the narrator’s emotional state.
The lawyer makes his way north to find Irene. The fictional Rock Harbour liberates Schlink from any obligation to a specific location. It might be somewhere in the region of Forster, Taree or Port Macquarie. The town is described as follows,
Rock Harbour had four streets, a small harbour with a few yachts and boats, a shop with a café and a postal counter, a real-estate agency, and an iron soldier on a stone pedestal, commemorating those who fell in the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War.
That the lawyer singles out this monument is curious, given Australia’s lack of history is part of its appeal, both to him, and to Schlink. Later he reflects on Australia’s ‘short’ history:
…the convicts in chains, the settlers, the land grant companies, the gold miners, the Chinese. The Aborigines who died 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.
This cursory summary of a deeply troubling and contested history seems insensitive and offhand. Later, the lawyer describes a boy ‘with dark skin and short hair, a broad nose and wide mouth’ and his eyes ‘deep set’. It is obviously intended to evoke a foreigner’s notion of Aboriginality, though we are never told so directly. These clumsy passages point not just to the lawyer’s lack of familiarity with his surroundings, but to Schlink’s with his Australian subject matter.
The landscape of Rock Harbour is described with the broadest of strokes:
To the west, the mountains were covered in brush and scrub, straight trees and bowed trees. The upright trees had pale, barkless trunks, as if naked or sick. The sea lay to the east, beyond two mountain ridges.
Such empty description is abundant in The Woman on the Stairs and it adds little to the characterisation of the lawyer. The prose comes to life when the lawyer interacts with Rock Harbour’s inhabitants. He asks after Irene:
‘A man with white skin, white hair and pink eyes who sat by the counter lay down his book and stood up. Eye-reen? His way of saying her name was not mine: in German it was three short syllables, three bright vowels, three notes of a waltz – a name meant to be sung, to be danced to. For me, ‘Eye-reen’ sounded stretched out like chewed gum.’
There is a hint of comedy here: European condescension and the parochial Aussie who can’t comprehend anything other than an English pronunciation of a word. Schlink demonstrates a linguistic precision his visual observations lack; in this brief exchange, he has demonstrated the small town’s inability to conceive of a world beyond its own edges.
Schlink has never particularly been a writer of place. In Homecoming his protagonist, Peter, is a West German born son of a Swiss man who works in East Germany before reunification and moves to New York towards the end of the book, locations are psychic spaces. In Switzerland where, as a young boy Peter spent his summers with his grandparents, his easy existence reflects a freedom from a difficult past, while in East Germany the protagonist is aware of a pervading bureaucratic menace. Landscape accounts for little – in New York landmarks are occasionally offered as incidental reference points. Nonetheless, Homecoming is a compelling portrait of a man wrestling with his identity as the truth of his personal history is uncovered and his understanding of how he fits into the past recalibrated.
In The Reader, the descriptions of Berlin, when they are offered, tend to be of buildings, but then, buildings are significant to Berlin, because Berlin is a city built over and around its history. In the opening pages, the narrator contrasts the old building that Hanna lived in with the new building that replaced it, whose ‘smooth facade is an expanse of pale plaster.’ Schlink’s descriptions offer only a passing impression of the landscape, because they are secondary to his character’s states of mind.
The Woman on the Stairs is not an examination of emotional inheritance as is Homecoming, nor intergenerational guilt like The Reader. Rather, it is the story of one individual’s struggle to feel the losses and trauma he has experienced in his life. The narrator’s psychological state is one of arrested development because he wilfully avoids confronting the past. If the particulars of the Australian landscape are not what is significant to the novel, why did Schlink set it here? The answer, I think, has to do with its physical and psychological distance from Germany and moreover, its distance from history. Within Europe, Germany and its people are defined by a particular set of historical relations, reinforced by geographic context. By sending his lawyer to Sydney, Schlink attempts to remove his protagonist from the legacy of German history —but it may be that his readers have difficulty detaching this context from Schlink.
Both Schlink, who was born in 1944, and his narrator belong to the generation of Kriegskinder – those Germans who were children during the war and therefore lacked agency, but who lived through and were defined by its aftermath. The generation who repeatedly discovered their parents and families, the people they loved and trusted, were responsible for unspeakable crimes. As Schlink told The Guardian in a 2012 interview, he has often experienced his Germanness as a ‘huge burden’ and this ambivalent relationship with his country’s history has been the driving undercurrent of his fiction. Schlink’s most famous work The Reader, now more than twenty years old, dramatises the Kriegskinder dilemma. Hanna’s silence about her crime represents more broadly the silence of her generation and Michael’s affair with her, the conflicted emotions involved in calling that generation to account.
That Irene has left behind a complex past is plain, and it becomes apparent that she is trying to atone for that past. She is compassionate in the way the lawyer is not: she cares for orphaned children in Rock Harbour and provides medical assistance to an aging couple who live nearby. We learn from Gundlach that Irene fled West Germany for the East after her alleged involvement in a terrorist incident. A photograph of her, with dyed hair and sunglasses, was circulated on wanted posters. Irene tells the lawyer she lived in East Germany under a false name and left for Australia as soon as the wall fell. Her crime is never named and the lawyer never asks.
Although Schlink doesn’t name Irene’s crimes, he intimates that they are tangled up in Germany’s turbulent history. When Schwind and Irene first visit the lawyer, Schlink writes that Schwind ‘looked like a 1968 hippie’. There is nothing incidental about that year – it was a year that civil unrest rocked Germany, as students revolted against the patriarchal structures that governed society. In part, those protests were directed at the silence of older generations about the crimes of the past and the fact that those with links to the Nazi party continued to hold positions of power. The lawyer refused to become involved in the protests, following his life’s guiding principles of detachment and self-interest. In order to protect the reputation of his law firm, he didn’t help a school friend who was charged with inciting a riot and ultimately received a custodial sentence.
In a recent article in The New Yorker titled ‘Ghost Stories’ Burkhard Bilger wrote about the practice known in Germany as the Familienaufstellung, or family constellation. The Familienaufstellung is intended to provide a forum to enable participants to process their trauma about the past, by taking turns ‘acting out’ their dead relatives involvement in the war. Bilger writes,
When you’re haunted by an ancestor’s past, you want nothing more than to hear him confess his sins – to condemn or forgive him once and for all and then banish his ghosts to history. But it’s rarely that simple.
The process is particularly popular amongst Kriegskinder. Bilger observes,
Germans now suffer post-traumatic stress at more than three times the rate of the Swiss across the border, and many Kriegskinder have ‘limited psychic latitude’ as German psychologists put it. They avoid change and hold tight to their security.
Schlink’s narrator is the very embodiment of this ‘limited psychic latitude’. He brushes off the death of his wife. Towards the end of the book he tells us about his mother, who died in similar circumstances to his wife. There are generational echoes that he is unable to recognise. His life has been safe because he has protected his economic stability at the expense of emotional fulfilment.
In the novel’s second, quieter half, the lawyer cares for Irene, nursing her through her illness and listening to her final reflections on life. He tells her stories about the future they might have shared had they eloped together when the painting disappeared. His imagined landscapes in those stories are more vivid than his depictions of the places he has just visited. In caring for another person for the first time in his life, the lawyer finds a way of acting out his own grief for the loss of his wife and mother, and in doing so, he changes, or so we are asked to believe. The novel’s dramatic climax involves a bushfire in which the lawyer’s passport, credit cards and money are burnt, a conflagration that suggests a symbolic break with the man he once was.
Schlink has written about the legacy of twentieth-century German history in his book of essays, Guilt About the Past. In it, he considers the experience of Germans’ feelings of guilt about the Holocaust and their longing to be free of their guilt, an experience that is peculiarly German. Schlink writes,
Detraumatisation is the process of becoming able to both remember and forget; it is leaving the past in the past, in a way that embraces remembrance as well as forgetting.
Schlink argues this psychological process is also applicable at a national level. In The Woman on the Stairs he’s given us a character who wants to ‘detraumatise’ without confronting the painful past, or examining his role in it.
At the novel’s conclusion the lawyer tells us that if asked, he wouldn’t have answers to his outstanding questions, about Irene’s past, nor his own. The rebuttal he offers is, ‘But what did that matter?’ In view of his long career prosecuting the other side of this case, it’s clear that Schlink doesn’t believe that understanding the past is only a minor matter — so why is his narrator so offhand, and so able to unburden himself of the past? The key distinction between The Woman on the Stairs and Schlink’s earlier fiction is that the past acted on those characters in ways that were hidden to them, but drawn out through the narrative. Here, an unspoken past acts on the protagonist and the narrative asks us to believe that his conversion to a man of empathy occurs without any direct confrontation with his personal and national history.
The novel doesn’t return in any meaningful way to the painting that gives it its name, but perhaps it ought to have done so. The difference between the Duchamp painting and Richter’s is that Duchamp’s tells us something about movement, whereas Richter’s gives us an insight into its individual subject. Schlink’s novel falls somewhere between the two. For all its assertion of stillness, The Woman on the Stairs leaves us with the feeling that we have been ushered to a destination, without being given much insight into the journey that was made.
Marie Darrieusecq, Tom Is Dead, Text 2009.
Bernhard Schlink (trans Woods J), Flights of Love, Orion Books, 2002.
Bernhard Schlink (trans Hein M), Homecoming, Phoenix, 2008.
Bernhard Schlink (trans Janeway C), The Reader, Vintage 1997.