Thursday, February 24, 2011


Bernhard Schlink's compelling novel works on many levels.

It is a love story, where the narrator, Peter Debauer, and his love, Barbara, look for happiness in the routine of cohabitation and find it hard to maintain.

It is a philosophical novel, exploring ideas on governance in society and debating concepts like "the Odyssey of law" and deconstructionist theory.

Above all, it is a novel, like Schlink's The Reader (which I haven't read but know only from the movie that won Kate Winslet her Oscar), that delves into the long-lasting impact of the war on German society. The catastrophic disruption of World War II has an aftermath of displacement and deception that lasts till today.

This is what has the most appeal to me because, I confess, I do get homesick for Germany from time to time. Tell-tale details about daily life in Germany are sweetly nostalgic for me. And there is Schlink's decidedly German point of view, so that even reading this in English I can almost hear the narrator speaking in German.

There is deception at every level and in every character. The main action of the novel -- Peter's search for his elusive father, long thought (by him) to be dead -- describes the series of deceptions practiced by this man. Peter's mother deceived her son into thinking she was married to his father and he was dead, neither of which was true. His grandparents, we realize in retrospect, played along with this charade. But Peter himself engages in a series of deceptions as he tells himself he is looking for the truth.

Much of this deception has its roots in war crimes, as with the Kate Winslet character in The Reader. Peter's father, it emerges, was at least closely associated with a bona fide war criminal, even if there was no evidence of his own crimes. The crimes of war led to the criminal division of Germany, which created its own set of deceptions. The story is set during the time that the Berlin Wall collapses and Peter inserts himself into the parallel universe that is East Germany, posing as a legal scholar to teach classes in Berlin.

Eventually, Peter's search for his father takes him to New York, where his father has reinvented himself as a professor at Columbia (Schlink coyly does not mention the name of the university, but it is clearly Columbia, right down to meeting in front of the International Affairs building, my home for two years). Peter pretends to be a visiting scholar so he can audit his father's seminar. While America does not share the wartime roots of deception that Germany has, it proves to be a place where deception is not only tolerated, but welcomed.

The novel proceeds in a succession of almost novella-like segments, each one with its own setting and mood that often have little to do with each other. There is the idyllic opening segment of Peter's childhood visits to his grandparents in Switzerland and their mysterious book editing project. It is Peter's fascination with the anonymous author of one of these books that sets him unwittingly on what will be the search for his father. Long excerpts from this book form almost a novella within a novella.

Then there is a segment of his long courtship of Barbara, who he meets while in search of this anonymous author. The charming story of how they fall in love and move in together proceeds along with Peter's increasingly obsessive need to track down this author. It emerges that Barbara, too, has been deceptive, hiding the existence of an absent husband, whose return puts a (temporary) end to their relationship.

The scene shifts to East Berlin after the fall of the Wall and Peter's stint as a teacher (he never completed his dissertation to actually get a degree but no one asked for his academic credentials). Fate played its hand again and Peter is reunited with Barbara, only to leave again to pursue the trail of his father in New York.

John De Baur, as the father is known in New York, is a paragon of intelligence and versatility, brilliantly adept at reinventing himself and invariably successful. His distressed, unacknowledged son is something of a slug by comparison. In New York, the father has a new life, complete with a new family -- a wife younger than Peter and two small children.

Peter stalks his father, attends his seminar, befriends the new family and finally takes part in an exclusive January seminar in the Adirondacks. He tantalizes his father with clues but never reveals his identity. The final novella is the slightly surrealistic story of this seminar in the snowy wilderness of upstate New York.

Homecoming is of course a theme throughout the book. Schlink plays with the metaphor of Odysseus -- his long journey home, his bloody homecoming when he slays Penelope's suitors, and his subsequent departure for new adventures with the uncertain prospect that he will return.

There is the homecoming of Karl, the hero in the pulp fiction novel by the anonymous author that launches Peter's search. Peter comes to see it as paralleling the real homecoming of the author, who he determines is Volker Vonlanden, one of his father's aliases.

But the real coming home is Peter's own, and that is the central narrative of the novel. It is a long journey, replete with adventures like that of Odysseus -- siren calls, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops. Peter lacks the self assurance of either Odysseus or his father and his final homecoming is at least as tentative as theirs.

All in all, an engaging, stimulating read. It makes me think I'd like to back and read The Reader, too, maybe even in German.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Alexander Hamilton

Can the biography of an 18th-century American statesman be a monetary policy tool in 21st-century Europe?

According to a recent report by Wall Street Journal reporter Jon Hilsenrath, the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, has been reading Ron Chernow's biography of the Founding Father who met a premature death in a duel with Aaron Burr. Trichet, according to the report, is especially interested in how Hamilton achieved an historic compromise to have the nascent federal government assume the debt of the states and enable the new nation to move ahead economically. Trichet, of course, is on the firing line as the European Union tries to deal with fiscal difficulties in some of the weaker countries belonging to the joint currency, the euro.

The report prompted me to take the 2004 book off my shelf and start reading it. I've always been a fan of Ron Chernow -- who previously wrote biographies of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller among others -- and fascinated by Hamilton. The 818-page biography is a long-term project, but I want to read more nonfiction anyway and this seems like a great place to start. Chernow has a gift for making his biographies both magisterial in their authority and compellingly readable -- once again confirmed in the early pages of his Alexander Hamilton.

Not sure when I'll get to the chapter about the federal government assuming states' debts. Who knows, maybe it would be a useful historical precedent for the early 21st-century United States as well as for Europe. In any case, I hope to finish this book sometime before David Stewart's biography of Aaron Burr, American Emperor, comes out in October!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Sultan's Seal

Jenny White's well-written novel set in the waning Ottoman empire falls somewhat short of its literary ambitions but is a worthwhile read nonetheless.

She attempts not one but four literary artifices that I generally don't care for. The main narrative is in the present tense; hard to do, not sure why anyone tries. She shifts from third-person narrative to first-person narrative (in past tense); always jarring. She intersperses that with yet another first-person, epistolary narrative. All this makes a woman writing about a male character the least of her offenses.

While the writing itself is of a very high quality, all this jumping around makes the narrative jerky and sometimes confusing.

I read this to sample another Ottoman murder mystery written by someone besides Jason Goodwin in preparation for reviewing Goodwin's new novel for Washington Independent Review of Books. While Goodwin's Yashim is set in the 1830s, White's Kamil Pasha is set in the 1880s. The half-century time difference permits Goodwin to keep much more of the Oriental exoticism. Yashim dresses in robes and turban, while Kamil wears a coat and fez. Goodwin manages some scenes in Topkapi palace while White must move on the newer, less exotic palaces.

Both writers, however, glory in the charm of Istanbul and the wonders of the Ottoman culture. White's language is even more elegant and powerful in rendering this other time and place.

But I have some other criticisms of this book. Kamil Pasha, unlike Yashim, is not a eunuch, and yet is not particularly virile or convincing as a male character. This book dwells far too long on an incipient romance between Kamil and the daughter of the English ambassador in ways that neither move the plot along or really give us more depth of character. As a result, important allies or would-be allies of magistrate Kamil, the police surgeon and the daughter's American cousin, get short shrift and are never satisfactorily developed for the roles they play. The overlapping, jumbled narratives leave us wondering about motivation, and at the end of the book it's fair to say the reader is not really sure who killed whom or why.

White has since produced two more Kamil Pasha novels and presumably has overcome some of these first-novel jitters. If I do go on to read the subsequent novels, though, it will be for her lyrical descriptions of this period rather than any love for Kamil Pasha.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Awakening

The John Goodman character in "Treme," a university professor despairing at the irreparable damage Katrina has done to the delicate web of New Orleans culture, talks at some length in a classroom scene about Kate Chopin's novel, emphasizing, if memory serves me, the impact of The Awakening on contemporary readers.

The novel's theme of an individual woman's, or person's, "awakening" and self-realization are timeless. That its consequences in terms of her behavior were scandalous at the turn of the 20th century is interesting for the student of literature, but for us simple readers it is really more a question of how Edna Pontellier's change in attitude made it, in the end, impossible for her to live in the bourgeois society of New Orleans' upper class.

I had gathered from the Goodman character's remarks in Treme that she was ostracized from society for her behavior, but it never comes to that. Her departure is more final, and precedes a full-blown scandal.

Even with this dark, brooding side, the novel is completely charming for the contemporary reader. The view of an exotic Creole society -- apparently Chopin's stock in trade for her contemporary readers -- is as enchanting now as then, perhaps more so because it has truly vanished.

The vivid and lovely descriptions of summer on the Grand Isle and much of the life back in the city do transport the reader to another time and place. The author exploits her lush setting to the hilt: "She went and stood at an open window and looked out upon the deep tangle of the garden below. All the mystery and witchery of the night seemed to have gathered there amid the perfumes and the dusky and tortuous outlines of flowers and foliage."

The view of Edna's inner life, the struggle there, are lyrically described: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested."

Edna's husband is cold and detached, but not unsympathetic. When Edna, in an early sign of rebellion, refuses to come to bed but remains outside one evening, he plants himself possessively near her and smokes cigars until the chill drives her in. When she takes advantage of his extended business trip to move out of their house into a place of her own nearby, he immediately sends workmen into the abandoned house to begin a major renovation that offers an explanation for her move that avoids scandal.

Edna's would-be lovers, Robert and Alcee, are young and callow. Her women friends reflect each one the complex motives roiling her soul -- except none betray the passion that Edna feels rising in her.

A wry humor and gentle irony also ripple through the narrative. Mademoiselle Reisz, a spinster pianist with an enigmatic connection to Edna, is also a figure of fun with a bouquet of violets in her hair and a pile of cushions on her dinner seat.

Edna's yearning for freedom is poignant. Other characters point out its childish and selfish nature, but that makes Edna no less sympathetic to the reader. And so her trip back out to Grand Isle and her long swim in the Gulf are immeasurably sad.