Sunday, June 06, 1999

Schlink, Smith, and Berg

I want to do something a little different today. I want to tell you very briefly about three different books—all short, and all well worth reading.

The first is a very current novel by a German author, Bernhard Schlink; the name of the novel is The Reader. Easily readable in a day, this little novel begins innocently enough with the story of a young German boy who is ill with hepatitis. Out of school for awhile but, under the direction of his doctor, told to take daily walks to regain his strength, this young man meets a woman who is more than twice his age who becomes his lover. It would be hard to say who seduces whom, but I found this part of the novel quite touching. The affection between the two seems obvious enough, and although the young man begins to feel some shame about having such an ‘old woman’ as his lover, the relationship between the two is both believable and somehow (to this reader at least) heartwarming.

However, after this more or less happy beginning, the woman disappears quite suddenly, the boy thinking that he has perhaps driven her away as he begins to feel ashamed of her when he is well enough to rejoin his school friends. Many years later, when he is involved in studies for his law degree, he encounters her again under surprising and exceptional circumstances. Along with several other women, his old lover reappears as a defendant in a war-crimes trial, accused not only of having been a guard at one of the concentration camps, but also of being complicit (either by neglect or otherwise) in the deaths of many women prisoners.

The moral dilemmas raised as this trial unwinds are gutwrenching, and not only the moral dilemmas of deciding on the culpability for the deaths of the women prisoners. I won’t say more than this here, because the unwinding of the plot is, in many ways, presented as a mystery. Schlink, himself a judge in Germany, has published mystery novels before this one. Here, he shows himself to be not merely an excellent writer, but also a person very able to handle complicated moral questions. This book was recently highlighted on Oprah’s book club, and should warn those of us who are too quick in rejecting her selections.

The second novel is one that has been out for over a decade and which my students had recommended to me on several different occasions. The author is Lee Smith, and the title is Family Linen. This novel is about the history of a family in a small southern town. A woman, Sybill, who is plagued with headaches that induce long periods of sleeplessness agrees finally to go to a hypnotist after her regular doctor despairs of curing her and suggests that she see a psychiatrist. Her friend, knowing that she does not want to see a psychiatrist, suggests a hypnotist instead.
... she didn’t want to go, both knew, to a psychiatrist. Sybill regarded her unconscious like she regarded the reproductive system, as a messy, murky darkness full of unexplained fluids and longings which she preferred not to know too much about. Except perhaps it was true, as Dr. Rowland apparently believed, that something down in there was out of whack....
And so begins what is a clever and often funny story that is also often profound. Like some of the best of women’s journal novels, this book shows how diving into the dirty linen of a family reveals a lot about the relations between men and women and between parents and children. Using the device of the hypnotist, Smith allows the reader to see the past not only of Sybill, but of her siblings and her parents as well. Though suspicious of the hypnotist at first, she decides that,
All in all he is one of the nicest little men she has ever talked to, a big relief. Usually Sybill doesn’t talk to men at all, or at least not about anything very personal. But Bob [the hypnotist], she can tell, is really interested, as interested as Betty or any one of her women friends. Plus he’s not exactly a man, either, being a hypnotist.
Like the first novel, this one, too, is a bit of a mystery as the past and the plot unfold. And while the humor and the writing make it race along, this little book is one of substance with a lot to tell us about relationships.

Finally, I want to mention another little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled The Pull of the Moon. This book is about a woman who runs away from home, knowing, as so many women seem to discover, that they will never find themselves if they stay in the relationship they are in. The novel is really a series of letters that this woman writes to her husband as she travels around the country in search of herself.

From the beginning, this run-away is astounded by the intimacy that she achieves with other women along the way. None seem very surprised that this adult woman, all of whose children are grown and gone, has run away from home, nor do they argue with her to return. At one point in an early encounter, the woman encounters another who confesses that she, too, runs away from her husband with regularity (though she rarely goes far or for long).
I thought, how can it be that two strangers are exchanging such intimate things? Well, most women are full to the brim, that’s all. That’s what I think. I think we are most of us ready to explode....
And so the reader is treated with just what these women are full to the brim with. It is rich with these conversations between women—conversations about their men, about raising children, about growing old, about life seeming to pass them by. Though not sure at first why she has left, thinking even that her leaving is a kind of suicide, soon she realizes that she is on her own existential quest.
It feels like this is a time for coming into my own. Extraordinary to suddenly think of this as a time for gain. Martin used to say, imitating his funny old grandmother, ‘Oy, I can’t vait to get home and take my goidle off.’ Well, my girdle’s off. Flung into the wind. What a luxury, the feel of one’s true flesh beneath one’s own hand.
My prediction is that with each of these novels you will simply breeze along, having a good time, feeling entertained. And it will only be after you have finished, pausing for a few moments to think about what you have read, that you will realize that you have learned quite a lot along the way.

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