Critics of Bernhard Schlink's bestselling "The Reader" accused it of being an apology for Nazi evil. His new novel covers many of the same themes, but takes pains to distinguish right from wrongby Philip Oltermann / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99
Back in 1995, Bernhard Schlink published a little novel that was highly successful and highly controversial. The Reader told the story of a 15-year-old boy who starts a sexual relationship with a woman more than twice his age. In secret, they establish an after-school ritual that involves bathing each other, making love and him reading her stories. One day the woman vanishes. Years later, the boy—now a law student—discovers that his former lover used to be a guard in a concentration camp. When she is imprisoned for life, they resume their relationship in an indirect way—he records himself reading stories and posts the tapes to her.
The Reader, translated into English, became the first German novel to reach the top spot in the New York Times bestseller list and did well in Britain too; it is currently being turned into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. But it was hated with as much passion as it was loved. In a stinging attack in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Jeremy Adler condemned Schlink’s “cultural pornography”: The Reader, he said, let the real war criminals off the hook and offered little more than a sentimental tale about the redemptive power of literature in return. Frederic Raphael’s verdict (Prospect, March 1998) was even more damning. In an article called “Judge not?” he decried the culture industry’s new moral nihilism: “No one could recommend The Reader without having a tin ear for fiction and a blind eye for evil.”
Perhaps the criticism hit home. For almost ten years, Schlink went back to his main jobs: lecturing as a law professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin and continuing his series of crime novels about private eye Gerhard Selbs (which sell well but get scrutinised less closely). Now he is back with a new “serious” novel, Homecoming, and on reading it, one senses that Schlink still can’t get those reviews out of his head.
Initially, the novel comes across as a sort of mini-Reader, with only minor variations. Again, we have a boy-narrator growing up in the postwar years. Again, it is through the act of reading that the protagonist finds his life connected to that of the SS generation. Peter Debauer has collected piles of scrap paper while visiting his grandparents in Switzerland over the years—proofs, discarded from his grandparents’ pulp fiction publishing house. One afternoon, he discovers that laid out in the right order, the scraps tell an elliptical but gripping story about a German soldier’s escape from Russian internment and his epic journey back to his beloved: an Odyssey for Nazi nostalgists. Though Debauer recognises the story’s limited literary value, he can’t help becoming obsessed by it.
In Homecoming, the bond between the pre-war and the post-war generations is not erotic, as in The Reader, but paternal: the author of the tattered pages, Debauer realises, could well be his long-lost father. The Odysseyan epic takes a distinctly Oedipal turn. The novel charts how the Nazis bent moral laws out of shape: the Christian “golden rule” which tells us not to do to others what we wouldn’t want to happen to ourselves became the Nazis’ “iron rule,” by which you have the right to inflict upon others what you are willing to inflict upon yourself (“If I am prepared to be killed, I have the right to kill”). If The Reader sentimentalised the power of literature, then Homecoming is at pains to reassert the need for real laws that distinguish between right and wrong.
In the final third of Homecoming, Schlink moves from the “iron rule” to what could be called an “ironic rule.” He demonstrates the dangers of “deconstructivist legal theory”—where law is nothing but text, and questions of guilt and judgement little more than a footnote. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but it’s hard not to notice a similarity between the surname of Schlink’s protagonist and that of the late antisemite-turned-deconstructionist Paul de Man. Far from providing more ammunition for critics like Raphael, we suddenly find Schlink and his critics shoulder to shoulder, firing at the same targets.
Homecoming should be the sort of book reviewers love to hate. It ticks several negative boxes. It is a follow-up to a bestseller (cashing in) which picks up some of the themes of the previous work (unoriginal) in a contemporary historical setting (zeitgeisty) and draws parallels with classic narratives (know-it-all), all the time remembering to tell a story (populist). In truth, Schlink does all those things, and rather well at that. It’s the sort of book you think you have figured out at the end of each chapter, and then the next starts, and you realise you haven’t. Anyone with an ear for fiction and a eye for evil should read it.