Review: Bernhard Schlink on life, love and duty in ‘Summer Lies’
Pantheon: 240 pp., $25.95
In the summer, it isn’t easy being German.
For a few weeks each year, the famously efficient German work routine grinds to a halt. Relaxation is the order of the day. People bound by blood and marriage spend long, listless hours together — whether they like it or not.
The characters in Bernhard Schlink’s new, revelatory collection of short stories, “Summer Lies,” suffer through the forced intimacy of their family vacations. At beach resorts or lakeside getaway homes, the same complicated questions arise again and again. Do we really love each other? Can I ever love you? Is happiness the same as love? Can I even say the word ‘love’?
“He would tell them that he loved them,” an aging professor decides in the story “The Last Summer” as his wife, children and grandchildren gather around him. “If parents and children in American movies could say such things to one another with ease, then he could too.”
Schlink is best known to American readers for his international bestseller “The Reader,” a novel set in Germany in the decades after World War II and the Holocaust. “The Reader” was an intimate epic about war, love and evil, its wide sweep reaching from Nazi concentration camps to 1960s courtrooms.
The stories in “Summer Lies” tell of Germans living in the present with ordinary if somewhat cerebral lives. They’re all successful professionals. University professors, jurists or writers — all jobs Schlink himself has held over the years.
The best of the seven stories are powerful and deeply moving meditations on family life, love and duty. As in “The Reader,” Schlink and his spare, unassuming prose mask big artistic ambitions — he’s trying to untangle the complicated, contradictory ways Germans of his time have defined success and happiness.
The professor in “The Last Summer” is dying of cancer — and has managed to keep it a secret from everyone who loves him. He stops working, finally, and spends long hours gardening. His grandchildren command his full attention for the first time. But when he apologizes to his wife for a lifetime of emotional distance, she begins to suspect something is amiss.
“What’s going on?” she asks. “If this summer’s right, every previous summer was wrong, and if every previous summer was right, this one’s not.”
Only as he approaches the last decision of his life does the professor realize he has to fully open his heart to the woman who loves him.
These are not easy realizations for the men and women of Schlink’s generation — the “Nachgeborenen,” Bertold Brecht called them, “those who came after” the war. They’ve grown up with the idea of familial love as obligation. You love your children and your spouse because you must. It’s your duty.
The grandmother in “A Journey to the South” — like most of the protagonists in these stories, we never learn her name — remembers her own mother imparting this lesson. “Love isn’t a matter of feeling, it’s a matter of will.” Finally, at another family gathering, the grandmother decides she’s had enough. If love is obligation, she can’t love anymore. She interrupts the neatly choreographed ceremony her children and grandchildren have organized to show her their love and voices her frustrations for the first time.
No one wants to listen. And yet the story moves toward an emotional conclusion. A long-held self-deception is revealed. It’s as tender and deeply moving a celebration of the human spirit at the beginning of the 21st century as anyone might hope to read.
Not all the stories in “Summer Lies” are that successful. The first few describe the kind of love affairs that Chekhov wrote about — romances that begin with a chance summer meeting.
Unfortunately, Schlink’s younger characters lack the expressiveness, the sense of humor and the idiosyncrasies of Chekhov’s Russians — or even of Schlink’s older Germans. And these stories often feel flat and vacant.
As the collection progresses, however, Schlink enters ever-richer emotional territory. The psychic infrastructure of an entire country is gradually revealed, one carefully crafted sentence at a time. Schlink is a subtle writer, and often he accomplishes this goal with the simplest of images.
“The houses were no longer gray, they were white and yellow and ocher, even green and blue,” he writes, describing a woman’s visit to a German town she hasn’t seen in six decades. “Nonetheless, the river flowed through the city just as it had before, the little streets were as narrow, and the path up to the castle as steep…”
The feel of a century of German history is captured in those few sentences. It’s the country that’s been born during the course of Schlink’s lifetime. Once gray and ancient, then pummeled by war and dictatorship, it’s now bathed in ever-more exotic colors and emotions.
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