This is my review of The Woman on the Stairs by Bernard Schlink.
A lawyer by training, most famous for his novel “The Reader”, Bernard Schlink has a direct, analytical approach to fiction which sometimes seems dry, but can be moving and insightful in its precise, pared style. This novel is apparently inspired by Gerhard Richter’s blurred painting, “Ema” (Nude on a Staircase), based on a photograph of his wife.
A successful German lawyer in late middle-age, the anonymous narrator describes how he came across a familiar painting in a Sydney art gallery: “Woman on Staircase” is the nude portrait made years ago by the now famous Karl Schwind of Irene, when married to the wealthy entrepreneur, Peter Gundlach. The lawyer recalls how, years before, he became embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute, in which the manipulative Gundlach ensnares Schwind in a kind of groundhog day situation, in which he damages the painting in order to summon Schwind to repair it. This is part of a tortuous plan to persuade Schwind to exchange the painting he is desperate to regain for Irene who has left her husband for him.
This intriguing scenario gradually shifts into the serious themes Schlink is perpetually drawn to exploring. It seems he cannot relinquish the troubling question of how, having inherited the moral burden of collective guilt, suffered the pressures of a divided country, Germans should now live. Has the narrator followed false values in pursuing a well-paid career and material comforts? Irene’s desire to break away from being a trophy wife or an ambitious painter’s muse, limited to exploiting her sexual attractiveness, has led her to spend years caring for troubled children, but has she also at one time been caught up in a Baader-Meinhof type terrorist movement? This aspect of the book seems somewhat unsatisfactory because it is underdeveloped.
Schlink also explores at length how with age, we reflect on the past, imagining what might have been, regretting past actions or gaps in our recollection, with belated understanding or self-delusion in distorted memories. The narrator appears to have fallen in love with the idea of Irene rather than the woman himself, whom he does not really know, yet when he at last meets up with her in later years their relationship becomes a vehicle to reveal the price he has paid for his highly controlled and repressed emotions, the product of his upbringing.
I read this novel in a single day, initially finding it a page-turner, but was disappointed that it seems to lose dramatic drive, with the final “Part Three” rather tedious in its lengthy portrayal of the narrator in the, for him, unfamiliar role of caring for Irene in her illness, although I can see that it is probably very realistic. The book builds up to a satisfactory conclusion, but I was left with the sense that a potentially unusual and thought-provoking story has somehow misfired, either through a weakness in the translation, which seemed good at first, or through an uneven development of the wide range of ideas touched upon.