Image Credit: fantasticfiction
I am not much of a short story person. The only short stories I used to read were the really short ones for children, when I was a kid. When I bought Bernhard Schlink’s Flights of Love last year at a book sale I hadn’t noticed that it was a short story collection. Once I realized it was, I kept putting off reading the book until now. And it turned out that I wasn’t disappointed at all. Here is the summary from the book jacket:
Love as a desire, love as confusion, love as a quick affair, love as a drastic life changing rebellion, love as a force of habit… Bernhard Schlink uses his characteristically unsentimental, elegant and spare prose to unveil characters and relationships haunted by betrayal and guilt. Flights of Love examines the universal human desire to find a lasting, loving relationship, however thwarted that desire ultimately may be.
That description is a very apt summation of the seven stories that make up this book. All of them are different yet similar. The theme of failed marriages, restrained emotions and relationships link all the stories in a well-knit thread. Schlink’s observations of a marriage and understanding of people’s behavior is sharp and very precise. He is not preachy at any point, but merely states what most of us know. In the first story, “Girl with Lizard” the son confronts his mother after he learns a lot of unpleasant facts about his father’s past when he was a German soldier during World War II.
“Why did you stay with Father?”
“What a question.” She shook her head. “For a while you have a choice. Do you want to do this or that, live with this person or that? But one day what is you’re doing and that person have become your life, and to ask why you stick with your life is a rather stupid question.”
Indeed. I guess most marriages become a habit in the long run. All the stories are set in a post-war world and Schlink’s characters are what he calls part of the second generation, those Germans who were children during the war. Schlink shows that though they were not directly part of the war, they are still very much affected by it. The war, including Germany’s own division between the East and West, continue to loom large in the sky like overcast clouds, casting a shadow over their every move. In “The Circumcision” Andi’s bond with Sarah is never smooth due to the fact that Andi is German while Sarah is a Jew. Sarah is touchy about the Holocaust and that many of her family members had suffered in it. Andi’s relatives, especially his uncle is aware of this friction and he insists that what happened in the past should be deleted from the present. “That was fifty years ago. I don’t understand why we can’t let the past be.”
It’s the same with Germany’s own battle with the Wall. The story “A Little Fling” depicts the lasting consequences of Germany’s segregation and its reunification. A West German judge is a very close friend of a couple who was in East Germany but after a while their relationship develops cracks.
One of the stories I liked very much was “Sugar Peas,” in which a man’s desperation to find love and acceptance is shown through his relationships. He is married but he has flings and carries on relationships with two other women. Towards the end he sees that he need not search for love in others; he is very much in love with himself. At least that’s my interpretation of it.
Schlink writes in unhurried prose, which reflects the tedium of life. No glance, touch or look escapes his pen. He makes statements and asks questions that set you thinking. In “The Other Man” the husband reminisces after his wife’s death.
“Even though he could never imagine putting the question to the test, he would ask himself if it was really his wife he missed or not simply a warm body in bed and someone to exchange a few words with, who found what he said fairly interesting and to whom in return he could listen with a fair amount of interest.”
And in “The Woman at the Gas Station” Schlink quietly notes that “their marriage was full of rituals, and that was the very reason for its success. Don’t all good marriages live by their rituals?”
Don't they? As I said, I think habit and ritual are what sustain most marriages. It's so ingrained that people don't even realize it. In this way, Schlink provides fodder for thought in each of his stories, which explores emotions, particularly love, from various angles. Like a person sitting on a park bench, watching the people around him with amusement, Schlink absorbs and writes. I liked the subdued and in many instances resigned nature of the stories. Life is clearly not simple for Schlink’s characters. But it is not to say that the book moved slowly. Life is definitely not boring and so are not Schlink’s stories about it.
Verdict: Thought provoking