THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS
By Bernhard Schlink
Translated by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt
Pantheon, $25.95, 240 pages
The German lawyer who is the unnamed narrator of “The Woman on the Staircase” is hired by the painter Karl Schwind to secure his right to photograph one of his paintings now owned by Peter Gundlach. It shows a woman coming downstairs. “The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde. Nude pale, and blonde — against a gray-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer. And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.” Her name is Irene.
The case originates in the banal animosity between the two men who love her. Irene is Schwind’s lover; Gundlach is her husband. Our lawyer tells him that the painter retains the legal right to photograph his work, so Schwind gets his permission. But then the painting is repeatedly damaged. Each time Schwind needs legal help in asserting his claim to restore it. Eventually Irene asks the lawyer to help her take the painting from Gundlach’s house. He agrees — though he knows he is risking his career if he is caught. But by this time he too has fallen in love with Irene, and he believes that they will live together after they have the painting. In fact, Irene and the painting disappear.
And that is the end of the story until 40 years later when the narrator — now a wealthy specialist in mergers and acquisitions — sees it in an Australian museum. Its donor is anonymous, but he knows it must be Irene. He tracks her down to an isolated bay, where she has lived for many years, alone except for the children and others whom she has helped
On one of their first meetings Irene had said, “You’ve never been in love have you?” She was right, and after her disappearance he did not fall in love again, though he married. He and his wife were a good team. They had children. But looking back he says, “I married because there was no good reason not to.” Everything in his life now seems to him to have been “both inevitable and to have happened by chance.”
This clear-sighted analysis of his life is typical of the narrator. He explains his orderliness and lovelessness by having been raised by dutiful but not affectionate grandparents, who taught him “to be as little of a bother as possible, to ask as little as possible.” At the same time he accepts that he was not “shackled.” So why then did he always choose to separate himself from others? He had wanted to be a judge and qualified while still young, but he was advised to wait a few years. Instead, he decided if he was not wanted as a judge, then he didn’t want to be one, and became a lawyer instead. Later he admits, “I chose my career out of spite.” In other words he was petulant, childish. He has succeeded as a lawyer through talent, but also through his characteristic cold stoicism. Indeed, he is a chill person, not someone most of us would admire.
Yet his tale has the grip of a mystery, and the reader is always on his side, especially in the absence of much of anything positive in Schwind and Gundlach, and the mysteriousness of Irene. This is entirely due to author Bernhard’s Schlink’s unfussy style. He often focuses sharply on the narrator’s emotional inertia, but lets it speak for itself — even elicit sympathy — rather than judging it.
Bernhard Schlink is also adept at pacing, sustaining interest by raising small mysteries and questions. Why did Irene disappear with the painting? When she is discovered what will she reveal? Will she fall in love the narrator? Will they become a couple? Both Gundlach and Schwind turn up in Australia. Can either claim ownership of the painting? And what will happen to our narrator? Even late in the novel when he is with Irene in her Australian home, he senses a barrier between them. “A pane of glass had prevented me from really reaching others — my wife, my children and my friends. I was always on my own,” he says. Can there be no change then?
Gundlach has argued that “The world no longer changes … the movements in business and finance and culture and politics are all repetitions. They no longer change the world.” Perhaps that’s a knell for the narrator. But perhaps not. At the end of this clever but melancholy novel readers are left with some answers to some questions but with others still to ponder. And that’s a satisfying ending because it keeps the novel alive after the last page has been turned.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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