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Philosophy Posed in Story

Bernhard Schlink's Flights of Love

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey made German author and professor of law Bernhard Schlink a household name by choosing his book, The Reader, for her infamous book club. Expect to see the film version of his book this year. But Schlink has not rested idly on Hollywood money. His latest effort, Flights of Love, is a collection of seven stories which investigate the themes put forth by The Reader: who is allowed to love whom? Can the Germans can take leave of the past while still honoring it?

Part of the dramatic tension inherent in all these stories derives from German grammatical structure. In the German past tense, all verbs go to the end of the sentence. Hence, you get sentences like, "He to the store went." Schlink's stories mimic these rhythms to produce concrete characters and scenework with powerful action delayed to the tale's end.

Judaism lends torque to the introductory stories. "Girl with Lizard" chronicles a boy's obsession with a painting of a Jewish girl and a lizard, to the detriment of his romances of the flesh. In "The Circumcision" a German man makes the ultimate conversion for his American Jewish girlfriend. These stories provide a fictional platform for the philosophical questions Schlink must have asked himself as a professor of law: how many generations will Germans have to endure before they will be redeemed?

Other stories confront fidelity issues. In "Sugar Peas" an architect/painter juggles his wife and two mistresses because each woman reflects a version of himself he cannot do without. Where a lesser writer would follow a "who will he choose?" tangent, Schlink wisely directs his tale towards a more realistic ... how will he adapt with events he does not expect? Similarly, "The Other Man" showcases what happens when a man discovers letters from his dead wife's lover and the relationship which unfolds when he seeks the man out.

Within the collection, Schlink does not depart from a platform of German male protagonist. Perhaps in later work he will be brave enough to attempt a female voice. For now he sticks with what he knows best. His characters say, "I may be confused -- but I know what I don't want."

Flights of Love
by Bernhard Schlink
Translated from the German by John E. Woods
Hardcover - 288 pages (October 2001)
Pantheon Books; ISBN: 0375420908

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