‘Nothing happens for a long time, then suddenly we get a surprise, have an encounter, reach a decision point, and we’re no longer the same as we were before’ – Summer Lies by Bernhard Schlink

slbsSummer Lies is the latest collection of short stories from the German author of the hugely successful The Reader.  These seven stories beautifully capture a series of modern day Germans as they grapple with life’s big questions:  love, loss, duty, family and truth. Schlink has said that it is still a ‘huge burden’ to be German:  having to contend with ‘real wounds that still torment people’.  Although these characters don’t refer explicitly to the shadow the war has left, it is there nonetheless, the past shaping them into the people they are.

In the first of the stories, ‘After the Season’, Richard, a flautist from New York is on holiday in Cape Cod out of season; the only time he can afford to go.  He meets the wealthy Susan and they embark on a love affair that becomes so intoxicating they begin to plan a future together, despite the fact that Richard admits to despising the wealthy.  But once Richard is back in New York, we see the reluctance humans have to change in their lives, to cast off the old for the uncertainty of the new:  ‘He hadn’t wanted to confront the fact that the new life would require him giving up the old one.’

In ‘The Night in Baden Baden’, our unnamed narrator weaves a web of lies and deceit to hide from his girlfriend, Anne, the chaste night he spent with another girl in Baden Baden.  Although he and Anne ‘had known and loved each other for seven years’ they ‘had still not been able to give their life together a reliable form’.  The narrator’s inability to give himself to either of these women leaves him unfulfilled, hiding the truth not only from the women he courts, but also himself.

‘The House in the Forest’ is the most unsettling of the stories.  Here our narrator is bewitched by the myth of the rural idyll.  Having moved from the city with his writer wife and child, he so fiercely protects his vision of the life they should be leading, that he hides from his wife the fact that her writing has won a major prize by cutting communication to their house and setting up a fake road block to prevent others visiting.  He’s so blind to his jealousy of his wife’s success that he uses love as an excuse for entrapment.  The story is suffocating and tense and wonderfully gripping.

In ‘Stranger in the Night’, Schlink uses the device of story within a story to great effect.  In other stories he has used a watched film or a heard piece of music to create depth, but here it is the story of a fellow airline passenger who sits next to our narrator opening with: ‘You recognized me, didn’t you?’  This passenger tells the story of his kidnapped girlfriend during an ill fated trip to Kuwait and his subsequent arrest for her murder.  The story verges to within a whisker of the ridiculous, yet the narrator seems to believe it (and consequently we do too) and helps the suspected murderer escape.  It is not only the reader who questions his attitude to the passenger.  During the telling of the tale and the period after, we see how the chance encounter has led to the narrator reassessing his relationship with his ex wife and his past in the light of what he’s heard.

‘The Last Summer’ focuses on a grandfather in the final throes of cancer as he secretly plans his death with his family around him.  But things don’t work out in the way he plans and as the summer progresses and he learns to love his family and particularly his wife, she in turn is unsettled by his attention asking him ‘What’s going on?  If this summer’s right, every previous summer is wrong, and if every previous summer was right, this one’s not.’ The sadness of a man only seeing the love he has for his family at the moment it ends is overwhelming.  A similar theme of reconnecting through love is explored in Johann Sebastian Bach on Ruegen.  Here is a story of a son trying to understand the father with whom he’s never had a close relationship by taking him to a series of Bach concerts on Ruegen.  The father begins the trip stiff and withdrawn walking along the beach ‘in a suit and ties and black shoes’, but eventually walks in ‘pale linen trousers …  and sandals in his hand’.  The relationship falters and the reader feels there’s no way back for these characters, so entrenched are their attitudes, but there is a connection of sorts, a redemption to be found.

The last story in this collection is also the only one to be narrated by a female character.  This is a woman who has stopped loving her children, finding it a duty too far.  She is difficult and obstreperous to her family, ruining the birthday party they arrange for her.  It is in this story that the title of the collection really comes into its own.  A youthful summer of love with a man she adored, but considered perhaps a little beneath her, is remembered in a way that puts her in the right, but when her recollection of events is challenged, the lies she’s told herself are laid bare before her and she has to make peace with her past.

Any Cop?:This collection of short stories is a masterpiece of nuance.  Schlink lingers over the smallest of moments that make up a human life, giving them a weightiness that belies their length.  Although the events described in these stories are often small, a discovered vial of poison, the sound of a Bach motet, telephone calls made on a mobile phone for the characters the consequences and effects are life changing.  Susan summarises the collection nicely in ‘After the Season’ when she says ‘Nothing happens for a long time, then suddenly we get a surprise, have an encounter, reach a decision point, and we’re no longer the same as we were before.’

Julie Fisher

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