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The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink

The Woman on the Stairs

by Bernhard Schlink

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The unnamed narrator of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Woman on the Stairs operates at a safe distance from his feelings. In fact, he has been so successful at keeping his emotions in check that he seems at any moment ready to walk away from everyone and everything in his life. He is a lawyer of late middle age, a widower, working in mergers and acquisitions for a successful international firm based in Germany. In the novel’s opening pages, while on business in Sydney, Australia, and taking a moment to visit the city’s public gallery, he is shocked to come across a painting that played a transformative role early in his life and career. Forty years earlier, as a junior lawyer at the firm where he still works, he found himself in the middle of a dispute between the artist Karl Schwind and businessman Peter Gundlach. The dispute centred on a painting that Schwind had completed of Gundlach’s wife Irene: a nude portrait depicting the beautiful young woman descending a staircase. However, a consequence of the commission was that Irene left her husband for the artist. When the painting was damaged and Gundlach asked Schwind to repair it, Schwind complied, but the animosity between the two got in the way, and the situation escalated until Schwind took legal action in an attempt get the painting back. Our narrator was asked by both parties to draw up a contract, a legally binding (if morally questionable) document that was supposed to settle the matter. However, the exchange never took place and the painting mysteriously disappeared. Forty years later, the narrator’s discovery of the painting on a gallery wall can only mean one thing, and he sets off on a quest to find the painting’s current owner. Schlink’s novel is not a mystery, though a puzzle that has troubled the narrator for years is eventually solved. Instead, it is a graceful and cleverly constructed meditation on several topics, notably art, creativity, legacy, memory, aging, death, and moral responsibility. The main players in the events of 40 years earlier are brought together and spend time discussing their lives and how they feel about what happened. If it all seems somewhat familiar to regular readers of Schlink’s works, that’s because the author has done something like this before. In his 2010 novel, The Weekend, Jorg is released after several decades in prison on terrorism charges, and is taken by his sister to an isolated rural retreat where old friends and relatives have gathered to help him make the transition to life on the outside, and also discuss how they were affected by what happened all those years ago. Schlink is a master of regret. His characters have much to feel guilty about. They’ve all behaved badly. Some grow and learn from their experiences, others continue on the same path as before. What makes his fiction especially fascinating is his ability to construct morally complex scenarios and expose every facet, explore every angle. The characters in The Woman on the Stairs are selfish, often childish, and in other respects not particularly admirable, but everything they do and say makes for compelling drama. ( )
  icolford | Aug 3, 2017 |
Pretty dull going, with none of the characters really fleshed out. ( )
  phyllis.shepherd | Aug 1, 2017 |
The story starts in Germany with a painting, three obsessed men, and a woman (the model for the painting). The model's husband owns the painting, the artist steals the wife, and the third man is a lawyer representing the artist. The painting is stolen and the all--the painting, the woman, the three men--end up in Australia where the majority of the story takes place.

It's a strange "love" story, maybe more about self love, than romantic love since no one here is really able to relate to the other. ( )
  seeword | May 29, 2017 |
This was certainly a disappointment. Utterly pointless. Maybe it was the translation? ( )
  fhudnell | Apr 27, 2017 |
The unnamed narrator is a corporate lawyer who became involved in a dispute over ownership of a painting. “Woman on Stairs” is a nude painting of Irene Gundlach painted by Karl Schwind; it was commissioned by her wealthy industrialist husband Peter. Irene left Peter and moved in with Karl. While serving as Karl’s lawyer, the narrator falls in love with Irene, and she manipulates him into helping her steal the painting for herself. Forty years later, the narrator comes across the painting in a gallery in Sydney, Australia, and he tracks her down; he wants to confront her about how she used him in the past but wasn’t willing to have a relationship with him.

His encounter with Irene results in his examining his past. Through flashbacks, we see how he became successful and wealthy in his career: “Now, looking over the past, I have no idea what was a blessing, what a curse; whether my career was worth the price.” Security mattered more than anything: “No, I was not shackled to my life, rather I had chosen it with care, and held on to it with care. . . . I chose my career out of spite; I married because there was no good reason not to. The first decision led to the big law firm; the second, to three children.”

He led a dull life of routine: “the years themselves had become a ritual faithfully adhered to, case by case, client by client, contract by contract.” He always did the pragmatic thing; he claims “I take things seriously, sometimes too seriously, I aim for precision in everything I do, sometimes too much precision: again and again I have difficulty understanding why people become emotional in difficult situations instead of solving the problem rationally.’” He is emotionally stunted; he even refused to share his feelings with his wife, seeing such sharing as “a ritual of submission.” He seems incapable of sympathy or empathy: “’The exploited and oppressed – they have to figure out their problems themselves.’”

Irene points out that he lived a “walled-in life” and comments, “’I love how keen you are to trudge from task to task, dutifully doing yet another merger, yet another acquisition, as if it meant something.’” As a result, the narrator gradually starts to question his priorities and the choices he made. He wonders whether his wife and children had been unhappy: “Did I hear no complaint from them only because we talked so little? What else was left unsaid?” He questions the decision he had made to send his children to boarding school: “Had I really thought that was what was best for them? Or had I just given myself an easy and comfortable child-free life?”

Irene is a foil for the narrator. She is enigmatic; he is so predictable. She explains that, unlike him, security was not what she had wanted: “’I was looking for someone . . . who would take a risk, someone I could take a risk with.’” She hated being a trophy wife for Peter, a muse for Karl and a damsel in distress for the narrator, so she took control of her life and left all of them. The narrator admits, “How courageously she had lived it; how timidly I had lived mine.”

The novel examines how one’s life is affected by the choices one makes. Irene took risks and there have been consequences for some of her past actions, yet she seems content with most of her choices. Her one regret she tries to correct. Irene calls the narrator both “brave knight” and “pure fool”. So late in life, will be continue to be the latter or become the former?

This is very much a novel of character. I enjoyed it though I found the narrator unlikeable. Karl and Peter were also self-absorbed. Why all the men would be infatuated with Irene is understandable. I was, however, troubled by Kari the Aboriginal boy who keeps an eye on Irene. He seems like a stereotypical Aboriginal wise man. What is his purpose? Is he just another male smitten by Irene?

The book will appeal to readers who don’t mind a slow-paced narrative which focuses on characters. Though fairly interesting, it does not carry the emotional impact of Schlink’s The Reader.

Please check out my reader's blog (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Apr 10, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bernhard Schlinkprimary authorall editionscalculated
Meijerink, GerdaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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