The Woman on the Stairs by Bernard Schlink. (Contemporary Novel, 2014/2016/2017).
This occasionally somewhat rambling, yet ultimately engrossing study of four people dealing with decades-spanning obsessions, rampant possessiveness and unresolved personal regrets was first published in the original German in 2014. Translated by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmid, it appeared in England in 2016. But the US edition I read wasn’t released till early 2017.
Internationally best-selling author Bernard Schlink tells the story through an unnamed first-person narrator. A German lawyer, he’s now a successful (if emotionally numb) specialist in business law and well past middle age. He’s in Australia after supervising an international corporate merger when he happens to visit a Sydney museum and is startled to see a famous artist’s long-missing masterpiece (the striking painting of book’s title). Decades ago, back home in Frankfort as a young man, he was sucked into a weird legal and emotional tug of war between the then-rising artist and the rich businessman who’d commissioned that very painting.
As our narrator seeks to locate Irene, the woman pictured in the compelling nude, his memories fill in the backstory in deft flashbacks. It had soon become obvious that all the seemingly inexplicable passive-aggressive battling over the picture was a metaphor for the other men’s determination to possess and control her. Originally, Irene was married to Gundlach (the business tycoon), but soon embarked on an affair and left him for Schwind (the artist). The tangled emotional triangle assumed even more complexity when the young lawyer fell in love with her.
The love-struck lawyer eventually (and secretly) helped arrange her escape from both. But his callow happily-ever-after daydreams crash when she immediately ditches him, too and disappears, with the picture.
By publicly exhibiting the notorious painting years later, Irene is consciously luring Gundlach and Schmidt to her isolated hiding place–to resolve the loose-ends of all their lives as illness threatens to cut hers short. She never considered that the lawyer would also feel compelled to track her down, or that very their brief encounter would still drive him to put aside and finally, at long last, re-examine the emotionally empty life he’d built for himself over the intervening years.
For much of the book the narrator comes off as emotionally stunted, materialistic and blindly wedded to self-serving justifications that allow him to resist even beginning to question his choices. Yet we know that he’s not a truly bad guy.
When Irene’s fragile health takes an abrupt downturn, he’s the one who steps up to care for her. In the process he grows, in ways and to a degree that Gundlach and Schmidt are unwilling (or unable) to even consider. An epic final disaster leaves our reluctant hero saddened yet determined to do better for those he cares for, those he now feels responsible for and for himself.
A good book of human weaknesses and strength. Poignant and well recommended.