Book review: Bernhard Schlink’s “Das Wochenende” and “Die Frau auf der Treppe”

The German readers group had decided to read and discuss “Die Frau auf der Treppe”. The film lovers club had decided to watch the film “Das Wochenende”. This film is based on the German novel with the same title. Bernhard Schlink is the author of both novels. He excels in writing stories which question our behaviour, presumptions, beliefs, ideals, convictions – and much more.

“Die Frau auf der Treppe”

Of the two novels, this is the most recent one. It appeared about a year ago – in German. The story is told from the point of view of a successful lawyer. Years ago, he became involved in the disappearance of a painting called “Frau auf der Treppe”. Now nearing retirement, he travels to Sidney on business. At an art gallery, he finds the picture: a painting of a naked woman descending a flight of stairs.

Bernhard SchlinkDecades earlier, the lawyer took on a case involving Irene – the naked woman in the painting – and two men. Irene’s successful and powerful husband Gundlach and Irene’s lover, the painter Schwind, fight over the picture – and her. In the end, Irene cleverly plays off the three men against each other and disappears with the picture.

Rediscovering the picture ensures, the lawyer’s life will never be the same. It takes some time, but he finds Irene. She calls herself Irene Adler, a name she shares with the only woman Sherlock Holmes admired. It does not take long for the other two men to show up. The fight over woman and picture starts all over again. Irene outwits her husband, her lover, her admirer and vanishes again.

A few of the questions this book addresses seem to relate to belongings. Who “owns” Irene? What right do men have to treat a woman as an object, trophy, as anything but a human being? Whom does the portrait belong to? The model married to the man who paid for the painting, to him, to its creator? What is identity? What is a good life, or successful life? What is forgiveness? How do we heal or compensate for the hurt we cause others? What do we learn from our lives? Can we change – and if so: can we make fresh starts?

The book was partly inspired by a painting. It is referred to in the book. It is Gerhard Richter’s “Ema”. (See: “Nude descending“) It is clear that art is one of the themes of the book as well.

Gerhard Richter painted his descending woman to make a statement. Bernhard Schlink seems to state that art and books are not dead either. But this novel contains many more themes. This makes it such a very rich read. It is thought-provoking and not easily forgotten.

Yet the book is slim and a very easy read. It contains lots of humour. Seemingly stereotype characters like successful businessman or artist, are not as flat as one might expect. The pace is fast and the reader becomes easily absorbed, turning page after page till the very end.

“Das Wochenende” or “the Weekend”

This book was a major success and turned into a successful film. A few of its themes and scenes occur in “Frau auf der Treppe”. Irene spends time in the DDR and is involved with terrorism. But the main character of “das Wochenende” is a terrorist.

Schlink WochenendeHe has been unexpectedly released from prison. His sister, who has visited him throughout the many prison years, collects him for a weekend with former and a few new friends. The group spends a long weekend in a dilapidated country house and its park.

The point of view changes. The reader gets to know a few of the people who make up the ill-assorted group through these changes. The shifts are also used to tell what happened in the past. One of the hangers-on is now a school teacher. She has started on a novel, but the novel is about the death of another member of the terrorist group.

Unlike the released terrorist, most of the people have adapted to life and changed from angry idealists who took on “the system” into successful, rich capitalists themselves. After all: even Jörg’s sister and friend manage to buy a country seat in the former DDR.

The betrayals, suspicion, deaths the “collateral” damage to innocent victims and by-standers and even family, various old and new relationships: the heady mix erupts during the weekend. Scores are settled and the few days certainly do not become the grand, joyous reunion as planned and staged by Jörg’s sister.

It turns out, that quite a few of the group’s members manipulated and still manipulate or use the released terrorist for their own purposes. In the end, he will be employed by the most unlikely member of the group: the bragging, challenging and critical capitalist who owns a pharmaceutical company spanning the world. But by then, the whole group has realised, the days of the terrorist are numbered.

Various reviewers have discussed this novel. If you are familiar with the film or have watched the DVD, you are familiar with a few of its themes. It shares some themes with “Die Frau”, such as the manipulation of the main character and the main character ultimately putting a stop to this. There is the issue of punishment, forgiveness, healing.

The two books

Both books share a protagonist or main character who grew up missing a father and mother. Both books share old houses which form the decor of most of the action. The houses are isolated, forcing the characters who visit them to confront themselves and each other. Both books have a character suffering from cancer. There are other similarities or shared scenes, such as the horror of having to clean the body of a very weak and sick person.

Yet, of the two, “Die Frau” seems the better read. There is more humour. The story is told more convincingly. Several themes are worked out and dealt with slightly better. So if you are unfamiliar with both books and German is no issue: start with “Das Wochenende”, followed by “Die Frau auf der Treppe”. If German is an issue: why not dip into one of the many novels by Bernard Schlink, which are available in translations?

“Das Wochenende”, Bernhard Schlink, Diogenes, 2008
The novel has been translated in many languages, it’s English title is “The Weekend”“
“Die Frau auf der Treppe”, Bernhard Schlink, Diogenes, 2014
This novel has been translated in a few languages, but at the moment of posting, I had not yet been able to find an English one.

Youtube film trailer “Das Wochenende”
Youtube BBC World Book Club interview with Bernhard Schlink

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One thought on “Book review: Bernhard Schlink’s “Das Wochenende” and “Die Frau auf der Treppe”

  1. Hi Kate, thanks for the review and especially the comparison between the two books, I had reviewed The Weekend, read in French earlier in the year and have Self’s punishment in my waiting list, I will look up Die Frau later on in the year

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