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Book review: Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs focuses on the allure of the artist’s muse

The author of ‘The Reader’ returns to a well-known theme: age entranced by youthful beauty.

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink

German-born Bernhard Schlink, a professor of law at Berlin’s Humboldt University, writes fiction which incorporates aspects of his legal background and elements of his country’s 20th-century history. Unlike John Grisham, his books are not legal thrillers, more mysteries which have a close brush with the law and which rigorously and intelligently examine its attendant dark matter – moral conundrums, crises of conscience, blame, betrayal and culpability.

Schlink’s latest book sees him sticking to this winning formula and playing to his strengths. The Woman on the Stairs is a novel about a fictitious painting called Woman on Staircase. The unnamed narrator is a German lawyer who, while on business in Australia, comes across the painting in a Sydney art gallery. Immediately, he is bewitched again by its subject: “She was softness, seduction and surrender.” Instead of flying back to Frankfurt, he contacts a detective agency to find out the owner of the painting and the whereabouts of the woman he loved and lost 40 years ago.

As he waits for news, he casts his mind back to his first case as a young hot-shot lawyer and his first encounter with her. She is Irene Gundlach, the beautiful girlfriend of Karl Schwind, an up-and-coming painter. She is also the wife of Peter Gundlach, a wealthy businessman who commissioned Schwind to paint her. Gundlach got his painting but Schwind made off with the real thing. “How must our story seem to you?” Irene tells the lawyer. “A rich old man and his young wife painted by a young artist, they fall in love and run away. It’s a cliché, isn’t it?”

Perhaps, but Schlink soon embellishes his set-up by adding liberal dabs of originality. The lawyer reveals why Schwind needs his services: little by little, Gundlach is vandalising his painting, defacing the woman who spurned him and angering a proud and powerless artist. The lawyer mediates in the dispute, but before he can lead the men to an amicable, lawful solution, he finds himself steered towards a dubious compromise: drawing up a contract which permits the return of property to its rightful owner – the damaged painting to the painter, the errant wife to the husband.

When Irene catches wind of the transaction, she hatches an escape plan and enlists the lawyer’s help. Having fallen for her, he is more than happy to oblige, and naïvely believes they can elope together. Instead, she exploits his innocence and disappears with the painting for four decades.

Unfortunately, Irene’s exit strategy is both convoluted and contrived, and it clumsily concludes an otherwise finely constructed opening section. But Schlink restores order in his next section where, back in the present, his lawyer tracks Irene down at her secluded beachside cottage. However, there are more blasts from the past when Gundlach drops in by helicopter and Schwind arrives by boat. A reunion becomes a showdown full of spilled secrets, shock revelations and, in time, tragic consequences.

Schlink’s drama is so carefully condensed and neatly parcelled out that the novel resembles a three-act play. Irene, the lady thief and wanted woman, is easily the showstopping star turn, as mesmerising on the page as she is supposed to be on canvas. Schlink subtly conveys her dissatisfaction at being one man’s muse and another man’s trophy, and her resultant decision to dupe all three men and take control of her own life.

In stark contrast, the lawyer is deliberately dull. Sometimes Schlink allows his dullness to impair the narrative. He has him needlessly spouting numbing platitudes (“The past can’t be changed”; “At some point, wounds scar over”) or veering off-course and expounding at length on Australian history or cogs in machines.

Elsewhere, though, that dullness is used to brilliant effect. The lawyer lacks imagination, preferring fact over fiction: “Tragedies and comedies, good and bad luck, love and hate, joy and grief – history offers it all. Novels can’t offer more.”

There is a nice moment when he learns from his private detective that the woman he is looking for now calls herself Irene Adler.

It is a fitting name: in A Scandal in Bohemia Irene Adler is “the woman”, the one who outwits Sherlock Holmes. Schlink leaves the reader to make the connection and his novel-shunning narrator to flounder in the dark.

Schlink has written a better, weightier novel about a younger man captivated by an older woman – his bestseller, The Reader. However, The Woman on the Stairs still succeeds as a compelling study of love and forgiveness, one told with painterly precision.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.