His inner world was populated not only with the figures from his reading or from pictures and films, but also with people from the outside world, though in ever-changing disguises. He could tell when there was a discrepancy between what seemed to be going on in the external world and whatever lay behind it. That his piano teacher was holding something back, that the friendliness of the beloved family doctor was not genuine, that a neighbor boy with whom he played was hiding something--he felt it long before the disclosure of the boy's petty thefts, of the doctor's fondness for little boys, or of the piano teacher's illness. To be sure, he was no more acute than others, or quicker to intuit exactly what it was that was not evident. Nor did he investigate it. He preferred making things up, and his inventions were always more colorful and exciting than reality.
The distance between his inner and outer world corresponded to the distance that the boy noticed between his family and other people. Certainly, his father, a judge of the municipal court, lived life to the full. The boy was aware that his father enjoyed the importance and visibility of his position, liked joining the regular table reserved for prominent citizens in the local restaurant, liked playing a role in local politics and being elected to the presbytery of his congregation. His parents took part in the town's social life. They attended the carnival ball and the summer gala, were invited out, and asked guests to dine at their home. The boy's birthdays were celebrated in proper style, with five guests at his fifth birthday, six at his sixth, and so forth. Indeed, everything was done in proper style, which meant with the obligatory formality and distance of the 1950s. It was not this formality or distance that the boy perceived as the distance between his family and other people, but something else. It had to do with the way his parents themselves seemed to be holding back, hiding something. They were on their guard. If someone told a joke they did not immediately burst out laughing, but waited until others laughed. At a concert or a play they applauded only after others applauded first. In conversations with guests they kept their own opinion to themselves until others had expressed the same thing and they could then second it. If sometimes his father could not avoid taking a position or expressing an opinion, the strain of it showed.
Or was his father merely being tactful, trying not to interfere or seem obtrusive? The boy asked himself that question as he grew older and began more consciously to observe his parents' caution. He also asked himself why it was that his parents insisted on their own space. He was not allowed to enter his parents' bedroom, had not been even as a small child. Granted, they did not lock their door. But the prohibition was absolutely clear, and their authority remained unchallenged--that is, until the boy was thirteen and, one day when his parents were out, he opened the door and saw two separate beds, two night stands, two chairs, one wooden and one metal wardrobe. Were his parents trying to hide the fact that they did not share a bed? Did they want to inculcate in him the meaning of privacy and a respect for it? After all, they never entered his room, either, without first knocking and waiting for him to invite them in.
The boy was not forbidden to enter his father's study--even though it contained a mystery, the painting of the girl with the lizard.
But when he was in the eighth grade, a teacher assigned as homework the description of a picture. The choice of pictures was left to the students. "Do I have to bring the picture I describe with me?" one student asked. The teacher waved the question aside. "Your description should be so good that just by reading it we can see the picture." It was obvious to the boy that he would describe the painting of the girl with the lizard. He was looking forward to it, to examining the painting in detail, to translating the painting into words and sentences, to reading his description of the painting to his teacher and classmates. He was also looking forward to sitting in his father's study. It looked out on a narrow courtyard that muted the daylight and sounds from the street. Its walls were lined with bookcases, and the spicy, acrid odor of cigar smoke hung in the air.
Excerpted from Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink Copyright 2001 by Bernhard Schlink. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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