His father hadn't come home for lunch, his mother had left for town immediately afterward. So the boy asked no one for permission, but sat down in his father's study, looked, and wrote. "The painting shows the sea, in front of it a beach, in front of that a rock or a dune, and on it a girl and a lizard." No, the teacher had said the description of a painting moves from the foreground to the middle distance to the background. "In the foreground of the painting are a girl and a lizard on a rock or a dune, in the middle distance is a beach, and from the middle distance to the background is the sea." Is the sea? Rolls the sea? But the sea didn't roll from the middle distance to the background, it rolled from the background toward the middle distance. Besides, middle distance sounded ugly, and foreground and background didn't sound much better. And the girl --- was her being in the foreground everything there was to say about her?
The boy started over. "The painting shows a girl. She is looking at a lizard." But that still wasn't everything there was to say about the girl. The boy went on. "The girl has a pale face and pale arms, brown hair, and is dressed in a bright-colored top and a dark skirt." That didn't satisfy him either. He gave it another try. "In this painting a girl is looking at a lizard sunning itself." Was that true? Was the girl looking at the lizard? Wasn't she looking past it, through it, instead? The boy hesitated. But suddenly it made no difference. Because the next sentence followed from the first. "The girl is very beautiful." That sentence was true, and with it the description likewise began to ring true.
"The painting shows a girl looking at a lizard sunning itself. The girl is very beautiful. She has a delicate face with a smooth brow, straight nose, and a dimple in her upper lip. She has brown eyes and brown curly hair. The painting is really only of the girl's head. All the rest, comprising the lizard, the rock or dune, the beach, and the sea, is not so important."
The boy was satisfied. Now all he had to do was to place everything in the foreground, middle distance, and background. He was proud of "comprising." It sounded elegant and adult. He was proud of the girl's beauty.
When he heard his father closing the front door, he stayed seated. He heard him put down his briefcase, remove and hang up his coat, look first in the kitchen and living room, and then knock on his bedroom door.
"I'm in here," he called, squaring the scribbled pages on top of his notebook and laying his fountain pen alongside. That was how his father kept files, papers, and pens on the desk. When the door opened he immediately started to explain. "I'm sitting here because we've been assigned the description of a picture, and I'm describing this painting here."
It took his father a moment to reply. "What painting? What're you doing?"
The boy explained again. From the way his father was standing there, scowling as he looked at him and the painting, he knew that he had done something wrong. "Since you weren't here, I thought . . ."
"You thought?" his father said in a choked voice, and the boy thought the voice threatened to become a yell and flinched. But his father did not yell. He shook his head and sat down on the swivel chair between the desk and a table that he used for stacking files and on the other side of which the boy was sitting. The painting hung beside the desk, behind his father. The boy hadn't dared sit at the desk. "Would you like to read for me what you've written?"
The boy read it aloud, proud and anxious at the same time.
"It's very well written, my boy. I could see every detail of the painting. But . . . ," he hesitated, "it's not for other people. You should describe a different picture for them."
The boy was so happy that his father hadn't yelled at him, but had instead spoken to him in confidence and with affection, that he was willing to do anything. But he did not understand. "Why isn't the painting something for other people?"
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."
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