This time he bought a book on Rene Dalmann, and on the train he read about the childhood and youth of the artist, who was born in Strasbourg in 1894. Both the father, a textile merchant who had left Leipzig for Strasbourg, and his Alsatian wife, twenty years his junior, had wanted a daughter; they already had two sons, and a third child, a daughter, had died two years previously after her father had taken her for a winter ride and she had come down with pneumonia. Rene grew up in the shadow of his dead sister, until in 1902 the second daughter so longed for arrived--a liberation and a humiliation in one. He started drawing and painting early on, could not keep up in school, but at age sixteen applied successfully for the art academy in Karlsruhe.
Then the trip was over. He found a room, a garret with a coal stove and a little window; the toilet with a tiny sink was a half-flight down the stairs. But he was on his own. He moved his things in and put the book on Rene Dalmann on a bottom shelf along with other favorites. The top shelves were to be for new books, for his new life. He had left nothing he cared about at home.
His father died during his third year at the university. As was increasingly his father's habit in the last few years, he had gone to drink at a bar. He tripped on his way home, fell down an embankment, and froze to death lying there. The funeral was his first visit home since he had left for the university. It was January, the wind piercing cold, the puddles on the path to the cemetery chapel frozen, and after having slipped and almost fallen, his mother accepted his arm, which she had previously refused to do. She didn't want to forgive him for not having visited for so long.
At home she had made little sandwiches and tea for the few neighbors who had joined them at the cemetery. When she realized that the guests were expecting alcohol to be served she stood up. "Anyone who's offended because I'm not offering beer or schnapps can leave right now. There's been enough drinking in this house."
That evening mother and son entered his father's study. "I think they're all law books. Do you want them? Can you use them? What you don't take I'll throw out." She left him alone. He examined the library his father had made such a to-do about---books long since revised, periodicals discontinued years before. The only picture was the girl with the lizard. In the old apartment it had had the entire wall above the couch to itself, but here it was hung between two bookcases---and still it dominated the room. His head almost brushed the low ceiling, so that he looked down at the girl now, but he remembered how they had once stood eye to eye. He thought of Christmas trees, how they used to be so tall and were so small now. But then he thought of how the painting had not grown smaller, had lost none of its power to enthrall him. And he thought of the little girl in the house where he had his garret, and blushed. He called her "Princess," and they flirted with each other, and when she asked him if he wouldn't like to show her his room, he had summoned all his willpower and said no. She had asked in all innocence. But because she wanted something he didn't want to give, she flirted with him so openly, her voice and glances and body language were so seductive that he all but forgot the innocence.
"I don't want Father's books. But I'll call a used-book dealer tomorrow. He'll give you several hundred or a thousand marks." He sat down at the kitchen table with his mother. "What do you plan to do with the painting?"
She folded up the newspaper she'd been reading. Her gestures were still nervous and volatile, yet with something youthful about them. She was no longer slender, but gaunt, the skin stretched tight over the bones of her face and hands. Her hair was almost white.
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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