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  • Homecoming
  • Written by Bernhard Schlink
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Written by Bernhard SchlinkAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bernhard Schlink



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On Sale: January 08, 2008
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Growing up with his mother in Germany, Peter Debauer knows little about his father, an apparent victim of the Second World War. But when he stumbles upon a few pages from a long-lost novel, Peter embarks on a quest that leads him across Europe to the United States, chasing fragments of a story within a story and a master of disguises who may or may not exist. Homecoming is a tale of fathers and sons, men and women, war and peace. It reveals the humanity that survives the trauma of war and the ongoing possibility for redemption.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

When I was young, I spent the summer holidays with my grandparents in Switzerland. My mother would take me to the station and put me on the train, and when I was lucky I could stay put and arrive six hours later at the platform where Grandfather would be waiting for me. When I was less lucky, I had to change trains at the border. Once I took the wrong train and sat there in tears until a friendly conductor dried them and after a few stations put me on another train, entrusting me to another conductor, who then in similar fashion passed me on to the next, so that I was transported to my goal by a whole relay of conductors.

I enjoyed those train trips: the vistas of passing towns and landscapes, the security of the compartment, the independence. I had ticket and passport, food and reading; I needed no one and had no one telling me what to do. In the Swiss trains I missed the compartments, but then every seat was either a window or aisle seat and I didn’t need to fear being squeezed between two people. Besides, the bright wood of the Swiss seats was smarter than the red-brown German plastic, just as the gray of the coaches, the trilingual inscription “SBB—CFF—FFS,” and the coat of arms with the white cross in the red field were nobler than the dirty green with the inscription “DB.” I was proud to be half Swiss even though I was more at home with both the shabbiness of the German trains and the shabbiness of the city my mother and I lived in and the people we lived with.

The station of the city on the lake, the goal of my journey, was the end of the line. The moment I set foot on the platform I couldn’t miss Grandfather: he was a tall, powerful man with dark eyes, a bushy white mustache, and a bald pate, wearing an off-white linen jacket and straw hat and carrying a walking stick. He radiated reliability. I thought of him as tall even after I outgrew him and powerful even after he had to lean on the walking stick. As late as my student days he would occasionally take my hand during our walks. It made me uncomfortable but did not embarrass me.

My grandparents lived a few towns away on the lake, and when the weather was fine Grandfather and I would take the boat there rather than the train. The boat I liked best was the big old paddle-steamer, the one that let you see the engine’s glistening oil-coated bronze-and-steel rods and cages in the middle at work. It had many decks, covered and uncovered. We would stand on the open foredeck, breathe the wind in, and watch the small towns appear and disappear, the gulls circle the ship, the sailboats flaunt their billowing sails, and the water-skiers perform their tricks. Sometimes we could make out the Alps behind the hills, and Grandfather would identify the peaks by name. Each time I found it a miracle that the path of light cast by the sun on the water, glistening serenely in the middle and shattering into prancing slivers on the edges, followed along with the boat. I am sure that early on Grandfather laid out the optical explanation for it, but even today I think of it as a miracle. The path of light begins wherever I happen to be.



Chapter 2

In the summer of my eighth year my mother had no money for a ticket. She found a long-distance truck driver—I have no idea how—to take me to the border and hand me over to another driver, who would drop me off at my grandparents’ house.

We were to meet at the freight depot. My mother was busy and could not stay. She deposited me and my suitcase at the entrance and ordered me not to budge from the spot. I stood there anxiously watching each passing truck, relieved and discouraged in turn as they passed. They were bigger and made more of a roar and stink than I had realized: they were monsters.

I don’t know how long I waited. I was too young to have a watch. After a while I perched on my suitcase and jumped up whenever a truck seemed to slow down and want to stop. Finally one did stop. The driver hoisted me and the suitcase into the cabin, and his mate placed me in the bed behind the seat. They told me to keep my mouth shut and my head below the side of the bed and sleep. It was still light, but even after it got dark I couldn’t sleep. At first the driver or his mate would turn and curse me if my head stuck up above the bed; then they forgot about me, and I could look outside.

My field of vision was narrow, but I was able to watch the sun go down through the passenger-seat window. I caught only fragments of the conversation between the driver and his mate: it had to do with the Americans and the French, deliveries and payments. I was almost lulled to sleep by the regularly recurring sound, the regular, restrained tremor of the truck as it passed over the large slabs forming the surface of the Autobahn in those days. But the Autobahn soon came to an end, and we drove over bad, hilly country roads, where the driver could not dodge the potholes and was constantly shifting gears. It was an uneasy journey through the night.

The truck kept stopping: faces would appear in the side windows, the driver and his mate would climb in and out, let down the tailboard, shove the cargo around and restack it. Many of the stops were factories and warehouses with bright lights and loud voices; others were dark filling stations, rest areas, and open fields. The driver and his mate may well have combined their official duties with a bit of business on the side—smuggling or fencing—which lengthened their time on the road.

In any case, by the time we reached the border the truck I was supposed to meet had left, and I spent the dawn hours in a town whose name I do not recall. The main square had a church, a new building or two, and many roofless buildings with empty windows. As it began to get light, people came to set up a market, hauling sacks, crates, and baskets on large, flat two-wheeled carts, to which they had hitched themselves between the shafts with loops over their shoulders. All night I had been afraid of the captain and his helmsman, of being attacked by pirates, of having to pee. Now I was afraid both of being picked up by someone who would do as he pleased with me and of going unnoticed, being left to my own devices.

Just as the sun grew so warm that I began to feel uncomfortable on the fully exposed bench, from which I dared not stray, a car with an open top stopped at the side of the road. The driver remained in the car, but the woman beside him got out, put my suitcase in the trunk, and pointed to the backseat. Whether it was the large car, the fancy clothes the driver and his companion wore, the self-assured and nonchalant way they had of moving, or the fact that just over the Swiss border they bought me my very first ice cream—for a long time thereafter I pictured them whenever I heard or read about the rich. Were they smugglers or fences like the truck drivers? I found them equally creepy, though they were young and treated me with consideration, like a little brother, and delivered me to my grandparents in time for lunch.



Chapter 3

The house my grandparents lived in had been built by a globetrotter of an architect: it had eaves supported by artfully hewn wooden struts, a formidable mezzanine bay window, a top-floor balcony adorned with gargoyles, and windows framed by round stone-in-stone arches—a combination colonial country seat, Spanish fortress, and Romanesque cloister. Yet it held together.

The garden helped to make it a whole: there were two tall fir trees to the left of the house, a large apple tree to the right, a thick old box hedge in front, and wild vines climbing up the walls. The garden was spacious: there was a veritable meadow between the street and the house; there were vegetable beds, tomato and bean plants, raspberry, blackberry, and currant bushes, a compost pile to the right of the house, and, to the left, a wide gravel path leading to the rear entrance, which was framed by two hydrangea bushes. The gravel would crunch underfoot, and by the time Grandfather and I had reached the entrance Grandmother would have heard us coming and opened the door.

The crunch of the gravel, the buzz of the bees, the scratch of the hoe or rake in the garden—since those summers at my grandparents’ these have been summer sounds; the bitter scent of the sun-drenched boxwood, the rank odor of the compost, summer smells; and the stillness of the early afternoon, when no child calls, no dog barks, no wind blows, summer stillness. The street where my mother and I lived was full of traffic. Whenever a tram or truck drove by, the windows rattled, and whenever the machines used to demolish and reconstruct the neighborhood buildings bombed during the war went into operation, the floors shook. There was little or no traffic where my grandparents lived, neither in front of the house nor in the nearby town. Whenever a horse and cart drove past, my grandfather would tell me to fetch a shovel and pail and we would coolly collect the dung for the compost pile.

The town had a train station, a landing stage for boats, a few shops, and two or three restaurants, one of which served no alcohol, and my grandparents sometimes took me there for Sunday lunch. Every other day, Grandfather made the rounds of the dairy, the baker’s, and the cooperative grocer’s, with occasional side trips to the pharmacy or shoemaker’s. He wore his off-white linen jacket and a likewise off-white linen cap and carried a notebook in his pocket, one that Grandmother had made by sewing together bits and pieces of blank paper and that he used for shopping lists. He held his walking stick in one hand and my hand in the other. I carried the old leather shopping bag, which, since we made the rounds every other day, was never so full as to weigh me down.

Did Grandfather take me shopping every other day just to make me happy? I loved going shopping: the smell of the Appenzeller and Gruyère in the dairy, the scent of the fresh bread in the bakery, the variety and quantity of food in the grocery. It was so much nicer than the small shop my mother sent me to because she could buy on credit there.

After our shopping expedition we would walk to the lake, feed the swans and ducks with stale bread, and watch the boats sail past or take on and let off passengers. I felt the stillness here as well. The waves beating against the seawall—that too was a summer sound.


From the Hardcover edition.
Bernhard Schlink

About Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink - Homecoming

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany. He is the author of The Weekend, as well as the internationally bestselling novels The Reader and Homecoming, as well as the collection of short stories Flights of Love and four prizewinning crime novels—The Gordian Knot, Self's Deception, Self's Punishment, and Self’s Murder. He is a former judge and teaches public law and legal philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin and at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.

Praise

Praise

Homecoming, fueled by a mystery, is also a powerful meditation on justice, history, and the nature of evil. . . . Schlink has written another lean, meticulously structured, disquieting thought-provoker.” —Los Angeles Times “A beguilingly oblique novel. . . . Despite its intricate, maze-like progression, Homecoming has surprising narrative thrust.” —The Economist“Sensitive and disturbing. . . . The reader's mind opens to the story like a plant unfurling its leaves to the sun.” —The New York Times Book Review"Plot twists and surprises and sometimes outright lies complicate the book's multilayered homecoming theme. . . . Schlink has woven a homecoming tale as fascinating as Homer's Odyssey, its inspiration." —Seattle Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

Homecoming, fueled by a mystery, is also a powerful meditation on justice, history, and the nature of evil. . . . Schlink has written another lean, meticulously structured, disquieting thought-provoker.”
Los Angeles Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Bernhard Schlink's novel, Homecoming.

About the Guide

Homecoming, Bernhard Schlink's first novel since his international bestseller The Reader, is the story of one man's odyssey and another man's pursuit. A child of World War II, Peter Debauer grew up in Germany without a father. As an adult, Peter embarks on a search for the truth surrounding his father, supposedly killed during the war. This search takes him across Europe and to the United States and back, finding witnesses, falling in and out of love, chasing fragments of a story and a person who may or may not exist. Homecoming is a story of fathers and sons, men and women, war and peace. It reveals the humanity that survives the trauma of war and the ongoing possibility for redemption.

About the Author

Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany. He is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Reader, as well as the collection of stories Flights of Love, and four prizewinning crime novels—The Gordian Loop, Self's Punishment, Self's Deception, and Self's Murder. He lives in Berlin and New York.

Discussion Guides

1. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called Schlink's protagonist “a flawed character who elicits the reader's understanding but not affection—until the poignant denouement.” Do you agree with this assessment of Peter? Do you think Schlink wants his readers to understand but not like Peter? Why?

2. In what ways is Peter's singular search for the truth about his father emblematic of the postwar generation of Germans trying to piece together what transpired during the war and afterward?

3. How is Peter both similar to and different from John de Baur? Why are both not completely satisfied with who they are? And how are their quests similar and different? Is history repeating itself, or has Peter learned some lessons from the past?

4. Reinventing identities comes easily for John de Baur, and later for Peter himself. Why do the men feel compelled to create new identities? How easy or difficult would it be for you to reinvent yourself? Why would you want to? Or why not?

5. What does the United States represent for Peter and for John? How is it both a positive and a negative place for the two men?

6. What is going on in the last section of the book, during the professor's moral experiment in the abandoned hotel? What do the students, and Peter in particular, learn while there? What does the professor accomplish? Or do you think he fails?

7. Discuss the significance of the title. What does coming home mean for the various characters and, do you think, for the author himself? How was the reunification of Germany after forty years divided, a form of homecoming?

8. What is the allure of The Odyssey for the characters in the book? How is it connected to the pivotal pulp fiction book that Peter finds as a child in his grandparents' house? How is The Odyssey connected to this novel, and to the recurring homecoming theme?

9. The professor's book is even called The Odyssey of Law. Describe the professor's “iron rule” philosophy and how it connects with his own odyssey, taking him from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to New York City and Columbia University.

10. In what ways is this novel both telling a story and commenting on the importance of stories in our lives? Discuss some of the stories in Homecoming—the military/historical stories of Peter's grandfather, the poetry of his grandmother, the stories of Peter's various personas, the pulp fiction his grandparents edited.

11. Describe the narrator's voice. Is it appealing? Do you trust Peter as a narrator? Do you sympathize with him and understand his motives? Do you identify with him at all?

12. Why does Peter feel such a sense of duty to his ex-girlfriend's son, Max? Having no father or children of his own, why does he want to be a father figure to Max?

13. Describe Peter's relationship with his mother. As they both age, do you think they understand each other better? How is Peter's relationship with his father's grandparents, with whom he spent his childhood summers, different from that with his mother? Do they share more interests with Peter?

14. Why does Peter keep leaving Barbara and returning to her? Discuss their relationship. Why in the end is Barbara good for Peter . . . and different from other women he's been in love with?

15. What are the differences between East and West Germany as shown in the novel? Why is Peter able to pretend to be a professor in East Germany? Do you think he would have been able to do this in West Germany?

16. What moral questions about Germany after the war does Schlink bring up in this novel? How does guilt, both collective and personal, play into the story? Which generation of Germans seems to be burdened with guilt? Do you think this generation also feels betrayed by the previous one?

17. Peter lies to get a teaching job in recently reunited Germany. He also poses as a historian to get into John's class at Columbia. And of course, John lies and poses as various professions with various names throughout his own career path. What is Schlink saying about lies and lying? Why do his characters lie? And do they feel guilty about it?

18. In Homecoming, Peter often concerns himself with justice; in fact, he even writes his college thesis on justice. He is also obsessed with other's, in particular John's, views on justice and history. How do you think Schlink's other career as a lawyer and law professor affect these meditations on justice, and the novel as a whole?

19. What is Schlink suggesting about the relationship between past and present, and between national and personal history?

Suggested Readings

Homer, The Odyssey; Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces; W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants; Bernhard Schlink, The Reader; Rachel Seiffert, The Dark Room; William Styron, Sophie's Choice; Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower.

  • Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink
  • January 06, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780375725579

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