Homecoming: A novel Hardcover – Jan 8 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Schlink's first novel, The Reader (1997), became a U.S. bestseller after it was an Oprah pick. That book, and his next, a short story collection, raised moral questions about Germany right after WWII; his latest, following two crime novels, takes up that line of inquiry and may be his most powerful and disquieting. The title refers to a pulp novel discovered in fragments by the narrator, Peter Debauer, and to Debauer's quest to find the book's pseudonymous author, who seems to have an uncanny knowledge of the conditions and landmarks of Debauer's own youth in postwar Germany. This mysterious work, with similarities to The Odyssey, offers tantalizing clues to a deeper mystery, that of the identity of Debauer's father, reported dead after the war. Debauer's youth, failed career and love life play out against authoritatively detailed scenes of Nazi degeneracy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the stark differences between East and West Germany. As in his previous works, Schlink's protagonist is a flawed character who elicits the reader's understanding but not affection—until the poignant denouement. (Jan.)
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Praise for THE READER:
"A formally beautiful, disturbing, and finally morally devastating novel. From the first page, The Reader ensnares both heart and mind."
--Los Angeles Times
"A masterly work... The reviewer's sole and privileged function is to say as loudly as he is able, 'Read this' and 'Read it again.'"
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Top Customer Reviews
Most children growing up knowing little about an absent father will at some stage seek clues from the past in order to comprehend their own persona. The quest to fill gaps and to identify with their own behaviour may reveal unpleasant surprises. These can be especially disturbing for those growing up after a war during which their fathers may have condoned or even committed atrocities. In "Homecoming", Bernhard Schlink translates this complex theme into an engaging, multilayered tale, focusing on another sensitive topic of recent German history.
After "The Reader's" worldwide success, expectations for this follow-up novel have been predictably high. In the earlier book, the protagonist was presented as an accidental spectator and partaker in an older woman's exposure as a concentration camp guard. Here, Schlink couches the uncovering of an older generation's deceitful behaviour within a first-person's account of an active, at times obsessive, pursuit of a fictional character, its author, and indirectly of the protagonist's father. The author creates in Peter Debauer a modern-day Odysseus, who roams from place to place, unable to accept his life and "come home". Will he, eventually, find out what he was searching for - about the unknown figures and, especially, about himself?
Peter recalls his childhood memories fluctuating between those of his reserved and strict mother and of idyllic vacations at his grandparents' place in Switzerland. The mother avoided her son's questions about his father beyond the bare minimum: he had died during the war. His father's parents were not much better, and while sharing stories from their son's childhood, they omitted any reference to him beyond his student years.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Schlink explores the pain of a child who has never known his father and whose mother willfully withholds key information that might put his mind at rest. The author uses Homer's "The Odyssey" as a recurring motif. What kind of man would wander the world rather than hurry home to the woman and son who love him? Peter is a lost soul whose relationship with Barbara splinters, throwing him into depression and isolation. (To his credit, he spends quality time with Max, his ex-girlfriend's son.) Although Peter makes a decent enough living in publishing, he is neither professionally nor personally fulfilled. After holding down several jobs and traveling to various locales, he ends up in New York City, where he meets a man who may hold the key to the mysteries that have tormented him for much of his life.
Michael Henry Heim does a fine job of translating Schlink's words from the German. At times, "Homecoming" is extremely poignant and evocative; it is heart-rending when a young man has never known his father, especially when his mother keeps him at arm's length emotionally. It is small wonder that Peter has such a difficult time forming meaningful relationships. Although Schlink makes the reader empathize with Peter and we care about the results of his search, the novel is not a complete success. At times, the author gets too bogged down in the nuances of the protagonist's endless angst. The last portion of the book, which should be dramatic, fizzles out disappointingly. Schlink goes off in too many directions, dealing with the vagaries of law, the nature of good and evil, the accountability of people for their past sins, and how men and women behave in extreme circumstances. Although Peter eventually gets the answers that he has sought for so many years, it turns out that they make very little practical difference. He realizes that each of us is responsible for his or her own choices. There is a limit to how long even the most self-indulgent individual can blame his failures on the shortcomings of his parents.
Peter DeBauer was raised by his distant mother who refused to inform him about his father, a mysterious man who apparently wrote novels edited and published by is own parents (Peter's paternal grandparents with whom he has an intense bond) yet 'disappeared' form his life to become involved in surviving the war by moving to Switzerland and eventually to America where he became established as a political science professor at Columbia University where, as John De Bauer, he became a highly regarded professor and mind manipulator. The story concerns Peter's quest for finding his father, a journey that places him in locations throughout Europe, seeking bits and fragments of information from anyone even slightly connected with the information he has about his father, finding solace and love from various women, and eventually results in his compulsive trip to New York to investigate the infamous John De Bauer, only to be caught up in a fascinating retreat in the frozen tundra of Upstate New York, learning the truth about his shadowy father. 'Sometimes I feel a longing for the Odysseus who learned the tricks and lies of the confidence man..., set out restless in the world, sought adventure and came out on top, won over my mother with his charm, and made up novels with great gusto and theories with playful levity. But I know it is not Johann Debauer or John De Baur I long for; it is the image I have made of my father and hung in my heart.'
The magic of reading Schlink's books is the discovery of a mixture of brilliant story development with indelibly rich characters and the sharing of philosophizing about death, murder, suicide, guilt, and history's influence on who we will become. 'At what degree of cold, hunger, pressure, or fear does the layer of civilization start to peel away?' Yes, other writers are dealing with the scars left on the German mind living in the aftermath of the atrocities of national guilt. But few do it so eloquently and with such brilliant skill as Bernhard Schlink. At novel's end, the reader is consumed with the desire to start the book all over again. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, January 08
Schlink is one of the most interesting contemporary German novelists. He is a law professor in 'civil life', and that may account for the fact that he writes fewer books than some others. But this book is not really his first novel since the Reader, maybe only the first that comes out in English. (He has written a few excellent crime novels with an elderly former Nazi as a reformed private investigator, a man called Gerhard Selbs. The name allows Schlink all kind of puns in his book titles, as you can easily see if you understand a bit of German. Recommendable stuff.)
The Homecoming: a man, born around the end of WW2, tries to understand his father's life and disappearance. He has never seen him and knows only the vague stories that his mother reluctantly gave him. There is a mystery about the father.
At the same time he recalls that he read a manuscript of a war narrative as a child in Switzerland. A German soldier's 'adventures' in Russia, told in first person. The text was incomplete and the ending had been lost.
The novel moves back and forth between childhood and adulthood of the protagonist. We follow him in his present day life's complications and in his recollections, until he finds his father under somewhat dubious circumstances.
These circumstances are what made me deduct a star. The story finale borders on the kind of conspiracy theory and improbability that I do not consider an enrichment to the book. (On the other hand, if real life were not full of improbabilities, it were more predictable...)
Still well worth reading. In most of his books, Schlink explores the tension between past and presence in Germany, and between different attitudes towards understanding what happened and living with it. I am not always comfortable with his implications, the unspelled-out meanings. Maybe that is one of his strengths: he does not avoid ambiguity.
Charles Dickens, "Martin Chuzzlewit"
Bernhard Schlink's "Homecoming" takes us to a place where the sense of home is as strong as the strongest conjuration. His protagonist, Peter Debauer, has an acute, but unstated, sense of what a home should be but this acuity seems driven by the fact that all the hallmarks of a home are missing in his life. Peter was born during the war and raised in Germany during the post-war (WWII) years. His mother is emotionally distant and self-involved. His father is presumed to have been killed during WWII. As a child we usually grow up (or at least I did) hearing stories about our parents and extended family groups. Those stories, from the good, to the bad, and to the down right embarrassing, acted for me as an anchor that helped tie me emotionally to my extended family. I don't expect that my experience is unique. But this is post-war Germany and Schlink, as he did in The Reader (Oprah's Book Club)", takes us into a world in which Germany's post-war baby boomers are burdened with the silence of their mothers and fathers. Children do not ask "what did you do in the war, daddy?" and, if they do they don't get an answer. Schlink writes of a world in which the sins of the fathers, the guilt of the mothers, are still fresh and too raw to be discussed with the children. This lack of an anchor leaves Peter adrift and at sea in a very real sense. His life seems to be one in which he is carried along by the tides. He flits from relationship to relationship, and his career seems equally unstable. This is not to say that Peter doesn't have relationships or that he isn't smart enough or accomplished enough to make a decent living. But the sense that something is missing in Peter is very strong even as it remains unexpressed. "Homecoming" is the story of Peter Debauer's odyssey, his inchoate search for a homecoming.
I used the word odyssey because The Odyssey (Penguin Classics) is the centerpiece of the book's form and structure. Peter's most enjoyable moments come when he is sent by train to Switzerland to spend the summers with his paternal grandparents. During those summers he reads bits and pieces of manuscripts submitted to his grandfather for publication in a series of books published under the title "Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and entertainment". Peter becomes obsessed with the story of a German solider trying to make his way back from a Soviet POW camp. The narrative of that story tracks that of The Odyssey. But the manuscript itself is incomplete and Peter begins a search for the rest of the story and the story's author that takes him on his own odyssey. He travels throughout Germany, Switzerland and the United Sates.
However, the manuscript's last pages are missing and, driven by the desire for resolution, Peter spends much of his adult life in a quest for both the author's identity and the novel's conclusion. Peter's search is interwoven in the story with the threads of his own life. Kept at arm's length by his mother, Peter keeps pressing for more information about his father. As Peter acquires more information about his father we see yet another Odyssey begin to emerge.
I was drawn to Homecoming but also found it to be a bit flawed, particularly in the latter portions of the book. However, those flaws (an ending that seemed a bit too pat for example and a climactic scene in a hotel that was pretty blatantly telegraphed to us in an earlier chapter) were outweighed by Schlink's prose and by a theme, a search for meaning by a generation when much of the past, a family-past that places our lives in context is withheld from us. Peter Debauer may not be the fully-formed adult we might prefer in our protagonists but that seems to be the point. The point is the journey and the angst and guilt that made the journey necessary. Home is a strong word and Bernhard Schlink's Homecoming shows how much can be lost when that sense of home is lost on an individual or on a generation. This was a very thoughtful book and well worth reading. L. Fleisig
A child of World War II, Peter Debauer grows up with his long-suffering mother and the painful absence of his father, supposedly a casualty of the war. As an adult, Peter begins to search for the inevitable truth about his own mother's background and the possibility of locating the father he has been missing all these years. There are doppelgangers, con men, lies and a long history of deceit to be overcome before he can rightfully claim that he knows his own family history. The search takes him halfway around the world and back. Putting together fragments of information, he is led to New York City, where his past and his future finally may come together.
Peter creates a new identity for himself and comes to America where he works to unravel a convoluted chain of secrets concerning John de Baur, a celebrated poly-sci professor from Columbia University and bestselling author. Known for his antagonistic philosophy of life and the remarkably charismatic rapport he has with those he teaches, de Baur is the key and the most difficult obstruction standing in the way of discovering what he needs to know. Add to that the fact that Peter may have just fallen in love with the woman he sees as a soulmate, and the rush to unraveling his true identity and that of his family becomes an even more important and profound journey.
Written in German and translated by Michael Henry Heim, HOMECOMING is a significant piece of fiction, resonating particularly in these times where right and wrong are sometimes greatly confused determinations. "Sometimes I feel a longing for the Odysseus who learned the tricks and lies of the confidence man..., set out restless in the world, sought adventure and came out on top, won over my mother with his charm, and made up novels with great gusto and theories with playful levity. But I know it is not Johann Debauer or John De Baur I long for; it is the image I have made of my father and hung in my heart." And it is in this proclamation that Peter encapsulates the power of the drama of HOMECOMING.
Usually a translation would not read as smoothly and elegantly as this one does. But clearly the translator did an excellent job since Schlink's prose comes through clear and strong. As much a mystery as a philosophical treatise on the importance of origins in the understanding of one's own place in the world, HOMECOMING offers a two-layer reading experience that will enthrall both the casual and serious-minded readers.
--- Reviewed by Jana Siciliano