Girl With Lizard
It was a painting of a girl with a lizard. They were looking at each other and not looking at each other, the girl gazing dreamily toward the lizard, the lizard directing its vacant, glistening eyes toward the girl. Because the girl's thoughts were somewhere else, she was holding so still that even the lizard sat motionless on the moss-grown rock, on which the girl lay half leaning, half stretched out on her stomach. The lizard lifted its head and probed with its tongue.
"That Jewish girl," the boy's mother said whenever she spoke of the girl in the painting. When his parents argued and his father got up to retreat to his study where the painting was hung, she would call after him, "Go pay your Jewish girl a visit!" Or she would ask, "Does the painting of that Jewish girl have to hang there? Does the boy have to sleep under the painting of that Jewish girl?" The painting hung above a couch where the boy napped at noontime, while his father read the paper.
More than once he had heard his father explain to his mother that the girl was not Jewish. That the red velvet cap she wore, pressed so firmly down into her brown curls that they almost hid it, wasn't meant to suggest her religion, wasn't a folk costume but a matter of fashion. "It's what girls wore back then. Besides, it's the Jewish men who wear caps, not the women."
The girl wore a dark red skirt, and over her bright yellow blouse was a dark yellow vest, a kind of bodice loosely laced with ribbons at the back. The rock on which the girl rested her chin and plump childish arms hid much of her clothes and body. She might have been eight years old. The face was a child's face. But the eyes, the full lips, and the hair, which curled against the brow and fell to cover her back and shoulders, were not those of a child but of a woman. The shadow that her hair cast over her cheek and temple was a secret, and the darkness of the puffed sleeve into which the bare upper arm vanished, a temptation. Behind the rock and a sliver of beach, the sea stretched away to the horizon and surged into the foreground on rolling breakers; sunlight piercing the dark clouds left its luster on a patch of glistening sea and the girl's face and arms. Nature breathed passion.
Or was this ironic? The passion, the temptation, the secret, and the woman in the child? Was it the ambiguity in the painting that not only fascinated the boy, but also confused him? He was often confused. He was confused when his parents argued, when his mother asked her sarcastic questions and when his father smoked a cigar and read his paper, trying to look relaxed and superior, although the air in his study was so charged that the boy scarcely dared move or even breathe. And his mother's mocking words about the Jewish girl were confusing. The boy had no idea what a Jewish girl was.
From one day to the next, his mother stopped talking about the Jewish girl and his father put an end to the obligatory naps in the study. For a while the boy had to nap in the same room and same bed where he slept at night. Then there were no more naps at all. He was glad. He was nine and had been made to nap at noontime longer than any of his classmates or playmates.
But he missed the girl with the lizard. He would steal into his father's study to have a look at the painting and talk with the girl for a moment. He grew fast that year; at first his eyes were level with the gold frame, then with the rock, and later with the girl's eyes.
He was a strong boy, sturdily built, with large-boned limbs. As he shot up, there was nothing touching about his awkwardness; instead it was somehow threatening. His schoolmates were afraid of him, even when he was on their side in games, arguments, and fights. He was an outsider. He knew that himself, although he did not know that it was his appearance, his height, broad shoulders, and strength, that made him one. He thought it was the world inside him, with which he coexisted and in which he lived. None of his schoolmates shared it with him. But, then, he did not invite any of them in, either. Had he been a delicate child, he might have found playmates, soul mates, among other delicate children. But they especially were intimidated by him.
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.
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?"
"Don't you keep things just to yourself sometimes, too? Do you want us or your friends to be part of everything you do? If only because people are envious, it's best not to show them your treasures. Either it makes them sad because they don't have them, or they turn greedy and want to take them away from you."
"Is this painting a treasure?"
"You know that yourself. You just described it beautifully, the way only a beautiful treasure is described."
"I mean is it so valuable that it would make people envious?"
His father turned around and looked at the painting. "Yes, it's worth a great deal, and I don't know if I could protect it if people wanted to steal it. Wouldn't it be better if they didn't even know we have it?"
The boy nodded.
"Come, let's look at a book of paintings together. We're sure to find one you like"
When the boy turned fourteen his father resigned from the bench and took a job with an insurance company. He didn't want to do it--the boy could tell that, although his father didn't complain. But neither did his father explain why he changed jobs. The boy didn't find that out until years later. One result of the change was that they had to give up their old apartment for a new one. Instead of occupying the fashionable second floor of a four-story turn-of-the-century town house, they now lived on the edge of town in a twenty-four-unit apartment house, built with subsidies from a government program, according to its norms. The four rooms were small, the ceilings low, and the sounds and smells of neighbors ever present. But at least there were four rooms; in addition to a living room and two bedrooms, there was a study for his father. Come evening, he would retreat to it, even though he no longer brought files home from work.
"You can drink in the living room just as well," the boy heard his mother say to his father one evening, "and maybe you'd drink less if you exchanged a word with me sometimes."
His parents' way of life changed too. There were no more dinners and evenings for ladies and gentlemen, when the boy would open the door for guests and take their coats. He missed the atmosphere of the dining room, the table set with white china and adorned with silver candelabra, his parents putting out glasses, pastries, cigars, and ashtrays in the living room, awaiting the first ring of the doorbell. He missed several of his parents' friends. Some would ask how he was doing in school and what interests he had, and they'd remember his answers on their next visit and keep track. A surgeon had discussed operations on teddy bears with him, and a geologist had talked about volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and shifting sand dunes. He especially missed one woman friend of his parents. Unlike his slender, nervous, volatile mother, she was a plump woman of sunny temperament. In winter when he was still small, she would sweep him in under her fur coat, into the shimmering caress of its silk lining and the overwhelming scent of her perfume. Later she had teased him about conquests he had not made, about girlfriends he did not have--leaving him both embarrassed and proud. And even in later years, when she sometimes made a game of pulling him to her and wrapping them both in her fur coat, he had enjoyed the softness of her body.
It was a long time before new guests came. These were neighbors, colleagues of his father from the insurance company, colleagues of his mother, who was now working as a police department secretary. The boy noticed that his parents seemed uncertain; they wanted to find their way into their new world without denying the old, and acted either too cool or too intimate.
The boy had to adjust as well. His parents had him transferred from his old high school, just a few steps from their old home, to one that again was not very far from their new apartment. And so his way of life changed too. The tone in his new school was coarser, and he was less of an outsider than he had been in the old one. For another year, he still took piano lessons from the teacher who lived near his old home. Then his parents said he was making such wretched progress that they ended the lessons and sold the piano. The bike rides to see his piano teacher had been precious to him, for he would pass his old apartment and a neighboring building where a girl lived that he used to walk partway to school and play with now and then. She had thick red curly hair down to her shoulders and a face full of freckles. He rode slowly past her building, hoping she would step outside and say hello, and then he would walk his bike alongside her, and they would, of course, end up seeing each other again. They wouldn't exactly make a date, but it would be clear when he would find her where and vice versa. She was far too young for a real date.
But she never came out of the building when he rode by.
It is a mistake to believe that people only make decisions about their lives once they are, or have, grown up. Children take actions and adopt attitudes with the same decisiveness as adults. They don't stay with their decisions forever, but then adults cast aside decisions about their lives too.
A year later the boy decided to be somebody in his new school and circumstances. He was strong enough to have no trouble earning respect, and since he was also clever and inventive, he soon became part of a hierarchy, which in his as in every school class was defined by an amorphous mix of strength, impudence, wit, and parental affluence. These things counted with the girls, tooâ€”not in his own school, which had no girls, but in the girls' high school a couple of blocks away.
The boy did not fall in love. He picked out a girl who was popular and provocatively attractive, quick with a smart remark, and who allowed herself to be known as having had experience with boys, but also was hard to get. He impressed her with his strength, with the respect he was shown--and the fact that there was something more. She didn't know what this "more" was, but there was something she hadn't found in other boys, and this she wanted to see and to have. He noticed, and would occasionally drop a hint that he had treasures he didn't show to just anyone, but that he might show to her if . . . if she would go steady with him? Neck with him? Sleep with him? He didn't exactly know himself. His public pursuit of her, to which she yielded increasingly, was more interesting, brought him greater rewards and prestige, than what actually happened between them. Sauntering with friends past the girls' high school, where she and her group would sometimes be leaning against the iron gate after classes, and where he would casually put his arm around her, or waving to her if her team was playing handball and getting a kiss blown in return, or crossing the grass on the way to the swimming pool with her, admired and envied--that was the thing.
When they finally did sleep together it was a disaster. She was experienced enough to have certain expectations, but not enough to deal with his awkwardness. He lacked the assurance that comes with love and makes up for the clumsiness of the first time. Once the swimming pool had closed and the guard had made his rounds, and they were together behind the bushes near the fence, it suddenly seemed all wrong to him--the kisses, the tenderness, the desire. Nothing was right. It was a betrayal of everything he loved and had loved--he thought of his mother, of her friend in the fur coat, of the neighbor girl with the red curls and freckles, and of the girl with the lizard. When it was all over--the embarrassment of dealing with the condom, his orgasm which had happened far too fast, his inept and merely irritating attempts to satisfy her with his hand--he cuddled up to her, seeking consolation for his own failure. She stood up, dressed, and left. He lay there in a huddle, staring at the trunk of the bush he was lying under, at last year's leaves, at his underwear and the mesh of the fence. It turned dark. He went on lying there even though he was cold now; as if he could somehow shiver away his being with her, pursuing her, struggling conceitedly to win her these past few months, the way you sweat out an illness. Finally he got up and swam a few laps in the main pool.
When he came home around midnight, the door to the lighted study was open. His father was lying on the couch, snoring and reeking of alcohol. A bookcase had been overturned, and the drawers of the desk were open and empty; the floor was strewn with books and papers. The boy made sure the painting hadn't been damaged, turned out the light, and closed the door.
When school was almost over and he was just waiting for diplomas to be handed out, he took a trip to the nearest large city. It was an hour and a half by train, a trip he could have taken at any time all those years for a concert, a play, an art exhibition, but had never done so. When he was small, his parents had once taken him along and shown him the churches, the town hall, the courthouse, and the large park in the center of the city. After their move, his parents did not travel anymore, whether with or without him, and at first it had never occurred to him to travel alone. Later he couldn't afford it. His father lost his job because of his drinking, and the boy had to work as well as go to school, handing over any money he earned. Now that he was graduating and would soon leave town, he was beginning to separate from his parents. And he now wanted to spend what he earned.
He wasnâ€™t looking for the museum of modern art, but found it by chance. He went in because the build- ing fascinated him with its strange mixture of modern simplicity on the one hand and inhospitable, cavelike gloominess on the other, while the doors and oriels were playfully kitschy. The collection ranged from the Impressionists to the New Savages, and he looked at it all with proper attentiveness but little sympathy. Until he happened on the painting by Rene Dalmann.
At the Beach was the title, and it showed a rock, a sandy beach, and the sea. A girl, naked and beautiful, was doing a handstand on the rock, but one of her legs was made of wood--not a wooden leg, but a female leg of perfectly grained wood. No, he neither recognized the girl doing the handstand as the girl with the lizard nor could he say that it was the same rock, the same beach, the same sea. But it all reminded him so powerfully of the painting at home that he bought a postcard as he left and, had he had more money, would have bought a book on Rene Dalmann. When he compared the two at home, the differences between painting and postcard were obvious. And yet there was something that linked them--was it merely in the eye of the beholder or in the paintings themselves?
"What have you got there?" His father entered the room and reached for the postcard.
The boy stepped aside and let his father grab at thin air. "Who painted our painting?"
His father's gaze turned cautious. He'd been drinking, and it was the same caution with which he reacted to the rejection and open disdain his wife and son showed him whenever he was sloshed. They had long ago lost any fear of him. "I don't know--why?"
"Why haven't we sold the painting if it's so valuable?"
"Sold? We can't sell the painting!" His father took up a position in front of the painting as if to protect it from his son.
"Why can't we?"
"Then we wouldn't have anything. And you'd get nothing when I'm gone. It's for you that we're keeping the painting, for you." Delighted by an argument that would surely persuade his son, his father repeated it, and then again. "Mother and I are turning ourselves inside out to be sure you'll get the painting someday. And what do I get in return? Ingratitude, nothing but ingratitude."
The boy left his whining father standing there and forgot the whole incident, the picture in the museum, and Rene Dalmann. Besides working in the warehouse of a tractor factory, he moonlighted as a waiter until the beginning of the semester, and then left to study as far from home as possible. The city on the Baltic was ugly and its university mediocre. But nothing there reminded him of his hometown in the south. In his first weeks he realized, much to his relief, that he recognized no one in his law courses, or in the cafeteria, or in the halls. He could start all over again.
He had made one stop on his way there. He had only a few hours to walk through the city by the river. Again it was purely by chance that he found the museum. But once inside, chance was not enough, and he asked right away for pictures by Rene Dalmann, and found two of them. Order Restored after War was five by six and a half feet high and showed a woman sitting on the ground, head bent forward, legs drawn up, propping herself on her left arm. With her right hand she was pushing a drawer back into her abdomen; her breasts and belly were drawers as well, with nipples as knobs for the one and her navel as the pull for the other. The drawers at her breasts and stomach were slightly open and empty, but beneath them in the abdomen drawer lay a dead soldier, twisted and mutilated. The other painting was entitled Self-Portrait as Woman and showed the bust of a smiling young man with a shaved head; the outline of breasts was visible beneath his buttoned-up black jacket, and in his left hand he held up a blond, curly wig.
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 alco- hol 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' 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.
He was suddenly filled with sympathy and tenderness. "What do you intend to do?"he asked gently and tried to lay his hand on hers, but she drew hers away.
"I-m moving out. They've built a couple of terraced apartments on the slope, and I bought myself a studio there. I don't need more than one room."
She cast him a hostile look. "I always pooled your father's pension and my earnings, and took out the same amount for myself that he drank up. Do you have any objection?"
"No." He laughed. "Father drank up a studio apartment in just ten years?"
His mother laughed with him. "Not quite. But more than the down payment I saved up."
He hesitated. "Why did you stay with Father?"
"What a question." She shook her head. "For a while you have a choice. Do you want to do this or that, live with this person or that? But one day what it is you're doing and that person have become your life, and to ask why you stick with your life is a rather stupid question. But you asked about the painting. I don't plan to do anything with it. Take it with you or put it in the bank, if they have lockboxes that big."
"Tell me what's the story with the painting?"
"Oh, my boy . . ." She looked at him sadly. "I'd rather not. I think your father was proud of the painting, to the end." She gave him a weary smile. "He would so much have liked to visit you and see how you were doing with your law studies, but he didn't dare. You never invited us. You know, you children are no less cruel than we parents were. You're more self-righteous, that's all."
He wanted to protest, but did not know if she was right or not. "I'm sorry," he said, dodging the issue.
She stood up. "Sleep tight, my boy. I'll be out of the house by seven. Sleep as long as you want before you leave, but don't forget the painting."
Copyright © 2001 by Bernhard Schlink. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.