I am currently reading Flights of Love, a collection of short stories by Bernhard Schlink, the author of The Reader. And while I am reading the third story, The Other Man, I am wondering if I have read this before. I am certain I haven’t. Yet it seems so familiar.
The story describes a marriage between a man, whose name we never learn, and his wife, Lisa, who is dying of cancer. After her death, a letter arrives for Lisa from a man called Rolf. It is brief, he reads it and discovers it is from her former lover. Later he discovers a batch of letters written by Lisa and her lover over the long years of their affair
The letters unnerve the man. He thought Lisa was happy with him, happy in their marriage. “But now nothing was self-evident any longer.” He had believed everything was fine with his family but now he realizes he had probably only been deluding himself.
He begins to reply to the other man’s letters as if Lisa was still alive and for a while he, as Lisa, and Rolf carry on the exchange this way. Eventually he decides to visit the other man’s town and in due course tracks him down. They begin to meet in a café where they play chess and become friends of a sort.
He discovers the other man lives in a decrepit basement hovel and is really nothing but an impoverished braggadocio, a pretentious dandy, who lives on the generosity of others. He now understands why there was nothing left of Lisa’s inheritance. How could Lisa have preferred “this loser to him?"
Eventually he identifies himself as Lisa’s husband. The other man begins borrowing money from him. A letter arrives indicating Lisa will be visiting his town with the orchestra in which she plays first violin. The other man plans a reception for her but soon thereafter learns that she has died.
Nevertheless, he holds the reception anyway and delivers an eloquent speech praising Lisa’s performance of a Haydn’s string quartet. Her husband realizes that “the beauty he praised contained within it not only a higher truth, but a robust one.”
It was not that Lisa had been happy with the other man while being unhappy with him, nor had she been happier with the other man than with him. Lisa had shared her happiness in a variety of ways, had both happily received and happily given to others. The happiness she had given was not a lesser one, it was exactly the happiness to which his ponderous and peevish heart could open. She had held nothing back from him. She had given everything he had been capable of taking.
The story ends as the husband gets back on the train home. He would wake up, see the sun, hear the birds, feel the breeze, and it would all come back to him and it would be all right.
And then suddenly, as the story comes to an end, it dawns on me. With a few modern variations, this is the same tale enacted in the movie The Other Man that I saw on a DVD a few months ago. The film is clearly adapted from Schlink’s short story. What took me so long to recognize the relationship?
The movie featured Liam Neeson, now a computer software wizard, as the husband, Laura Linney, now a designer of elegant shoes, as Lisa and Antonio Banderas, still the same con artist, as the other man. They are all fine actors. Yet the movie is scarcely known with only a few reviews on the Web. It was never shown in my hometown but then it isn’t really a great film town anyway. I don’t know if it was shown anywhere for that matter. And Roger Ebert, who I always look to for cinema insights, had nothing to say about this one.
No matter, cordial thanks to Netflix and Bernhard Schlink and to the staff at The Paperback Exchange in Florence who very kindly brought me these versions of the story and its elemental truth.