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Peter Schneider. Trans. Philip Boehm. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996. 293 pp. $24.00.

German author Peter Schneider's 1992 novel Paarungen, newly translated by Philip Boehm, uses the intertwined narratives of three (anti-)love stories to lead the reader on an engrossing tour through the quotidian experience of the middle-aging intellectual class of pre-Unification West Berlin. At forty, Eduard Hoffman, a molecular biologist tracking a virus implicated in Multiple Sclerosis, wonders if he--or anyone in his society--is capable of loving--or even of keeping house together beyond the three-year-and-six-month "half-life" of the contemporary romance. He and two intimates from the cafe scene-Andre, a composer updating Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Theo, anarchist poet and librettist on the Don Giovanni project, bet on who, one year hence, would still be together with his present lover. No one wins. Against this backdrop, Schneider adds bright pigments to the cement-gray palette one associates with depictions of life in the shadow of the Wall--indeed, at times one cannot resist the suspicion that the author, in the midst of this serious book of ideas and social commentary, is attempting humor. Schneider's characters, as intellectual as they are articulate, wax passionate on scientific ethics and the nature-nurture controversy, on animal rights extremism, on fertility testing--even on the nuances of guilt for the possible Nazis in one's family tree, however distant. The novel also provides glimpses into the assimilated-yet-self-conscious remains of Jewish life in the new Germany and a vivid tableau of a wildly unassimilated family of astonishing in-laws newly escaped from the Soviet East.

It is worth mentioning that Boehm's translation is masterful for its syntactical variety and good ear. The novel's omniscient narrative strategy mixes a rather a heavy dose of explanation in with the observations. (It's noteworthy that Schneider's two earlier books, The Wall Jumper and The German Comedy, are nonfiction). Thankfully, explanations and observations both are keen, and the reader, in the end, is happy for the authorial accompaniment. Couplings is at once exotic and familiar, a fine portrait of a famous city at a singular time, a fine exploration of what it means to take stock of one's life when one's mortality can no longer be ignored and when one must come to terms with his place in the ultimate scheme of things.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kessler, Rod
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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