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[187] The Reader – Bernhard Schlink

reader1“Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at actual distance. I was afraid that the small, light, safe world of notes and cassettes were too artificial and too vulnerable to withstand actual closeness.” [193]

There are novels evocative of events that change the course of human history through layered narratives and an abundance of symbols, like Beloved. There are also those written in very simple language, so simple that because it leaves no room for analysis, the meaning thus overlooked. The Reader is such a novel, one that is meant for re-readings.

Germany in 1958. Fifteen year old Michael Berg has hepatitis that has confined him home for months. One day in late fall a woman more than twice his age rescues him when he falls ill on his way home. Hanna Frau Schmitz seizes his arm and pulls the lad through the dark entryway into her apartment, where she bathes him and feeds him. In time the thirty-six year old conductor becomes his lover. Their relationship is as intense as it is sudden. She enthralls him with her passion, with a seductiveness that has nothing to do with her voluptuous body, but her evasiveness of her past puzzles him. Their relationship nonetheless becomes more intimate as Michael takes up reading to Hanna.

After Hanna disappears suddenly one day, Michael has never overcome his grief and blames himself for her disappearance, which leaves a profound influence on his future relationship with women. He can never love anyone whom it would hurt to lose. When he sees her again it is in the courtroom seven years later. She is arraigned for a hideous crime at a satellite camp near Auschwitz that she cannt be completely responsible for. But that she is not willing to earn victory, or at least fortify her defense, at the price of exposure as an illiterate has ensnared her, crippled her. It pains Michael that Hanna, now at 43, opts for the horrible exposure as a criminal over the harmless exposure as an illiterate.

“She was not persuing her own interests, but fighting for her own truth, her own justice. Because she always had to dissimulate somewhat, and could never be completely candid, it was a painful truth and a pitiful justice, but it was hers, and the struggle for it was her struggle.” [134]

The writing style of The Reader is dual. The part of the story that delves into the Nazi past, amplified by the trial of the six female guards who were indirectly responsible for the death of hundreds of female prisoners, who were burned ablaze in a locked church, is hardboiled writing reminiscent of a detective story. The liaison between Michael and Hanna assumes a more literary and poetic expression that is coiled in eroticism.

Bernhard Schlink employs the generational conflict between the lovers to establish a sense of distance to the actual Holocaust event. Equally unusual in modern Holocaust fiction is that the novel has as its main contact with the historical events a perpetrator instead of a victim. Hanna, once she attains literacy and understands the situation more fully than we can, cannot live with herself anymore. Her illiteracy, therefore, becomes a metaphor for modern understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Holocaust.That Michael feels a difficult identification with the victims and that he feels a misgiving of condemning and understanding her springs from the struggle to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis. A indisputable fact: People could have heard it from Hitler’s mouth in his infamous 1939 radio broadcast to Germany and the world, threatening extermination of the Jews if war started. 216 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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41 Responses

  1. I have this book on my shelf, to be read very soon for my WWII challenge. As a mom with a son, I know the sexual relationship between a 36-year-old and the kid will sicken me and creep me out. I haven’t seen the movie either…I was afraid it would ruin the book for me. Have you seen the movie, and if so, how did it compare?

  2. Nice review. I like your added literary analysis. It’s a tough, challenging read on many levels.

  3. I’ve been hearing great things about this book. It is currently highly recommended on a couple of audiobook mailing lists I read. I haven’t quite decided to read it yet, but your excellent review has almost convinced me to pick this one up.

  4. How interesting! I actually just finished reading this book as well, and just posted a review on my site. I actually had a completely different reaction to it than you did (in that I would place this squarely in the “toss” category!), but it’s these differences that keep things interesting.

    I personally didn’t think that anything about the relationship between Michael and Hannah was erotic, and I also thought that the illiteracy storyline was ridiculous. I am not sure that I believe that with literacy Hannah achieves enlightenment, though perhaps this is the case. I find it hard to believe that throughout the trial (and even beforehand) she wouldn’t have become aware of what she had been a part of. She was illiterate, but not an idiot – for Schlink to suggest that those two things are the same is, I think, incorrect.

    Anyway, I am going to mention your review at the end of mine so that people who would like a different perspective will know that they can find one here!

    (P.S. I did enjoy reading your review, which I found very thoughtful, even if I didn’t have the same response as you did to the book!)

  5. Sounds interesting. Also, out of curiosity, what part of Germany do they live in: West or East?

  6. I have got to go an give this book a re-read. I saw the movie over the weekend and I had read the book years before and don’t really remember it making that much if an impression on me. After seeing the movie, I find it incredible to think that I read the book and forgot about it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I agree with Biblio, the argument that Hanna’s illiteracy prevented her from understanding the Holocaust is laughable. Given pre-WWII literacy rates in Germany it isn’t plausible that she would be illiterate and even if someone can’t read, it doesn’t mean that they can’t get that standing outside a Church and doing nothing while 300 women and children burn alive is wrong.

  8. Thanks for sharing all your wonderful insights!

    I wanted you to know that I gave your blog a shout out today – and an award.

  9. Sandy:
    I think most people who have read the book or have heard of the book remember only the unusual relationship between Hanna and Michael. But there is more to the story, of course. I’ve been holding back from watching the film because I don’t want my literary experience tainted by motion picture. I saw the movie the day after I finished it. :)

  10. marie:
    Right? The simple language is a mere deception. That Michael switches the voice of his narrative make me go back to re-read at different stages. It’s not an easy book to read.

  11. Beth F:
    I didn’t read it because of Oscar, although my friends thought so. One of my reading buddies recommended the book to me and I took it with me to Las Vegas. I finished it all in one sitting but had to re-read several passages to make sense out of the seemingly simple writing.

  12. Steph:
    I’ll read your review and link it to mine as well. I’m glad that someone else holds a different perspective because I questioned whether I liked the book or not for a while during the reading. On two occasions in my reading notes I scribbled down:

    “Is Hanna a psycho? Or is she an idiot?”

    I wasn’t convinced that she was so out of touch with what she was doing at the internment camp. But I was touched by her late realization. And I changed my verdict (before I posted the review, this was in my head) from “Toss” to “Read”.

  13. Biblibio:
    The story took place in Berlin. Then Hanna disappeared and they reunited in Berlin seven years later.

  14. Nicole:
    I have seen this book at the bookstore for years but have never got around reading it. The movie has been a nice push. :)

  15. adevotedreader:
    Another question that comes to my mind is whether she has repented or not at the end. The illiteracy deal indeed is quite absurd, because they could have heard it from Hitler’s mouth in his infamous 1939 radio broadcast to Germany and the world, threatening extermination of the Jews if war started.

  16. Molly:
    Thanks so much. I’ll head over that to claim the award. :)

  17. I just finished and reviewed Schlink’s new book Homecoming which deals with many of the same generational issues re: the Holocaust that The Reader does. I think Mr. Schlink is getting dangerously close to becoming something of an apologist for the people who participated in the Holocaust. Both books are about one generation trying to come to terms with what their parents generation did but both books also end up trying to make excuses for them. I think that is disturbing ground to be on. It’s one thing to try to understand and another to try to excuse.

    Both books have much to offer in any case. I do think The Reader is the better book of the two.

  18. CB James:
    I’m not extremely well-versed in the Bible, but I do know that the son should not be responsible for his father’s sin. I perceived that Bernhard is in dangerous waters writing these books.

  19. I read this several years ago and your review and all the buzz about the movie has made me want to think about re-reading this again soon.

  20. Very thoughtful review, Matt. I’m still undecided if I should read this or not. But definitely your thoughts have given me much to consider, thanks.

  21. Great review. Have you seen the movie? What do you think of them in comparison?
    (And how are you enjoying Sula so far? I really want to read that!)

  22. I just can’t accept the fact that Hanna doesn’t know what was going on at the camp. Her claim to be illiterate doesn’t seem as valid to me because even if she is illiterate, she’s not deaf.

  23. Well said, Matt, and for the record, I enthusiastically recommend this book.

  24. Thanks for the great review. I’ve had my eye on this one for awhile. I’ve seen mixed reviews, and I want to know what all the talk is about. I’m waiting until I read the book to see the movie.

    Would it be okay for me to post a link to your review on the book reviews page at War Through the Generations?

    –Anna

  25. Staci:
    Gosh, I still haven’t seen the movie considering all the hype and Kate Winslet’s winning the Oscar. I’m still letting the story settle in me.

  26. claire:
    The book has never been a high priority to me. I decided to read it when my friend recommended it and that many people have got the kick out of the film.

  27. Naomi:
    I haven’t seen the film. I’m still letting the thoughts from the book settle in me. I have mixed feelings about it.

  28. John:
    I have to agree with you that it’s almost absurd that she hasn’t heard anything about the massacre. But the book is quite well-written.

  29. draabe:
    I like how Schlink has adopted two voices in stitching together this story. One is more matter-of-fact, pertaining to the historical aspect of the events, and the other more poetic and intimate.

  30. Anna:
    Thanks for visiting my blog. Bernhard Schlink has a new book out called “Homecoming,” which also explores getting in touch with the Holocaust across the generations. I plan to check it out as well.

    Feel free to link to my review. :)

  31. Thanks! I’ve linked to it here on War Through the Generations.

    –Anna

  32. in the movie promo clip they spoke of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

    Yes, I saw that in the movie, but not in the book. did I miss it or was it added by the screenwriter?

  33. the movie will come out in march or april.. so Yumiko read the book after my suggestion. I wrote her:
    I saw it [the READER] a Germany and proud and cold and hard, but also a story of illiteracy. the happy part is that she learned to read. the sex between a boy and a woman was just what happened. for me I think it did not ruin the boy. I found the protagonist a weak un-acting person, to the point of passive. what a poor hero. The woman was pathetic and proud. life is a strange trip. Bad circumstances.
    YUMIKO ANSWERED:
    He said “What I did and did not is my life”

    I did not find that quote.. of course she read it in Japanese. and it is again translated.

  34. I just read the English translation of this book in one setting. In my opinion, it is an amazing book. The simplicity of the language masks the conflicts between and within the protagonists, the generations, the victims, the perpetrators, and the spectators. I believe the story is primarily about pride and shame; under no circumstance can one admit to something that might diminish one in others’ eyes (Hanna’s illiteracy, Michael’s reluctance to tell his friends about Hanna, the villagers’ and co-defendants’ finger pointing). It is possible that some of the meaning is lost to American readers due to a cultural disconnect. I couldn’t help thinking that you have to have grown up in this environment to really “get it.” Pride and shame seem deeply ingrained in the German psyche, as is a sense of duty, law, and order. I grew up in Germany during the time of the trials, I observed the bewilderment, and I see in the profusion of Holocaust books and movies that have come out of Germany in the past 30 years a frantic effort to come to terms with our national shame. But I digress, as my daughter likes to say… Anyway, I plan to read the German version and compare the writing, and then I will see the movie…

    By the way, the story takes place in Heidelberg (in the former “West Germany”), not Berlin, as stated by Matt. I spent several happy years in Heidelberg…

  35. [...] A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook delves deeper into the book than I did, so check it out if you want to know much more about the book http://mattviews.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/187-the-reader-bernhard-schlink/ [...]

  36. I saw the movie. Have not read the book Born in Germany in 1947 and have always questionned why a whole country stood by & watched their friends and neighbors be hauled off to camps. The topic was never discussed by my grandparents or parent-only silence. Friends responded well they would have been shot if they objected. What shoot every one. I am not ashamed of my heritage but I feel Germany was a nation of cowards. I hold all Germans of that generation responsible not just the “Nazis” We are not just talking about Jewish people They were German, Polish, etc. citizens first and foremost. As for the German Judges in these trials after the war, how many of them on the dais were pariticpants and yet they are the condemer of the defendants in front of them– a holier than though attitude. What did they do during the war. Probably most of them should have been on trial themselves for being a participant in the Nazi regime.

  37. i just finished reading this book for an eglish novel study. i did notlike this book at all. the whole secretive part of the novel was pointless, and when the secret was revealed i had a feeling that was it from the start. i also found the realtionsip between Michael and Hanna quite weird. what could possibly be going through hermind to have sex with a 15 year old boy? NASTY!!!
    deffinetely going into the toss section.

  38. [...] A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook [...]

  39. Reblogged this on The Chronicles of Me and commented:
    I loved this book. Its always good to read other reviews to see what others think the story is about. This is a great review.

  40. [...] Opinions: Erin Reads,  A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook,  Boston Bibliophile, 1morechapter, Vulpes Libris, Hey Lady, MariReads, Nishita’s Rants and [...]

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