The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
Phoenix, Orion Books, 1998
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The Reader is not an easy book, nor is it a pleasant one. I found part of it compelling, parts of it repulsive, parts of it a little bit too repetitive, not always completely engaging, and yet rather addictive. In short I cannot quite reduce my opinion to any one single feeling, but I think this is in part what the book means to do. If anything, it will invoke strong reactions in readers, and I think would make a perfect book to discuss among a group of readers.
In The Reader we encounter Michael Berg, a fifteen-year-old teenager who upon meeting Hanna falls in love with her, and starts an affair with her, even if she is many years older. Their relationship is far from perfect, with a lot of tensions beneath the surface, and yet Michael seems caught up in it as if in a dream. However, one day Hanna suddenly disappears. In part 2 and 3 of the book, the reader finds out the how and why of this disappearance, and suddenly a very different light is shed on Hanna and Michael’s relationship.
WARNING: I cannot discuss this book without spoilers, so only read ahead if you are not bothered about them or if you have already read this book.
I had a rather strange experience with this book. First, I was puzzled by my reaction to the subject matter. Here is a description of what is supposed to be a very erotic relationship, between a woman and a minor. Basically, it is p_doph_lia. And yet, I didn’t have as strong a reaction to it as I might have expected, as I rationally knew I should have. As upon reflection I did have. But while reading, I only felt a strange compulsion to read on.
Now, before you judge me about that, I think that is rather interesting in light of what the rest of the book portrays, which is Hanna as a nazi prison guard who lets girls read to her before they are deported to Auschwitz. I, like most people, was repulsed by the idea of the relationship between Hanna and Michael. But I think the confused feelings I experienced (and in no way did they involve actual romantic or erotic feelings, the most I got from their encounters was this strange obsession, that I somehow equate with how teenage relationships can be) were meant to be there. For when you think of Hanna’s superiority to Michael in age, and her (more dangerous?) superiority as a prison guard to those reading girls, there is a strange overlap. Just as, as some have noticed, there might be a comparison implied between Michael’s “love” for Hanna and Germany’s “infatuation” with nazism?
I don’t know. I think all of this *could* be read into the book. I am not exactly sure how I feel about that. Still conflicted, I think, because it is a strange and somehow unbalanced(?) comparison to make, on the one hand. And yet, it sheds a different light on the theme of WWII and nazism that I have encountered too many times in books, and which usually makes me avoid them. As I’ve said, this books left me SO conflicted, but I feel it would be an interesting one to discuss. Perhaps even in history class?
Because what fascinated me about the book beyond this strange confused feeling I had throughout my reading, and upon finishing, the book, was the book’s preoccupation with generational memory and dealing with trauma’s. I could give you a number of quotes that appeal to this conflict, this not knowing what to do, not knowing how to approach people who were part of that generation; are they accomplices, innocent bystanders? Do we blame them? Forgive them? Is there an in-between? And what about the next generation, are they still guilty, by association, for not speaking out? Etc.
I could tell you it is all summed up in these questions following Michael’s confusion upon realising that Hanna was guilty, and why she kept silence in court upon one thing that she was accused of but actually couldn’t have done:
“I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks – understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.”
But most of all I wanted to include the following, because it expresses so much of what I feel is very much a part of the history and commemoration of traumatic experiences, and that makes me wonder if there is ever going to be a “right” approach. There is the question of letting the “facts” speak for themselves, whether presenting them “raw” makes them have more or less impact. It breaches the importance of collective memory for keeping history alive and yet “deal-able”, but also how this sometimes takes away the very directness and awfulness of an episode, the pain, so to say:
“When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in camps real. We knew the gate of Auschwitz with its inscription, the staked wooden bunks, the piles of hair and glasses and suitcases; we knew the building that formed the entrance to Birkenau with the tower, the two wings, and the entrance for the trains; and from Bergen-Belsen the mountain of corpses found and photographed by the Allies at the liberation. We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around in it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves in it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.”
It is for its reflection on history and memory, on its exploration of the trouble of dealing with dramas, inhumanity, and traumas years after the fact, that fascinated me, even if I am not exactly sure whether or not I agree with, or if I even understand exactly, what Schlink is telling us. Perhaps I am clinging on to this aspect of the story as something that interests me, because I am even more unsure about what the other parts of the novel are telling me. What do I do with the fact that Hanna becomes almost, or possibly even wholly, humane? I think in part she is never forgiven, as is portrayed in the rejection (in part) of one of the survivors of Hanna’s money-donation. And yet the book moves towards a sort of dangerous, uncomfortable zone with the whole narrative. Perhaps uncomfortable because it is so very true that monstrous things can be done by (relatively) regular people?
Discomfort is truly the keyword here. Which is again, exactly what it means to do, I think. I don’t think it is wrong, per se, in doing that, but I also cannot wholeheartedly say that I loved this book. Like the detachment that Michael describes when he speaks of war stories, that is the sort of detachment I felt for parts of The Reader. A strange sort of detachment, which was compelling and puzzling at the same time, but detached I was.
Please help me snap out of my long tumble of thoughts and share your thoughts and opinions of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader?
I read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink as part of Lizzy and Caroline‘s German Lit Month, in which they feature German literature for the whole month of November. Please click over to their blog for more German lit.
Other Opinions: Erin Reads, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Boston Bibliophile, 1morechapter, Vulpes Libris, Hey Lady, MariReads, Nishita’s Rants and Raves, Mad Bibliophile, BermudaOnion’s Blog, Steph & Tony Investigate!, S. Krishna’s Books, My Friend Amy, Leeswammes, The Octogon, Chick with Books, A Novel Menagerie, bean bag books, Park Benches & Book Ends, Caribousmom.
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