The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader - Bernhard SchlinkThe Reader – Bernhard Schlink
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

Phoenix, Orion Books, 1998
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

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.
Did I miss your post about this book? Please let me know and I will add your name to the list.

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22 thoughts on “The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

  1. BermudaOnion

    I think I forgave the illicit relationship because of the time and the place. This book made me uncomfortable but that’s part of what made it so good. If you haven’t already, you need to see the movie.

    Thanks for linking to my review.

  2. Jeanne

    I first listened to this on audiobook, and then re-read it. I like the generational guilt theme that you mention, and I like the way the boy came to forgive the woman in some ways. What I like about the book is the ideas about what is forgiveable, what is a human failing, and what we need to distance ourselves from.

  3. SarahCT

    I grew up in a society where pedophile was almost not even imaginable but where high school girls could read Lolita with precocious nonchalance. The relationship as portrayed was and should not be a problem, in the literature as well as in real life. If it is banished from literature, what would we the readers do without Lolita or Juliet? In real life, I hope there is no exploitation of any kind, period, but there will always be precocious teenagers.
    I hate to say it so simplistically, but I think Hanna is a perfect victim of her time and her background. This does not mean her actions are condoned, but I think that IS the point of the book: there are very few heroes who can overcome society and history. Life creates many victims in different shapes and degrees.

  4. cbjames

    What bothers me most about this book, even more so with his other book ‘Homecoming’ I think is the title, is the way they both try to normalize Nazism and the camp gaurds who committed so many atrocities. I felt both books tried to explain away horrible actions as unfortunately normal behaviors under the circumstances, things we should consider forgiving.

    Plenty of people resisted. Plenty of people took paths that brought about their own ends rather than participate. None of us has the right to forgive. The only people who have that right are not alive to grant forgiveness.

    That Hannah should be seen as a victim, even in a small degree, is something I think we should find offensive.

  5. Leah

    Aaagghh, why do there have to be spoilers, Iris?! I’m kidding; I believe you that it’s difficult to talk about this book without spoilers. BUT! I have this book sitting on my shelf, a gift from someone downsizing her own collection, and I can’t make up my mind if I want to read it. I didn’t read beyond the spoiler warning in your post because what if I end up reading it?

    I don’t know if this is something you can easily answer, but do you recommend this book? Or, what type of reader would like this book? You always write such excellent reviews, and I’m sorry I can’t bring myself to read this one! I’d love your opinion.

  6. Pingback: German Literature Month – Week IV Links « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  7. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    I really loved the experience of reading this book because it was so thought provoking.

    Perhaps uncomfortable because it is so very true that monstrous things can be done by (relatively) regular people?

    Yes, yes. This is part of what made this story so…ugh I don’t know meaningful to me.

  8. Lisa Hill

    CB James, I agree with you 100%. The unforgiveable can never be forgiven.
    I thought this was a creepy book trying to manipulate readers into ‘understanding’ and accepting what was done by evil people, as if they couldn’t help it. Ordinary German people supported Nazi anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and eugenics and that is why the Holocaust happened. They supported German territorial ambitions in Europe and beyond and that is why millions and millions died in World War 2. It could never have happened without that implicit support.
    Every time we see ordinary unarmed people turn out on the streets at the risk of their own lives to rise up against their governments, in China, Tibet, Burma, the Arab Spring and the Philippines, we can see what ordinary German people did not do in the 1930s. And we make our judgements accordingly.

  9. Seamus Duggan

    You’ve pulled some great quotes here. I found the book unsettling but thought provoking. I think it’s important that we realise that many people who were part of the Nazi machine were normal. It is only thus that we can be ready to see if something similar is happening again (as it is). Viewing them as somewhat ‘alien’ is a way of distancing them and making them unreal. Similar genocides have occurred throughout history and are still occurring. I posted some very brief thoughts. It is hard to write about without spoilers!

  10. Tony

    Paedophilia in books?

    When it’s older men and girls, people hate it.
    When it’s older women and boys, not so much.

    Just read this year’s IFFP winner, ‘Blooms of Darkness’ for proof…

  11. epkwrsmith

    Your review pretty much nailed my decision to read this’s already on my WishList…but the comments made me want to go get it right. now. and read it this weekend. I love complicated stuff like this…:)

  12. buriedinprint

    I can’t help, because I haven’t read it myself, but I think I might know the spoiler you’re referring to anyway, because I listened to Harriet Gilbert’s interview with the author on The BBC’s World Bookclub (I love them) and they revealed something then, acknowledging it was a spoiler, but feeling rather like you, that it couldn’t be discussed well without it; at the end of the program, I felt like I really understood more of what the author was trying to accomplish in the story than I’d ever gotten from reading the back of the book, and I did decide to add it to my TBR (which I’d never been tempted to do before) but I just haven’t gotten there yet. All their podcasts are available online, so if you’re curious, it might be of interest to you too.

  13. Caroline

    Never for one second did I get the feeling this book wanted to makes us feel for those who commited crimes, make us understand them. I thought it was very outspoken and artfully made us understand that nobody knows how they would have behaved. I think that’s really what was emphasized here. Hanna lives with a major lie and that was for me the core theme. The way people lie about themselves, want to appear better than they are. In her case it was something very specific and contributed to her downfall. In the case of others it might just be cowardice.
    In any case, I agree, it’s a very thought- and discussion-provoking book.
    The relationship did not bother me at all. I find it more shocking when a 80 year old has a relationship with a 40 year old than when a teenager has an affair with a 30 year old woman. Or when greed/money etc is involved. It bothered me more in the movie.

  14. Becky (Page Turners)

    Brilliant review. I couldn’t remember what I felt about this book when I read it, so I went back to look at my review, but I must have read it pre-blogging. I remember not being able to put it down, but beyding that it hasn’t stayed with me. I wonder if that says something about the book?

  15. Violet

    I like this book a lot. I agree with Caroline that none of us know how we will behave in any given circumstance. I disagree with Lisa that the unforgivable can never be forgiven. There is power in forgiveness. We can choose to forgive and move on, but we should never forget, and people should be held accountable for their actions.

    Eugenics was practiced in the USA from the very early 1900s, long before the Nazis came to power. They actually got a lot of their ideas from Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic articles which were published in a newspaper he owned.

    When Hitler came to power, no other country would allow European Jews to migrate en masse, so it’s a bit much to point the finger at ordinary German people and say the Holocaust was all their fault. Anti-Semitism was rife everywhere, not just in Germany. ‘At the Evian les Bains conference held in July 1938, country after country declared that they could not accept Jewish immigrants… Throughout the war, U.S. Consuls and those of other countries who were initially neutral played an active part in the massacre of European Jewry, by refusing emigration and transit visas to Jews. This policy continued even after it was known with certainty that the Jews were the victims of mass murder, and that refusal of visas meant certain death.'( ) And look what happened to the German people who did speak out: they were murdered. And what about Australia’s complicity in the Iraq wars? I seem to remember that we protested and marched, but our government went ahead and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. And Vietnam in the 60s. I don’t think we are in any position to point the finger at other people and say they didn’t do enough to stop the atrocities. What about Australia’s racist White Australia Policy, the fact that homosexuality was a crime in Tasmania until 1997, punishable by 25 years in jail, and the fact that Indigenous people weren’t even counted as people in their own land until 1967? What about the racism, the massacres, and the cruelty meted out to Indigenous people in Australia. What about the Stolen Generations, the forced labour, and the white supremacist assumptions inherent in the terra nullius farce? What about the current government’s racist Intervention policies? No, it doesn’t do to point fingers at other people’s behaviour, because we have enough things of our own to be ashamed about.

    As for the sexual relationship in the book, I don’t have a problem with it. It was quite commonplace for a young male to be “initiated” by an older woman in days gone by when people stopped being treated as children around the age of fifteen. The relationship was consensual and no one was exploited.

    Sorry for the long comment, Iris.

  16. Pingback: German Literature Month 2012: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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