The Reader – Bernhard Schlink

1 October 2009
Part 1…
…which consists of 17 short chapters. I’ve read it before, about ten years or so ago when everybody was reading it, and I remember liking it without quite remembering why. Within the past few months I’ve also seen the film version. When I saw it I was surprised that so much of the film covers events after Part 1: all my most vivid recollection of the novel, except for the secret in her past that changes everything, is of the strange little affair between the 15-year-old and the woman old enough to be his mother. In Chapter 17 she disappears… so the affair’s over with nearly two thirds of the novel yet to run.

What do I think – bearing in mind that, unlike the first time I read it, I know exactly what’s coming? What I think is, it’s incredibly careful, workmanlike, crafted. Which doesn’t make it either vivid or particularly likeable, of course. Schlink gets these two unlikely bedfellows together through a credible enough series of accidents, refers in sufficient detail to a 15-year-old boy’s sexual proclivities, creates enough believable reasons for his family to leave him alone to get on with it…. I wondered how necessary such plotting is. Couldn‘t Schlink just have got on with it? Couldn’t he just have made the reader accept as a given that these two are together and leave out all the rather dull details about this rather dull boy’s life?

But that would have been a different novel. This one is rooted in ordinariness, and the affair has to be an eruption into Michael’s mundane life – making the long illness of the previous winter into a stroll in the park by comparison. Schlink wants it to be a life-changing experience and, according to his way of doing things, that means we need a picture of the life that’s going to be changed. Ok. I’m sure if I was German and understood the schoolboyish references I’d be more immersed in the world Michael describes. It’s a bit like the problem you always get with translations: you know you aren’t getting all of it. What we do get is this rather factual account. ‘I kept getting erections, but I didn’t want to masturbate.’ Thanks for clarifying that for us, Mike.

He tells us how intense the relationship is, for him if (probably) not for her. The adult Michael seems analytical, self-aware, and his descriptions are as factual as he seems to feel necessary. He mentions the women he sleeps with now, and how he feels he ought to fall in love with them as a kind of pay-back: it isn’t only the fact that this is a translation that makes him seem almost forensic in his account. But, as I said, I’ve seen the film recently and I’m looking for clues about his adult self that I know must be in there… just as I’m looking for clues about Hanna’s little secrets. They’re there too, especially the one she’s really ashamed of and hides all the time. I can’t remember whether I guessed about Hanna and her thing about books (I’m trying not to give anything away here) the first time I read it. But I’ll come back to that.

He’s shattered when she disappears but, we assume, not terminally so. There’s a girl his own age that he fancies, and she’s already been in competition with Hanna in his sexual fantasies. Maybe he’ll be able to get on with his ordinary adolescent life now?

Yeh, sure.

5 October
Part 2
Another 17 short chapters… and the big secret is out very quickly: Hanna was a guard in the Wehrmacht and she‘s on trial for a war crime. But that’s not the secret she’s always been ashamed of, which only comes out 40 or 50 pages later: she can’t read or write. Schlink has crafted the plot in such a way that it’s her illiteracy that leads both to her joining the army and to being given the biggest sentence of the five defendants. So why has he done that?

There seem to be two things going on in this section. First, there’s the trial, and it often reads like a detective story. It’s full of questions – What did she…? Why did she…? Because, like Michael, the court is constantly looking for reasons. (Michael’s questions started as soon as she left his town, but once the trial begins everybody‘s asking her stuff.) There’s a mystery: why does she answer so frankly, why does she give the impression of trying to hide nothing, whilst all her co-defendants cover up and blame her? In fact, the answer comes just over half-way through Part 2: she can’t read or write.

Through clever twists, Schlink makes her illiteracy look like callousness: she seems to ‘choose’ the Wehrmacht over factory work, as Michael realises, for the same reason she leaves his town: to avoid being exposed as illiterate. And she pretends to have written the most incriminatory document to avoid having to give a handwriting sample. As soon as he realises (on page 131) Michael suddenly sees through all her strategies and understands, sort of, why she’s doing it. That’s the ’Ah!’ moment and… and where does it lead us? It doesn’t give Michael any easy answers: at different times he makes himself believe she was always doing everything for the best. At other times his nightmares are full of her cruelty.

But this novel is definitely not only about the guilt (or otherwise) of one woman, however like a detective story it is up this point. With 30-odd pages of Part 2 left to go, Schlink takes it somewhere else. He decides to explore the idea of guilt and shame. Throughout Part 2 Schlink has Michael writing about the numbness he feels in himself and sees in everybody who is forced to sit through the trial. None of them can face the horrors of what they are hearing without putting up a self-protective shield. But it’s not a shield, it’s a kind of denial of our humanity, of collective responsibility. The fellow-students he talks to about this feeling are horrified at his insistence that it seems to affect everyone, victims as well as perpetrators – and people who weren’t even born.

And Schlink keeps making us turn our attention away from Hanna and towards – who? – towards everybody in the room. In moments of genuine confusion she asks the judge what he would have done – and the judge can’t answer. Michael is constantly wondering why he can’t find it in himself to condemn her, and I think Schlink wants us to ask whether he’s right not to. He talks to his father, the philosopher, but this isn’t the question he’s trying to ask. He wants to know whether he should explain to the judge what he knows, that Hanna makes false admissions because she is hiding her illiteracy. His father can’t even give a straight answer to this relatively minor question, suggesting it‘s her choice. The long-term legacy for Michael appears to be that he’ll have to live with the guilt forever.

I wonder whether the whole illiteracy thing is a metaphor. Hanna is cut off from a form of human communication that she loves – hence her efforts to get prisoners to read to her 15 years before Michael ever does – and is ashamed, But by the time we find out that her shame has been a major motive for many of the decisions she’s made in life, we’re hooked into something a lot bigger: isn’t there a sense of shame motivating everybody in Germany, something everybody would rather keep quiet about? Doesn’t everybody in Germany simply act as if there’s no problem?

And now I’m being like Schlink: there’s one page where the last five sentences are all questions. Michael visits a death camp, and he can’t feel what he thinks he should feel. As he describes the trip he also tells us about a second visit he’s made far more recently, when the camp was simply shut, as if no-one wants to know. Whatever happened to him in adolescence and his early adult life, it sounds as though he’s still suffering from it. And if the people he encounters on his trip are anything to go by, he’s not the only one.

21 October
Part 3 – to the end
I’m not surprised I remembered very little of this last section the first time I read it. Like Part 1, it’s all very carefully plotted. We find out why Michael is suddenly finding it necessary to rake up all this stuff from his past – he’s preparing for Hanna’s imminent release from prison – and, well, it all seems a bit unnecessary. For me, the real meat of the story has been dealt with before this section opens, and I genuinely feel the novel could have ended at the end of Part 2.…

…but it doesn’t, and we get the tying up of ends. There’s Hanna’s illiteracy: Michael sends her tapes – never with any covering letters – and she learns to read by following the text in library books. It’s quite a neat metaphor: Michael keeps this relic of intimacy as distant as – as what? – as he is from everything and everyone, apparently. Years pass, she’s about to be released – he’s helped to find a job for her, but he keeps his distance to the extent that the prison governor seems ready to slap him – and she hangs herself the night before she‘s about to be let out. Another end neatly tied up, as it were.

There’s only one thread untied, and it’s to do with reconciliation with the victims. These are represented – a bit clunkily if you ask me – by one of the two witnesses who spoke at the trial. Michael visits her in New York, and she wants nothing to do with the small amount of money Hanna has saved in jail. What did Hanna want, this woman asks, forgiveness? It’s easy to feel irritated by this woman’s hauteur – but then, why shouldn’t she be aloof? She owes her oppressors nothing. There’s a kind of uneasy compromise – another metaphor, I suppose, this time for the impossibility of any kind of recompense or making amends. She agrees to let the money go to a Jewish literacy charity, but we can see she wishes this intrusion from the past had never disturbed her comfortable new life. She seems to prove Michael’s theory that even the victims are numbed by the shame.

And Michael? He seems hollowed out by it all… and I suppose Schlink wants him to be a post-war German Everyman. Everyboringman.

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