Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is told from the point of view of Michael Berg, a grown man looking back on his youth. After falling ill during his walk home from school, Michael meets Hanna, the 34-year-old woman who nurses him back to health. Soon they find themselves embroiled in an affair until Hanna disappears. The next time he sees her, Michael is a law student and Hanna is on trial for an unspeakable crime. Set in post-war Germany, The Reader weaves a tale of eroticism, morality, secrecy, and shame.
While I enjoyed the aestheticism of Schlink’s writing, there was a coldness and standoff nature to the prose. It felt like everything was being kept at arms length–even when we witnessed (fleeting) moments of tenderness or even lovemaking between the characters. It always felt like there was a shroud between me and the book. I think this is both a thematic and stylistic choice. By not inviting his readers all the way in, we are forced to maintain an objectivity that seems impossible for the characters.
While readings, I could not quite pinpoint what about this book I could not love and I think I just figured it out: it left me unsettled in multiple ways. The sexual and emotional relationship between 15-year-old Michael and 34-year-old Hanna. The horrific and inhuman crimes of the Holocaust. The inability to feel empathy for most (if any) of the characters. The way the plot swings from mundane to monstrous in a thematic pendulum.
The writing was beautiful but the story deeply disturbed me, which I guess is the mark of good literature. Books that affect you deeply and without remorse. There was a lot to like about The Reader – particularly, for me, was Schlink’s meditation on the powerful nature of memory – but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. There just wasn’t enough humanity in the characters, or perhaps paradoxically there was too much humantity (as well as inhumanity) in them.
“Her face as it was then has been overlaid in my memory by all the faces she had later.”
“She had looked like an old woman and smelled like an old woman. I hadn’t noticed her voice at all. Her voice had stayed young.”
“But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?”
Overall, The Reader is a quiet and well-written novel exploring morality and the limits of human forgiveness. Schlink’s exploration of memory – and the way it governs our lives but also fails us constantly – were the strongest passages of the book. While I believe it is a worthy addition to the Holocaust Canon, I cannot say it is one of my favorites.
* * *
Have you read The Reader or seen the movie? If so, do you agree/disagree with my review? If not, do you plan on reading it in the future?