Book review

The Reader (Bernhard Schlink)

This is a quick read, with nice short chapters that make it very easy to read one or two and then go to sleep. Oddly, despite its brevity and accessibility, it wasn’t a compelling read. Rather, the book was emotionally flat, and I’m not sure if this was deliberate, a product of the translation, or due to poor writing. For most of the book, I thought it was the last; having finished, I wonder if it’s the first.

The movie is generally very faithful to the book, although there are some very significant deviations — notably, the narrator (sort of) seeks out his father’s opinion regarding whether he should interfere with Hanna’s fate, and he attempts to make contact with Hanna’s judge on the same point (well, sort of). Summoning up Kate Winslet while reading was inescapable: Hanna is hers, and she is Hanna. The narrator, however, has no face, and I think Ralph Fiennes can be somewhat forgiven his clueless, wooden performance. There is no “there” there with this narrator; he is inscrutable, insufferable, passive to the point of neurasthenia, frustrating, maddening, a cipher. This may be the point.  This may also be crummy writing.

One disconcerting note that possibly bolsters that last impression: The author, or perhaps the translator, can’t make up his mind about how many siblings — and what kind of siblings — the narrator, Michael, has. This family is mentioned very little, but at one point he refers to “my brothers and sisters”; later that page to “my parents and brother and sisters”; and then to a younger and older sister. However, when he grows up, he refers only to single sister.

Regardless, it is impossible — or at least it was for me — to get past the central conceit of the book:  that Hanna is more ashamed of her illiteracy than of her stint as an SS guard. And here again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the author is saying, my god, will you look at this woman, this generation of Germans. More concerned with keeping up with appearances than with morality. More concerned with duty than with humanity. Which is a very valid point, and certainly one that occurred to me when i was about three-quarters of the way through. I wondered then — I admit, rather snobbishly — what the hell Oprah’s readers were possibly getting out of this book. Because it yielded nothing; the narrator is forever telling rather than showing, and never explaining. Just flatly setting out the rather improbable facts. And somehow we’re supposed to make sense of the fact that this man, this boy, never got over his summer affair with Hanna, that by touching her, being touched by her, he was forever stunted, crippled, damaged.

It was around this point in the book that the tone reminded of Camus’s The Stranger. The same flat, matter-of-fact narration; similarly inexplicable actions on the narrator’s part; and most of all, the total disconnect between narration and action. The things the protagonists in both books say shed no light on what they do.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps The Reader is beyond American understanding, that it reflects a European, specifically post-war German, sensibility that we cannot access, cannot appreciate. Which made the mystery of what the Oprah readers were discerning even more opaque.

I looked online at Amazon and read some reader comments. People remarked on how it was such a rich book full of intriguing topics like sex with a minor, and the burden and shame of illiteracy, and Nazism, and wow, this should be a book group book choice. And I admit to a faint sense of derision. But frankly, if people are reading and discussing something — even if it’s banal — that’s very good, and far better than passively watching a reality show. But whether any deep truths are being revealed in these discussion groups, and whether this author is capable of making these revelations, I can’t say. But I tend to doubt.

There may be power in the book, but I think it is largely inaccessible to a comfy U.S. audience half a century removed from its timeline. There may be outrage in the book, but to me there is no sufficient contrast between the lassitude of the narrator and the denial of Hanna and her generation. There may be a message, a lesson, a warning, but it is too obscurely packed away beneath implausible attitudes and deathly lethargy.

In all, not a bad book, but not an affecting one, for me at least.

3 thoughts on “The Reader (Bernhard Schlink)”

  1. “Then it occurred to me that perhaps The Reader is beyond American understanding, that it reflects a European, specifically post-war German, sensibility that we cannot access, cannot appreciate.”

    I’m not sure about this. I am German, though I prefer English and American writers and may be influenced by that.
    My thoughts about the book are very similar to yours; I am just as surprised by its success or appeal, being probably less impressed by the book. (Haven’t seen the film.) Personally, I go with the “bad writing” theory, though the emotional disconnect makes sense, too.

  2. I am sure I don’t understand what everybody seemed to get out of this book. The movie is worth seeing, possibly, although I have to admit that it annoyed the hell out of me, and that it was even more difficult to square Hanna’s stubborn defiance regarding her illiteracy with her seeming disregard for her war criminal past.

  3. Hmm. I met the author briefly at a GW university gig his wife had assembled. He’s a thin and towering figure. Makes perfect sense to me that this is a German thang. I mean c’mon Nita, you hit it exactly. He’s in the same realm as Fassbinder and Grass. It’s precisely her inability to let go of her pride that’s her downfall. Of course the Camps are worse but she can’t make that distinction. There’s no difference really between her and the gal in “Drag Me to Hell” is there?

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