Reflections: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader is a novel that has generated some controversy because of the way it characterizes Hanna  Schmitz, an illiterate German who worked as a prison guard at Auschwitz. The trial of Hanna forms the central point of the novel, and her lover tells its story. People have therefore been concerned that Bernard Schlink seeks some kind of sympathy or absolution for the more ignorant perpetrators of the holocaust. I think the accusation is unfounded. It may arise from the tension produced in the reader by a novel that asks us to confront a story we've not yet been asked to confront: how do non-Jewish Germans recover from the stain upon their country and their forbears, who, whether tacitly or not, consented to the persecution of millions of humans?

I think it important to note that the novel has a misleading title. The narrator, young Michael Berg, is the  eponymous"reader," but only in the eyes of Hanna. By giving the book this title, Schlink suggests that the important perspective is Hanna's. Hanna, however, is never the agent who defines meaning in the novel. Rather, she is an object that moves in and out of the the narrator's life, and allows him to put a face on the atrocities of the war and to prevent them from becoming numbing cliches. It is Michael who frames Hanna for us, first as an exotic older woman to whom he gives his heart, then as a woman ignorant that right extends beyond following orders, and finally as a convict, resentful of society's sentence upon her but still haunted by the specters of her victims. At no point do we have access to Hanna's interiority, and at times we are left to doubt that she really has one.

Understanding that Michael has control over the narrative allows one to see that it is really the story of a young man failing to progress through the normal stages of maturation not because of any personal defect but because of a defect of the era in his country: he is of the generation that must reject its parents as either active or passive participants in the holocaust. He faces and risks more than most of his peers, who can submerge the stark generational rift under the guise of the normal individuation of early adulthood. His life cannot be so easily repaired because he must acknowledge that he loved, and loves, a woman who embodies all the inhumanity of the Third Reich. Although he finally recognizes that his trials are those of a whole generation, he can't find comfort in that in the moment because his love for Hanna made "the fate of [his] generation, a German fate...more difficult for [him] to evade, more difficult for [him] to manage than for others" (171). Michael's isolation allows him the distance to see what exactly that fate entails upon his country's citizens.

This book is, finally, about the "German fate" of the latter twentieth century. It explores a topic hitherto rendered taboo by the fate of the victims of the prior generation, whose sufferings were more extensive, more physical, and more permanent than that of their assailants' children. No human experience ought to be censored, so we should applaud the bravery of Schlink for putting himself in the avant garde.

The real shortcoming of this novel lies in the steps that Schlink takes to cover up his intent in pushing this political envelope. The title, Hanna's illiteracy, and the form that Michael gives to Hanna's will are red herrings, distracting from the main point with their seeming profundity, rendered shallow by context. Despite this fault, it is a novel well worth reading.


plumpes Denken said...

Yes there is some doubt I think that Hanna has an interiority. So what is the significance of this? I think your reading is very good -- thanks -- but not sure I'm persuaded by the argument that various elements are merely red herrings. I might have to read again but I wonder if Hanna's illiteracy in particular has more significance for ethical issues raised? If Michael is the frame, is it possible to see this illiteracy (really a kind of confused moral illiteracy?) combined with threads of attachment as part of the problem to be worked through?

Mille Feuille said...

I think your restating of my position that the illiteracy issue is "merely" a red herring accurately reveals a problem with Schlink's text that I didn't fairly address or grapple with: Hanna's illiteracy DOES have the feeling of occasionally standing in for a "moral illiteracy." Schlink is using her inability to read as a trope, a painfully facile metaphor that is distracting in its inconsistency. If there was a stronger and more consistent causal relationship between her illiteracy and involvement in the concentration camps, the text would almost necessarily be apologist: she would have been excusable because ignorant of basic moral laws due to a thwarted education. Of course what we see is that the relationship is not nearly that simple: her illiteracy does not stop her from morally engaging with the world around her, or from feeling empathy, most notably in her role as listener.

Thank you for pushing back on that. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this and other texts.

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

This one made me cry and I'm not one usually for tears. Your review was very well written.
Thanks for sharing and all the very best.

plumpes Denken said...

Thank you for your reply. Following your reading here I'm thinking that yes Hanna is not fully rounded or convincing as a character and perhaps this is because Schlink tried to make her stand in for part of what Michael's generation was inheriting from that earlier period. I guess I'm wondering if he saw a moral illiteracy as one component of that inheritance -- illiteracy not as a personal disability or failure in education that someone could potentially be excused for but as a more general and horrific failure by some to see, speak or act. Sorry this really is just thinking out aloud. I might need to return to the book as I haven't read it since it was published. Thanks again.