Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

As the days grew longer, I read longer, so that I could be in bed with her in the twilight.  When she had fallen asleep lying on me, and the saw in the yard was quiet, and a blackbird was singing as the color of things in the kitchen dimmed until nothing remained of them but lighter and darker shades of gray, I was completely happy.  (from The Reader, page 43)

In The Reader, German writer Bernhard Schlink tells the story of Michael Berg, who at age 15 begins an intimate relationship with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old streetcar conductor.  They meet when Michael falls ill with hepatitis, and Hanna helps him home.  After he recovers, he goes to her apartment to thank her, thus beginning a relationship based on lust and a thirst for words, with Hanna forcing Michael to read to her before they make love.  Michael spends much of his time visiting Hanna, trying to keep up with his school work, and hiding their relationship from family and friends.

Michael is hurt when Hanna leaves one day without a trace, and his feelings for her (was is love? lust? obsession?) and the time they spent together make it difficult for him to pursue other relationships.  He sees her again when he is a college student and she is on trial for crimes committed during World War II as a Nazi concentration camp guard.  This is where the story gets interesting.  Michael discovers Hanna's secret, the thing of which she is most ashamed, that prevents her from defending herself against murder charges and ties her and Michael together for the rest of their days.

The Reader is told by an adult Michael in the first person as he attempts to write the story of their relationship many years after the trial and its aftermath.  While I thought the book was well written, I had a hard time connecting with the characters -- maybe because I find the idea of a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and a woman just a few years older than me extremely disturbing.  (She calls him "kid" for crying out loud!) Michael seems to understand at the time that their relationship isn't quite right -- he finds it difficult to talk about it even years after they separate and doesn't tell his wife -- but that could be because the adult Michael is telling the story, not an impulsive teenage boy with raging hormones.  From the way he tells the story, Hanna is sort of detached from things much of the time, so while she initiates their first sexual encounter, it seems as though Michael goes back time and again because he wants to, not because he's coerced or anything like that.  As for Hanna, I can understand that her secret was distressing, frustrating, and even embarrassing, but was it worth life in prison (which she deserved regardless of whether or not she defended herself)?

The Reader raises a multitude of issues -- questions of morality, guilt, and atonement regarding Hanna's actions as a concentration camp guard, Hanna and Michael's relationship, and post-war Germany as a whole.  Here's another passage that caught my eye, when Michael hitchhiked to the Struthof concentration camp and the driver gave his opinion about why the Holocaust occurred.
"But the people who were murdered in the camps hadn't done anything to the individuals who murdered them?  Is that what you want to say?  Do you mean that there was no reason for hatred, and no war?"

I didn't want to nod again.  What he said was true, but not the way he said it.

"You're right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred.  But the executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same.  Because they're ordered to?  You think they do it because they're ordered to?  And you think that I'm talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?"  He laughed sarcastically.  "No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience.  An executioner is not under orders.  He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him.  They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not." (page 151)
Personally, it doesn't matter whether the guards were all crazy, whether they were following orders, or whether they were indifferent -- it's all wrong and makes me sick to my stomach.

Overall, I thought The Reader was a page-turner and a great read simply because it has the power to generate strong emotions and discussion on so many topics.

The Reader was another selection for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Reader.


Serena said...

I don't like this not telling what # book this is for the challenge bit! I think you better reveal at the end of the year your total!

Literary Feline said...

I really liked The Reader when I read it years ago. It definitely is thought provoking, not to mention a great discussion book.

Meg @ write meg! said...

Great review! The novel definitely intrigues me, especially since I have a real affinity for anything set around WWII... I was worried it might be too dense to get through, but it doesn't seem that way. I'm going to look for it!

Tasha said...

I liked this book, too, although I did not get into the movie.

wisteria said...

I agree with you... I think the age difference between Hanna and Michael would get to me. However, I do want to read this one. Great review too! Thanks, Wisteria

Iliana said...

I remember really liking this book when I read it eons ago but really don't remember much about it. Have you seen the movie? I'd really like to see it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I bought this book impulsively at Target, but have yet to read it. And while my rule of thumb is to not see the movie first, they were showing it on the way back from Poland this summer and I did watch it. Very disturbing, but what WWII story isn't?

DCMetroreader said...

I started to read this, but never got very far. Your review makes me want to try again.

Suko said...

Terrific review, Anna.
I also read and reviewed this short book. I'd like to see the movie with Kate Winslet.

Staci said...

I read this book a while back and totally enjoyed it. I thought the movie was well done also but couldn't tell you if it followed the book closely or not.

Jeanne said...

I keep reading about this book but haven't had the courage to read it yet. It sounds so grim.

Anonymous said...

You read my review of this earlier, but it's one of those books that got better for me after I read it, once I started discussing it with other people. While reading it, I just never really connected with the characters.

Terra said...

I imagine I will read this book one day. You definitely would have to be in the right mood to read it, in an upbeat mood, since it sounds very tense and dark, and well written.

Kristen said...

I was never very fond of this one. It seemed terribly detached and cold to me.

bermudaonion said...

I thought this book was great too! It would be a great book club read because there is so much to discuss in this one.

Andi said...

I haven't read this one, but it was one of the best movies I saw this year. It sounds like the movie was more or less true to the book, and it's one I'll probably read one day when the memory of the film has faded a bit.

Great review!

Stephanie said...

This sounds thought-provoking and disturbing. I am interested in both the book and the movie.

Lisa said...

My hubby finally rented this movie. After I see it, then I'll have to pick up the book.

Wanda said...

The first glimpse of your review in my reader shows only the first quoted passage. It sounded beautiful to me so I knew I'd be stopping by to check this one out. It's not the kind of book I was expecting but sounds like an engaging read nonetheless.

Anna said...

~Serena: :P

~Literary Feline: So true! I can't wait for Serena to get around to reading it so we can discuss it at lunch! LOL

~Meg: Nope, not dense at all. I hope you get a chance to read it.

~Charley: I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm sure I will at some point.

~Wisteria: Thanks! It was one of those things I knew would bother me before I started reading, but I was really curious about the story.

~Iliana: No, I haven't seen it yet, but I'm not much of a movie person. When it makes it to the movie channels eventually, that's when I'll see it. LOL

~Sandy: So true! The concentration camp story was disturbing enough without the older woman, young boy relationship thrown into the mix. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

~DCMetroreader: I hope you'll give it another try, but I can see how it might be difficult to get into.

~Suko: I bet Kate Winslet does a great job playing Hanna.

~Staci: Hopefully I still remember the book by the time I see the movie!

~Jeanne: It really is grim, but I hope you'll give it a try at some point. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

~carolsnotebook: Yeah, it's hard to relate to the characters, and that makes it difficult on one hand, but I bet discussions on this book could get really animated and that in itself makes it worthwhile to read.

~Terra: You certainly have to be in the right frame of mind to read this one. I like dark books, though. Hope you get to read it at some point.

~Kristen: I see you point, and I felt that way here and there while reading it. I think "enjoy" is the wrong word for this book, given the dark aspects of it. I liked it overall, though.

~bermudaonion: If only I had a book club to discuss it with!

~Andi: Good to know. I'm hoping to find that the movie closely follows the book.

~Stephanie: It definitely makes you think and it's disturbing on many levels.

~Lisa: Looking forward to your thoughts.

~Wanda: Yeah, I guess the whole tone of the book is much darker than that first passage! I hope you get a chance to read it.