The Reader (Der Vorleser)

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THE READER (Der Vorleser)

Novel by Bernhard Schlink, 1995

The Reader (1997; Der Vorleser, 1995) expands on an ancillary aspect of Bernhard Schlink's earlier work in the genre of detective fiction. This aspect had emerged by 1995 as the proper theme of the narrative: Germany's relationship to its own past and the concomitant examination of questions of culpability and transmission of cultural memory.

As Ernestine Schlant, in The Language of Silence (1999), her seminal examination of contemporary German literature engaging the Holocaust, writes: "[ The Reader ] shows a thorough acquaintance with all the issues addressed in the 'literature about fathers and mothers' and recapitulates and simultaneously criticizes them." Schlant is alluding to the novel's position in a larger cultural dialogue that, as a belated continuation and intensification of efforts first made in the later 1960s, focused on examining the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust; questions of individual and potential collective guilt; the silence maintained about the Nazi era in early post-World War II (West) Germany; and the attempts to discuss appropriate channels for the future transmission of Holocaust memory.

The novel begins in 1958 with the 15-year-old protagonist, Michael Berg, suffering from hepatitis and becoming sick in the street one day on his way home from school. He is rescued by a stranger, a woman about 20 years his senior, who helps him to wash up and walks him home. Prompted by his mother, Michael later visits the woman to thank her and is drawn into a love affair with her: "She felt me looking at her. As she was reaching for the other stocking, she paused, turned towards the door, and looked straight at me. I can't describe what kind of look it was—surprised, skeptical, knowing, reproachful. I turned red. For a fraction of a second I stood there, face burning. Then I couldn't take it any more. I fled out of the apartment, down the stairs, and into the street."

Soon a routine develops that consists of a ritual of reading aloud (Michael reads to Hanna, at her request), taking showers, and making love. After a moment that confronts Michael with his own ambivalence regarding his loyalty to Hanna, she disappears, and Michael is overcome with guilt and loss: "But even worse than my physical desire [for Hanna] was my sense of guilt. Why hadn't I jumped up immediately when she stood there and run to her! This one moment summed up all my halfheartedness of the past months, which had produced my denial of her, and my betrayal."

The novel's second part begins with Michael describing the emotional aftermath of his relationship with Hanna and his subsequent inability to commit to anyone or anything possibly important enough to lose. Later, Michael is studying law and his professor asks a seminar group to attend one of the belated Nazi war crime trials. Five former concentration camp guards are on trial, and to Michael's surprise, Hanna is amongst them. During the trial it becomes clear that Hanna has a secret that is, to her, more shameful than murder, something she could use in her self-defense to invalidate some of the charges but that she chooses not to divulge. Belatedly, Michael understands: "Hanna could neither read nor write. That was why she had had people [that is, selected camp inmates and, later, him] read to her … That was why she had admitted to writing the report [about the crime in question during the trial] in order to escape a confrontation with an expert." She is sentenced to life in prison.

The third part chronicles Michael's increasing emotional numbness, which ruins his marriage—he had not told his wife about Hanna, and his continued feelings for her imprison him. Now a professor of legal history, Michael researches the question of law in the Third Reich and comes to appreciate how the German present is pregnant with the past, "the legacy of the past which brands us and with which we must live." He also suffers from insomnia and begins to read his favorite books aloud into a tape recorder, starting with the Odyssey, in which "Odysseus does not return home to stay, but to set off again." He sends these tapes to Hanna in prison and thus resumes the old bond between the two of them. After Hanna is paroled and Michael attempts to help her reenter society, Hanna commits suicide. Michael visits her cell, where he notices numerous books about the Holocaust (Hanna has by now learned to read), and is given a note asking him to give Hanna's life savings to one of the two survivors of the killings examined in the trial. Michael visits the survivor who rejects the intended gesture of atonement.

The Reader is, in a sense, a novel of confession. Michael admits to an entanglement with an individual from the German past and plumbs his moral entanglement, as well as Hanna's culpability. The novel thus enacts the relationship of the postwar Germans to the reality of the Nazi era, which, under a thin veneer of quotidian normalcy, continues to exert its poisonous influence.

Like much of his generation, Michael, as a law student, insists on holding the generation of his parents responsible. When confronted with the reality of seeing his erstwhile lover in the dock, however, his theoretically based moral principles seem to waver. The novel seems to argue that the central mystery of the love affair—Michael reading to Hanna—and Hanna's guilt are rooted in the same cause: her illiteracy.

One of the text's central interpretive cruxes lies in the difference between explaining the root causes of an action and the potential use of this explanation for exculpatory purposes. In other words, is Hanna's handicap a sufficient explanation for her wartime cruelties and could it serve to vitiate the importance of abstract moral principles when judging Hanna's behavior? Given that once Hanna has learned to read she delves into literature of the Holocaust, the novel implies a causal link between literacy and moral agency. This argument seems to detract from the otherwise deft exploration of the concepts of crime and punishment and the unflinching examination of the relationship later generations have with their history's legacy. Any serious discussion about the responsible transmission of communal memory is potentially compromised by a rhetoric that qualifies moral concepts such as individual responsibility by reference to particular human qualities whose existence is not sufficient to invalidate those moral categories.

—Stefan Gunther