43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read
I came to Bernard Schlink's novel, The Reader, as a result of the publicity surrounding the film of the book. The story is told by Michael Berg who looks back at a relationship he had at 15 with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. It is a story of unrequited love set in Germany in the context of the post second world war years. Underlying the pains of a love story are huge...
Published on 23 Jan 2009 by Herman Norford
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly slight, what was all the fuss about?
Love, law and literature battle against guilt and genocide in this well written but disappointingly slight novella based in immediately post-war Germany. Such are the resonances and importance of the themes, and indeed the earnestness of the intent it seems mean not to like it. But this reader at least felt a little manipulated by the deliberate simplicity, the po-mo...
Published on 23 Dec 2008 by C. Young
Most Helpful First | Newest First
43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read,
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)I came to Bernard Schlink's novel, The Reader, as a result of the publicity surrounding the film of the book. The story is told by Michael Berg who looks back at a relationship he had at 15 with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. It is a story of unrequited love set in Germany in the context of the post second world war years. Underlying the pains of a love story are huge universal moral themes such as guilt, betrayal, whether or not the burden of responsibility can and should be passed from one generation to another, the issue of being responsible for ones action and the willingness to be held accountable.
It is reasonable to say that The Reader is a novel of ideas. Along with the themes mentioned above, another area of exploration is memory. For Michael his personal identity is built on memory. I found this issue very engaging as I was reminded that it is the joys and pains of memory that at least partly shapes our character.
But such esoteric ideas, if one could call them that, should not deter prospective readers. The Reader is a very accessible novel. On one level it is a story of childhood that charmed and drew me into its world. Yet in another way it is an erotic story that captures the spirit of many teenage boys who desire the older woman - the forbidden fruit. Michael gets the forbidden fruit but at a cost - namely unrequited love and anguish into adulthood that strained further relationships he had with women.
The sombre tone of the narrative fits very well with Michael's anguish. But the tone is sombre not only for that reason, not only because of the illicit liaison, not only because of Hanna's mysterious pasts but more because of Michael's betrayal of Hanna in more than one way. Part of Schlink's great achievement is that through these issues he manages to shed light on how we sometimes bear the burden of guilt. It's an acknowledgement of how we allow ourselves to be constrained by the prevailing social circumstances, and later suffer because of it.
Schlink draws a complex character in Hanna. She is dowdy, moody and unpredictable to some extent. But he also does something more with Hanna. Through her inaction that is alleged to have led to the burning to death of a number of Jews in a church, Schlink makes Hanna a symbol that represents the mob and its heard instinct. In the socio-political milieu she finds herself in, like most of her peers Hanna easily comes to believe that it is her responsibility to carry out duties requested of her. She is certainly no existentialist; she cannot think outside the box and do what is right. Through Hanna Schlink shakes us out of our own complacency and confronts us with the question what would you have done in similar circumstances.
A word about the translation, at times it feels clumsy. For example, after planning a bicycle holiday, part of Michael's thoughts is translated thus: "Strange that this idea and suggesting it were not embarrassing to me" However, overall, although I don't read German, I sense that the translator, Carol Brown Janeway, captured the tone of the original novel - full praise to her.
This is a very short novel that could be quickly read through. However, I urge the prospective reader not to rush through it. Because it is cram-full of ideas, it commands a slow and careful read. I found myself re-reading passage simply to make sure I had grasped the idea being explored.
For all its profound philosophical questions and huge universal themes, The Reader never deviates from being a gripping story. I was emotional stirred and intellectually stimulated by this novel. The fact that such a short novel had a huge impact on me it must be considered a tour de force.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simplistic prose, superb depth...,
Hanna is a complex character - while knowing, from her first encounter with Michael and the nature of this, that we should dislike her - I found Michael's utter obsession with her, and particularly as the book progressed, forced me to see past those initial instincts.
She can further be demonised by her acts and then her behaviours when attempting to defend herself and what she has alleged to have done while working in Concentration Camps across Nazi Germany, but again, it was Michaels depth of feeling for her - the fact that thoughout all three parts of the tale, when you see how Hanna morphs from teenage obsession to an object of love lost through to pitiless captor capable of all evil and on to an aged woman - he never loses his addiction to her.
His entire life has revolved around his love for such a woman and that, for me, was pivotal in my enjoyment of this novel and why I will recommend it to others. This was the latest offering at my book club and the reason why I go - I'm not sure I would have picked it up otherwise.
117 of 130 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars COMPELLING...COMPLEX...PROFOUND...,
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)Winner of the Boston Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, this thematically complex story is written in clear, simple, lucid prose. It is a straightforward telling of an encounter that was to mark fifteen year old Michael Berg for life. The book, written as if it were a memoir, is divided into three parts. The first part of the book deals with that encounter.
While on his way home from school one day in post-war Germany, Michael becomes ill. He is aided by a beautiful and buxom, thirty six year old blonde named Hanna Schmitz. When he recovers from his illness, he goes to Frau Schmitz's home to thank her and eventually finds himself seduced by her and engaged in a sexual encounter. They become lovers for a period of time, and a component of their relationship was that Michael would read aloud to her. Michael romanticizes their affair, which is a cornerstone of his young life. They even go away on a trip together. Then, one day, as suddenly as she appeared in his life, she disappears, having inexplicably moved with no forwarding address.
The second part of the book deals with Michael's chance encounter with Hanna again. He is now a law student in a seminar that is focused on Germany's Nazi past and the related war trials. The students are young and eager to condemn all who, after the end of the war, had tolerated the Nazis in their midst. Even Michael's parents do not escape his personal condemnation. The seminar is to be an exploration of the collective guilt of the German people, and Michael embraces the opportunity, as do others of his generation, to philosophically condemn the older generation for having sat silently by. Then, he is assigned to take notes on a trial of some camp guards.
To his total amazement, one of the accused is Hanna, his Hanna. He stoically remains throughout the trial, realizing as he hears the evidence that she is refusing to divulge the one piece of evidence that could possibly absolve her or, at least, mitigate her complicity in the crimes with which she is charged. It is as if she considers her secret, that of her inability to read and write, more shameful than that of which she is accused. Yet, Michael, too, remains mute on the fact that would throw her legal, if not her moral, guilt into question. Consequently, Hanna finds herself bearing the legal guilt of all those involved in the crime of which she is accused and is condemned accordingly.
The third part of the book is really the way Michael deals with having found Hanna, again. He removes himself from further demonstration and discussion on the issue of Germany's Nazi past. It affects his decisions as to his career in the law, eventually choosing a legal career that is isolating. He marries and has a child but finds that he cannot be free of Hanna. He cannot be free of the pain of having loved Hanna. It is as if Hanna has marked him for life. He divorces and never remarries. It is as if he cannot love another, as he loved Hanna. Michael then reaches out to Hanna in prison, indirectly, through the secret they share of what she seems to be most ashamed. Yet, he carefully never personalizes the contact. The end, when it comes, is almost anti-climatic.
The relationship between Michael and Hanna really seems to be analogous to the relationship between the generations of Germans in post-war Germany. The affair between Michael and Hanna is representational of the affair that Germany had with the Nazi movement. The eroticism of the book is a necessary component for the collective guilt and shame that the Germans bear for the Holocaust, as well as for the moral divide that seemingly exists between the generations. Yet, the book also shows that such is not always a black and white issue, that there are sometimes gray areas when one discusses one's actions in the context of the forces of good and evil. There is also the issue of legal and moral responsibility. One would think that the two are synonymous, but they are not always so. It also philosophizes on the ability to love another/a nation who/that was complicit in war crimes. This is an insightful, allegorical book that defies categorizing. It is also a book that is a wonderful selection for a reading circle, as it has a wealth of issues that are ripe for discussion. This is simply a superlative book. Bravo!
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revised understanding of relationships,
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)The topic of the Holocaust is raised almost every day in some manner. Many books have been written about the topic. Whether in studies, documentaries or fictional accounts, finger-pointing at the perpetrators of the crimes against millions has been part of the process of coming to terms with the Nazi atrocities. For Imre Kertesz, renowned author and Nobel laureate of 2002, there is no other topic. Yet, when he reflects on the traumatic impact of Auschwitz, "he dwells on the vitality and creativity of those living today" and "thus, paradoxically, not on the past but the future." Bernhard Schlink, professor of law and practicing judge in Germany, born in 1944, has attempted to capture the struggles of his generation in confronting the past and the future in "The Reader". "Pointing at the guilty party did not free us from shame", his narrator and protagonist contemplates, "but at least it overcame the suffering we went through on account of it".
The usually unambiguous distinction between villain and victim has facilitated the identification with those who lost their lives or suffered under the Nazi atrocities while all scorn, abhorrence and hate was piled on the perpetrators. Until recently, few books have focused on the after-war generation. While growing up, the children had to come to terms with the, often sudden, exposure of their parents' active or passive participation in the crimes of the Nazi regime. "The Reader", set in post-war Germany and against the backdrop of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid-sixties, takes this new and, for our generations, important angle: in the form of the fictional memoir of Michael Berg. Michael, while not refuting guilt, shame, and atonement, is led to examine and dissect the complexity of inter-generational conflicts in the context of his personal experiences. Like Schlink himself, he grapples with the fundamental problem of the relationships between these two generations.
Michael recounts the most important stages in his life, starting with experiences long passed in his youth. While his account follows the chronology of events, he progressively interleaves retrospective reflections on his past conduct, questioning his conflicting emotions - his behaviour. The story starts with Michael's first, secret, love affair at age 15 with a woman more than twice his age. The blossoming erotic relationship strengthens his self-worth and confidence yet, at the same time, increasingly isolating him from his family and peers. Hanna Schmitz, of whose circumstances and background Michael knew very little, was affectionate and standoffish at the same time, prone to abrupt mood swings. The young lover is completely captivated and eager to please. He is the "Reader", in German "Vorleser" is a person who reads aloud to an audience. At her insistence he reads his books to her and it becomes an important element of their shared intimacy. When she disappears one day without any warning, her loss leaves him devastated and scarred for life. He can only seek the reasons in his own actions. Seeing Hanna again years later and in unanticipated surroundings, triggers a flood of questions about the person he loved and thought he knew. Her behaviour raises many questions and Michael discovers a long secret that puts in doubt the facts as they are exposed. He also wrestles with himself over his own inaction when confronted with choices. "What would you have done?" Although addressed to the judge by the defendant, this question hangs over Michael, as it does over his whole generation. It encapsulates the primary dilemma of the child-parent generations relationships. Finally, writing the story of his life, drafting and redrafting it in his head until it is in a publishable form, is seen as a chance for his own recovery and to give him a chance to live his life.
The Reader, while a work of fiction, is deeply anchored in the personal experiences of the author and symbolic for his generation. His spare and unemotional language underlines the impression of a biographical investigation and is used quite deliberately. The English translation captures the tone and style amazingly well. Reading this book should not be an "easy pleasure" as some reviewers have suggested. The Reader covers difficult and complex terrain in a way that it forces the reader to reflect and question their own position long afterwards. Although written directly for a German audience of Schlink's and my generation, the novel, surprisingly, has attracted world-wide attention. While reviews and reactions among readers are highly diverse and even contradictory, it should be read by as many people as possible and with the care the subject matter deserves.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing love story raises challenging issues,
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)'The Reader' is the fictional memoir of Michael Berg, written straightforwardly in sparse, unemotional, highly readable language. The novel is simply yet effectively structured into three parts that progress chronologically. Broadly speaking, 'The Reader' opens with a beautifully told love story between the narrator, then aged fifteen, and a thirty-six year old female tram conductor, Hannah Schmitz. Michael attends Hanna's entire trial on war crime charges in Part II, whilst the final Part explores the aftermath of the trial for both Michael and Hanna.
In 'The Reader' legal and philosophical issues take centre stage. Schlink avoids making authorial judgments, opening up grey areas between the dichotomy of good and evil, and allowing readers full reign to ponder the various questions that are raised. Whilst Schlink's overall approach has much to recommend it, there is the danger that on key issues a range of interpretations could be taken and that 'The Reader' can be read as meaning all things to all readers.
The first issue raised in 'The Reader' concerns the appropriateness of Hanna and Michael's sexual relationship. Whilst it is impossible to comment accurately on the legality of their relationship in the hundred-and-ninety-odd countries of the world, particularly as some federated nations themselves consist of multiple criminal jurisdictions, it is suggested that their sexual relations would be illegal in many parts of the world and be subject to potentially heavy penalties. Hanna and Michael's relationship is portrayed simply as a love story through Part One, and it is entirely possible that Schlink - author, jurist and lawyer - is seeking to question sexual offences legislation in many parts of the world. Interestingly, this issue has received comparatively little attention in reviews of 'The Reader', arguably suggesting that existing criminal laws are out of step with the thoughts of the readership of this popular and critically-acclaimed novel. Despite the treatment of their relationship in Part One, there are nevertheless some indications in the novel that Michael's relationship with Hanna had negative effects on his emotional development, such as his estrangement from his family and peers, and his difficulties in forming stable relationships with women later in his life.
Secondly, the novel explores issues concerning the Holocaust, in particular the degree of Hanna's culpability for war crimes, and the attitudes of post-Nazi generations of Germans towards Germans, collectively and individually, that were adults during the Nazi era. In general terms, it is a strength of the book that Hanna gets a sympathetic airing of her wartime acts and omissions - largely because we see her through Michael's eyes and he remains in love with her. Schlink's successful examination of wartime issues can be seen as part of the process of Germany and Germans coming to terms with their past, although it has to be stressed that this has been happening for many years now in Germany. Indeed, Germany's recent sensitive handling of the sixtieth anniversaries of the liberation of a number of Nazi concentration camps, and the appointment of a German Archbishop to lead the global Catholic Church both suggest that the international community fully recognises Germany's atonement for its wartime acts.
Despite enjoying the storyline and treatment of issues in 'The Reader', a number of reservations exist. Firstly, whilst appreciating the generally sympathetic treatment accorded Hanna, she is never really given a voice to explain her actions - either in relation to her wartime activity or her relationship with Michael - and I thought this could have been achieved, either directly or indirectly, in Part Three. Secondly, I felt that characterisation development was sacrificed somewhat in order to make the story clear-cut and keep issues to the fore. Thirdly, I found a number of points of the plot fairly implausible, such as Hanna's illiteracy not being evident prior to the trial; Michael studying to become a lawyer; Michael chancing upon Hanna's trial and Hanna's lack of adequate legal representation given the gravity of the charges (consider, for example, the difficulty that Milosevic, a trained lawyer, had in dismissing his counsel).
The praise lavished upon this novel has been quite extraordinary - it's even a bit overwhelming and daunting to plough through selected comments on the way to page one! Whilst 'The Reader' may not fully meet all the hype, I would nevertheless heartily recommend it as an entertaining and thought-provoking look into contemporary attitudes to Germany's Nazi past. Furthermore, for those particularly interested in this issue, Gunter Grass's exceptional recent novel 'Crabwalk' would make a perfect companion novel to 'The Reader'.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE READER AS ALLEGORY,
The story begins when a young boy becomes ill on his way home from school. A woman helps him. He's a good boy, from a nice family, living in a nice home. Once recovered, and at his mother's urging, he takes flowers to the woman who helped him when he became ill. Thus begins the May-December romance between 15-year-old Michael Berg and 35-year-old Hanna Schmitz.
Let's look back at the day of the rescue, the day Michael vomits at Hanna's doorstep. He is ill, wretched, miserable, and embarrassed. She assesses the situation and takes charge. The assistance she offers is decisive and efficient, accomplished as effortlessly as the "Anschluss" of Austria. Or, in the author's words, "When rescue came it was almost an assault."
The young Michael, whom Hanna calls "the kid," has never known a woman like her. Hanna is clearly from a different social class than his own family and friends. She is uneducated, works at menial jobs, and lives in a shabby, but clean apartment. Hanna makes no effort to seduce, yet beneath her stern exterior, she is oh so seductive. And like his parents, Hanna is emotionally unavailable. The pleasures she offers come on her own terms. As the relationship unfolds, he is at a loss to explain the times when her cool demeanor gives way to irrational outbursts. Warning signs of a troubled psyche to be sure, but there is no arguing with Hanna's anger; there is only acquiescence. "The kid"--eyes on the prize--submits.
Which young man or--if we accept the metaphor of Michael Berg as a stand-in for the German people--which country in the throes of infatuation heeds such warning signs? Smitten with a Fuehrer who would lead them away from wretchedness, who would turn shame to triumph, the German people submitted as eagerly as young Michael did. Thus, "the kid" traded away the innocent pleasures of his youth for the guilty secrets of adulthood, as willingly as Hitler's Germans surrendered their innocence for a taste of sin.
Then one day it's over. Hanna is gone, and Michael will never again find another woman who is able to take him to such heights of passion or depths of despair. The end of their affair is a shock to him, just as the end of the Nazi regime must have been a shock to the German populace. Abandoned by their Fuhrer, who escaped into death, they're left alone to explain their mad dream of the Third Reich and to face the accusing eyes of the rest of the world.
Michael and Hanna meet again when he's a law students sent to observe the trial of Auschwitz prison guards. She is one of them. During the trial, Michael discovers the secret she's kept all her life, a secret she's too ashamed to reveal. This secret will not absolve her from guilt, but decrease her lifetime sentence to a mere few years. Yet she keeps silent, as does he. Whose secret is he protecting? Hanna's or his? Just as his father kept silent about his role during the Nazi regime, Michael, who, by his actions as a boy linked his life to hers, now keeps silent as well.
As an adult, Michael Berg comes to exist in a state of emotional suspension. He says, "The worst were the dreams in which a hard, imperious, cruel Hanna aroused me sexually; I woke from them full of longing and shame and rage. And full of fear about who I really was." What an awakening it must have been for the German people when the dream was over, the truth revealed.
In the end, neither Hanna's imprisonment nor her death, like the death of Adolf Hitler, can atone for the silence of two generations of Germans. I applaud Bernhard Schlink for breaking that silence with his excellent novel, "The Reader."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Reader,The Reader
This is a very readable and thought provoking book: it is a love story, an account of erotic wakening and also a tragedy and an exploration of the issues of moral responsibility in a world capable of great cruelty - the world of the holocaust and its aftermath.
In the end I was moved to tears. The writing is so powerful and certain images stay imprinted on your mind.
I recommend it highly to anyone who likes a book that has a strong story line but is moving and thought provoking.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heart Breaking,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)I was unsure what to expect from this book, but found myself drawn in completely. The writing is simple but with such an elegance the power of the story shines out like a beacon. I instantly recognised all the emotions and turmoils created when you don't know how you feel about something or even how you ought to feel. This is not a normal holocaust book and there are no excuses for anything, but it gives an insight into the many paths life can take. I would recommend this to everyone.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a beautifully-written, thought-provoking, philosophical book,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Reader (Audio Cassette)this a beautifully written book which suffers little for translation out of its original language. it is at once a love story and a work of philosophy. it at once challenges our prejudices and yet is a simple tale based in complex times. it is thought-provoking yet so accessible (and concise) that it could be easily read in one sitting. the holocaust is undoubtedly an over exposed subject but the emotion of this novel does not come from the horrors of auschwitz but from the emotions of ordinary people in extraordinary times - and the legacy of following generations. i have not read a better novel for a long time.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly slight, what was all the fuss about?,
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)Love, law and literature battle against guilt and genocide in this well written but disappointingly slight novella based in immediately post-war Germany. Such are the resonances and importance of the themes, and indeed the earnestness of the intent it seems mean not to like it. But this reader at least felt a little manipulated by the deliberate simplicity, the po-mo storytelling and the disappointing denouement. A young German falls in love with and has a steamy affair with an older woman. Later as a law student he discovers her brutal history as a concentration camp guard and attends her trial for one repellent incident. Is he guilty for loving her? Can evil ever be understood on a personal level, or should it be just condemned? Is condemnation only a way of avoiding collective responsibility? Who is truly responsible for what? What should the hero do next? Had hoped the author, an eminent German lawyer, would come up with some reflective, philosophical answers, but all that was offered were surprisingly trite, slight or simplistic musings. And the unrealistically literary resolution was pretty irritating too.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Reader by Prof Bernhard Schlink (Paperback - 2 Oct 2003)