on 23 April 2013
There are many books out there about post-war Germany, the Nazis, concentration camps, and the like. This story is about all of those things, and yet is very different from anything that I have ever read on the subject before.
At first you wouldn't even be able to tell you are reading a book that has anything to do with Nazi officers at all. The narrative is told by a man called Michael Berg, and begins by relating the audience how it was he came to be involved in a love affair with an older woman, when he was but a teenage boy. This situation would bring up all sorts of moral issues and questions on its own, and yet there is so much more to be told.
Years later, a trial unfolds in the German town where Michael lives. It is at this point that the connections to the afforementioned war-related subjects arise.
I found the book captivating. I read through it quite quickly and was eager to put the pieces of the puzzle together in my mind. I found the tone of the narrative very detached and void of any emotional connection. This seemed odd to me, especially when such intimate details were being described. I found it hard to decide if this disconnected writing style was intentional, or whether it was a result of the book's translation into English. A case could easily be made for Michael's somber attitude, and yet I began to wonder if such detachment was desired perhaps a first-person narrative should not have been chosen.
I would very much like to see the critically acclaimed film now. I hear that it is one of those rare films that surpasses the novel it was based upon. In any event, this novel was well worth the read. Even for me, who isn't much for World War dramas. This book was far removed from the front-line and unique enough to always be remembered.
From the amount of four and five stars dedicated to this book and all of the accolades bestowed upon it, it is safe to say that I started this novel expecting truly great things. Novels about the legacy of the holocaust and that particular time in history have always interested me, so I was looking forward to a genuinely moving tale. Instead I am a bit sad to say that I actually found this a little bit dull. Whilst the premise was certainly interesting enough and executed well in places, I just found the characters too flat to really care about and as a consequence never really engaged with this book on an emotional level.
Narrated by at first the fifteen year old schoolboy Michael, we are drawn into his world as he begins an affair with thirty-six year old Hanna and learn the nature of their relationship and his devoted love to her. After Hanna unexpectedly leaves him, Michael cannot seem to pull himself together- and years later when he is a law student and watching a trial, he is horrified to see his former lover on the stand for atrocities she committed during the war. So raises the questions of love, evil and genocide. Can you still love someone knowing what they've done?
Despite the allusions to heavy subject matter, this book for me was just bland, I'm afraid. I can't find enough faults to say that I dislike it, but nor would I probably recommend it to someone, unless they have a real interest in books on the holocaust.
I have to say that I think I feel this way because this is admittedly a very short book- but it does feel like only a couple of pages are actually given to alluding as to the true horrors of Hanna's crimes and the rest of it is simply the diatribe and musings of a teenage boy- then later the man he becomes. Also, it was fairly predictable early on as to Hanna's `deep secret' as other reviewers have commented on, and as a consequence of this it feels like the story peters away somewhat half way through.
As books about the legacy of the holocaust go, there are better ones out there than this. Whilst it admittedly raises important questions, I just cannot help but feel that it never really explores its full potential.
on 30 January 2009
After having read some amazing books on the holocaust and WWII in the past twelve months or so like Marcus Zusack's astounding `The Book Thief' and John Boyne's superb `The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama's' I didn't know if `The Reader' would live up to the brilliant reports that I had heard not from blogs but from some friends, on in particular who I was in my old book group with who told me that `you simply have to read it'. This book has actually been around now for ten years and book blogs or blogs in general weren't around (how did I find what I wanted to read lol) but is resurfacing with the film coming out in January. This book is just as good as the aforementioned and yet totally different.
Michael is ill during his fifteenth year with hepatitis when he first realises he is sick he collapses in the street and with help from a lady in the street he gets home saftely. After making most of his recovery he walks to thirty six year old Hannah Schmitz to thank her for what she did. This becomes a regular visit as he is intoxicated by her and eventually is seduced by her, then starts a love affair involving Michael reading to her before and after their intimate relations, and eventually just reading before one day Hannah suddenly vanishes from his life. However one day Hannah comes back into his life in a totally unexpected way. I will say no more than that as this book has a incredibly thought provoking twist and I don't want to spoil it for you.
Schink's novel (beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway) looks at the Holocaust and things that happened during it in a way I haven't seen before fictionally. This book is all about the generations after the war and how it felt to carry the burden of Hitler's regime and destruction. I had never thought of what it would be like to have that as part of your history, especially in this case so recent. Through one of the characters actions he asks how people you perceive to be good could possibly do unspeakable things in unspeakable conditions. It also looks at love and emotions in a time where a country and its people were damaged and scarred.
This is simply a wonderful novel, moving, shocking, and thought provoking. If there is one book you read in the next few months make it this one. Mind you with some of the fabulous books I have gotten through in the last twelve months of blogging I have said that a fair few times, but in this case I seriously recommend it and cannot recommend it enough.
on 13 May 2013
I came to read this after seeing the film, which is a pale shadow of the book.
It is, I now believe, impossible to grasp the key to this from the film which probably means that the film maker failed to understand it.
The key is that the boy, Berg, is very like the woman, Hanna, formed by her in ways that make his interference for her ultimate good at the court case, impossible. She has fears that transcend common sense (fear of discovery of her illiteracy); he fears to reveal his relationship with her. Had he not met her and loved her, he would have managed to save her in the court.
The presence of his father as a professor of philosophy is a good move; even the principle which he states: that we are not entitled to overrule the values of someone on trial even if it would save their live when it is diametrically opposed to their view.
And Berg does go against his father's view and then cannot bring himself to execute the move. This is artistically very good.
The book is about the limits set upon us of what we can and cannot do to help someone in need of help.
This is a very worthy philosophical question and it took a German philosopher to deal with it.
I expect his other books will have the same sort of source. I intend to read them. Of course this is miles better than the sort of tripe one sees everywhere nowadays in books, films and tv where there are missions impossible, murders galore or spectacular crashes, explosions and mayhem.
This book is written in easy to read short chapters, and the prose is sharp, concise and well written. The book is written from the perspective of the male character, and crafts his feelings for the older woman ex-concentration camp guard who seduces him as a teenager. His feelings which develop into an obsession for her are very well crafted from the perspective of the teenager. This part of the book was well done, and it is very easy to connect with the teenage character. However, when she leaves him, he seems unable to move on emotionally and his failure to do eventually wrecks his marriage. If this is analysed in a common sense manner it seems slightly less believable. I don't really get much of a sense of the female character and what really makes her tick and her reasons of her actions. The author and narrator suggest that her illiteracy is a significant reason, as if to excuse her actions by saying 'she couldn't do much else' because of it. I'm afraid this didn't really work for me. Some of the exploration of collective guilt in German society and cross-generational views were interesting, but the basic premise of illiteracy as an excuse for mass-murder didn't really resonate with me. A well crafted piece of work but with a rather flawed premise. I can't see it working as a film very well, as much of the story is based upon the inner voice. I'll probably see it though.
on 23 December 2008
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.
on 1 May 2011
"The Reader" by the German writer Bernhard Schlink is a slim work. In a narrative of a mere 224 pages, thinly cloaked as a love story, the writer takes all Germans--both pre- and post WWII generations--to task for the crimes of the Holocaust.
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."
on 7 March 2009
I just didn't enjoy the story much and I found it difficult to empathise with the Hanna character. Nevertheless the novel is well composed with true to life imagery and detail, and reads very easily, although it is rather short. Another aspect that I didn't appreciate was the sudden move into the legal part, as I found the courtroom dialogue too boring and factual compared to the first part of the book which immersed you into the emotional lives of Hanna and Michael, focusing on their bizarre relationship and psychological insecurities. I also felt that there was too big a leap from the first part to the second in terms of story, style and setting, and perhaps we could have heard more detail about Hanna's secret past from her own perspective, which would have made the novel a little longer but more consistent with the first half of the book. Overall it was a satisfying read, though I couldn't say I'd really enjoyed it. Having said that, it may be other people's cup of tea, so I would recommend keeping an open mind and judging the book for yourself.
I'm not sure whether something of this book has been lost in the translation or whether it is simply too short to do justice to the subject. The problem seems to be in the way Schlink uses the action for various psychological hypotheses, only to jump across vast tracks of time with a suddeness that is difficult to handle.
The novel doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be a love story, a psychological drama or a portrait of the holocaust and consequently it drops somewhere between the three. The holocaust feels like an episodic aside to the life of the main character and his love and infatuation for a woman many years his senior and a woman with a hidden past which comes out when he attends court as a law student.
The problem is that nothing is the book comes as a real surprise. Events suddenly happen with a stark realism but they don't shock us. To comment too closely on the action would be to give away the plot. I am looking forward to seeing the film of the book. I am sure it will be more edifying than the starkness of the narrative.
on 21 August 2013
A friend (whose judgement I trust) recommended this to me. I was not disappointed.
Ignoring for the moment the subject of the book I really liked the way the book is structured. Each chapter is short and to the point. Each of the three parts into which the book is divided has its own distinct character.
But this clarity and neatness contrasts with the moral and emotional ambiguities that the main characters have to deal with.
There is no need for me to repeat other reviewers who outline the themes and plot of the book. What I will say is that as soon as I had finished it I started to read it again from the beginning. And that's unusual for me.
If you want to read about the horrors of Nazi Germany don't read this book. But if you want an understanding of how ordinary Germans found themselves taking part in extraordinary events and how they and the next generation tried to reconcile themselves to what happened then this is definitely worth a read. Or two. Or maybe three.