Wednesday, January 24, 2024

the last book I read

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

West Germany, the late 1950s. Not such a bad place, though there are a few things brewing on the horizon, including the escalation of the Cold War resulting in the construction of the Berlin Wall. Michael Berg is just a regular fifteen-year-old, though, more concerned with those disturbing feelings, you know, down there than any wider geopolitical concerns. 

When he is struck down on the way home from school by an acute bout of sickness which turns out to be a precursor to an attack of hepatitis, he is helped by a gruff but compassionate thirtysomething woman from a nearby block of flats who helps him clean up and then sends him on his way. A bit later, having recovered, he decides to pay her a visit to thank her for her kindness, and finds himself having a mishap trying to help her get some coal out of the bunker attached to her apartment block, needing a bath and, well, you know, one thing leads to another and the next thing he knows he's getting FURIOUSLY TOWELLED OFF.

Michael and his lady friend, Hanna Schmitz, fall into a regular routine of him secretly visiting her, reading to her from various works of improving literature, them taking a bath together and then some furious bratwurst action. Hanna works as a tram conductor and is a fairly taciturn character seemingly keen to retain some emotional distance between herself and Michael. But why? Just a naturally reserved nature? An acknowledgement of their age difference, and, implicitly, the borderline abusive nature of the relationship (for all that Michael is going WAHEEYYYY and climbing on with some gusto)? Or something else?

Eventually the growing conflict between Michael's school studies and friendships with people his own age and his relationship with Hanna starts to be a source of tension, and one day he calls round to find she has upped sticks and left without leaving any contact details. Michael mooches around glumly for a while but then moves on with his life, although with some emotional hang-ups that blight his future relationships with women. 

Some years later, as part of an assignment for his course at law school, Michael is tasked with observing the trial of some former Nazi concentration camp workers for war crimes. To his surprise, Hanna is one of the defendants. After it emerges that she had people assigned to her in Auschwitz to read to her, and behaves oddly when accused of writing a report relating to the burning of some civilians in a church, Michael belatedly realises the truth: Hanna is illiterate, and is prepared to go to prison rather than reveal her secret.

After a punitive prison sentence is handed down, Michael once again returns to his life. He marries and has a daughter but the relationship ends in divorce five years later - blighted, we are invited to infer, by some unresolved issues on Michael's side. Eventually he re-establishes contact with Hanna by recording some readings and sending them to her in prison. Some time later, he receives a painstakingly written reply - Hanna has made use of her ample free time inside to start to learn to read and write. Michael never writes back, but continues to send the tapes in and occasionally receives a note in return. Some years pass and eventually Michael is contacted by the prison governor - Hanna is up for parole, it is highly likely that it will be granted, and Michael seems to be the only person she knows in the outside world. Can he help find some accommodation and employment suitable for a woman who'd now be about sixty? Furthermore, can he come and visit before her release date?

Slightly reluctant to re-open an area of his life he'd closed off and put under lock and key, Michael nonetheless feels some responsibility for Hanna, and so he comes to visit. As you might expect, after eighteen years of confinement (we'd be in the early 1980s by now) Hanna isn't quite as he remembers her - a bit older and fatter, but then aren't we all? Michael and Hanna talk in a cautious way about the trial, and about her earlier life during the war, and Michael departs. A short time later, on the day of her release, Michael turns up at the prison only to be told that Hanna had hanged herself earlier that morning, clearly a premeditated action as she had made no attempt to pack or prepare for her release. Michael is charged with carrying out the wishes contained in her will, which basically amount to making some small redress for her actions during the war by distributing a small sum of money to the surviving victim of the church fire.

So, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, then. It's quite a subject, isn't it? And a challenge to address fully in every aspect in a 200-page novel, so most novels that concern themselves with it don't even try, instead either focusing on a very narrow sliver of specific personal experience, or approaching the subject very obliquely while telling a different story. The book on this list with the most similar subject matter is probably The Dark Room; other novels featuring World War II and the Holocaust in particular as themes include The Nature Of Blood, The History Of Love, Turbulence, Island Madness, Empire Of The Sun (World War II but Japan, not Germany) and Free Fall, and much more tangentially as a sub-topic in FiskadoroNot That Sort Of Girl, The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, Sweet Caress, Shuttlecock, Spies, Restless, A Small Death In Lisbon, The Remains Of The Day, Marathon Man, The Ministry Of Fear and What's Bred In The Bone. The particular angle being explored in The Reader is the most painful one for post-war Germans: easy to condemn Hitler, Goering, Himmler and all the conveniently dead cartoon bad guys, but what to think about all the other Germans who lived through the war and didn't heroically sacrifice themselves in acts of resistance to the Nazi regime? Could it have been possible by a series of small incremental life choices to have drifted into a position where you suddenly step back, reflect, and say, Christ, I am an actual MASSIVE Nazi - how did that happen?

In Hanna's case her illiteracy seems to have been a partial cause in her drift into becoming a concentration camp guard and thereby responsible for the lives and deaths of many people: she accepted the job as an alternative to a promotion within the job she held at the time with Siemens as she felt that would be likely to require regular written communication and therefore risk exposing her. Does that exonerate her? Of course not. Does understanding her circumstances help? Yes, although it's less comfortable to think of the people perpetrating the crimes (and remember that the cartoon baddies delegated the actual shooting and gassing to the ordinary folks) as regular people like us, as that prompts the thought: well, what would I have done? That's a question to which we might not find an honest answer very palatable. 

Anyway, I enjoyed The Reader without finding it as devastating and insightful as some of the critics evidently did. Maybe having this particular topic as your novelistic subject matter gives you a bit of a free-of-charge critical leg-up in the same way that having it as a filmic theme gives you a boost when Oscars season rolls around. Just ask Kate Winslet, who as if to prove her own point, won the Best Actress Oscar in 2008 for portraying Hanna in the film version of The Reader.

The Reader was of course originally published in German; the list here tells me that its predecessors on this blog are The Piano Teacher and Auto-da-Fé. One interesting side-effect of the translation is a bit of loss of subtlety with the novel's title: "reader" can imply silent or out-loud reading in English, whereas the original German title Der Vorleser specifically implies the latter (Der Leser would imply the former). Once again German has a compound noun for every occasion. 

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