(Reviewed by Guy Savage FEB 7, 2009)
“I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.”
German author Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader, was published in Germany in 1995, translated into English in 1997, and selected by Oprah for her book club in 1999. The Reader is gaining yet another audience thanks to the 2008 film version starring the winsome Kate Winslet. The fact that the film picked up a Golden Globe award won’t exactly hurt book sales.
The Reader is ostensibly a novel about one teenager’s sexual awakening. Set in post WWII Germany, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg meets bus conductor Hanna, and soon they embark on a passionate affair that ends abruptly. Years later, Michael, now a law student discovers that Hanna is on trial for hideous war crimes against Jews. At once fascinated and repelled, Michael attends the trial, listens to the evidence, and attempts to align the little information he once had about Hanna with his new discoveries.
Titillating novels about boys who stumble into affairs with the quintessential older woman are not exactly rare. But The Reader is so much more than that. While the story is a coming-of-age tale describing a boy’s sexual awakening, the novel’s ramifications extend far beyond a few sexual encounters.
Schlink’s presentation of Hanna through fifteen-year-old Michael’s infatuated sexually obsessed mind creates the picture of a rather exotic older woman who is then transfigured, by an adult Michael, into an illiterate, gray haired, middle aged woman, so lacking in humanity, imagination and independent thought that she commits horrific acts in the name of bureaucratic efficiency (similar to the Architect of the Holocaust, Eichmann’s claim to be a mere cog in the Nazi machine during his trial.)
When mulling over The Reader, the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s term the “banality of evil” came to mind, and the fictional Hanna’s failure to imagine the suffering she inflicted makes her, at least ultimately for me, a repulsive subject. Yet herein lies the novel’s strength: Michael loves a woman who hides the truth about the terrible crimes she committed. But then when he discovers the truth, Hanna’s lack of imagination reveals a horrifying abyss, a huge gap where morality and conscience should exist. Is such a discovery so shattering that Michael’s former love and lifelong obsession collapse? As Michael struggles to understand Hanna’s crimes, in the process, he struggles to understand the nature of evil and its indifference to suffering. And thus The Reader is not only a coming of age novel but also a novel that addresses questions of morality, accountability and culpability.
- Amazon readers rating: from 901 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Reader at Randomhouse(back to top)
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 3, 2008)
Peter Debauer, the protagonist of German author Bernard Schlink's newest novel, Homecoming, is a child born to Swiss and German parents. He is growing up with a single mother believing that his Swiss father was shot on the streets just after the end of World War II.
Narrated in first person through Peter's voice, as the book opens, Schlink paints idyllic scenes of summers spent with his grandparents in Switzerland. With them, he feels like an individual and welcomes the daily domesticities they go through together—watering the plants, tending to the gardens and in the evenings, sitting down together at the kitchen table to do important work. In his grandparents' case, this work involves editing a series of pulp fiction reads called: Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment. When at the end of every summer, Peter gets ready to return to his mother, his grandparents give him the useless bound galleys to use as rough paper for the rest of the year with strict instructions never to read what's printed on the other side.
Eventually of course, Peter does take a peek. What he reads fascinates him. He stumbles across the story of a German prisoner of war who returns home to his wife and child only to find that his wife now has a new husband and child. The last few pages of the story are missing and Peter ends up obsessing about the ending doing all he can to track the book down.
Peter's life with his mother is in stark contrast to the beautiful summers he spends with his grandparents. Full of secrets, she never tells Peter any details about his long-lost father. “I don't owe you anything,” she says. “Tenderness, intimacy, regret over things gone wrong or gone by, vacillation over making a decision—these were all foreign to her, or she had buried them so long ago and so deeply that they no longer dared to surface,” Schlink writes, “We informed each other of the events in our lives without much commentary.”
Peter becomes an editor at a local publishing company and falls in and out of a relationship with his girlfriend, Barbara. Just as he is ready to take the plunge with her however, he comes across an interesting book by a well-established American professor. It's called The Odyssey of Law and its author is Professor John de Baur. Even if his mother has told him that his father is dead, Peter now knows this is not true—he is certain that John de Baur is his father.
The mystery behind who his father was (and now is) totally captivates Peter and he cannot rest until he finds out more. Who exactly was Johann Debauer? Was he a Nazi sympathizer? Why did he use the names Walter Scholler and Volker Vonlanden? And what did he do in these various guises? Under what mysterious circumstances did his parents meet? These and many more unresolved questions about his father compels Peter to travel to New York and meet if not confront his father.
The story of homecoming, which is the central theme of Homer's Odyssey, is also a recurrent motif in Schlink's novel, sometimes to the point where it begins to look overdone. Schlink beautifully portrays how the collective guilt weighing down on post- World War Germany plays out in Peter Debauer.
In the end, Peter never confronts his father about a dark past that was lived under the Third Reich. In doing so, he spares himself (and possibly his father), the shared burden of bitter truth but it might leave the reader feeling like all loose ends have not been resolved. Even if Peter eventually returns home to Barbara in Germany, his restlessness is palpable. Perhaps as Schlink himself once observed, Peter is doomed to play out Odysseus's fate. Like Odysseus, Peter too will return home “not to stay but to set off again.”
Schlink's latest is an intriguing and absorbing novel especially in the very beginning. But as Schlink piles on story upon interconnected story, some its layered mysteries remain frustratingly obtuse. “History is clearly in no hurry,” Peter once observes. Then again, neither is Bernard Schlink in his latest novel, Homecoming.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Homecoming at Pantheon
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Reader (1995; 1997 in US; November 2008)
- Flights of Love : Short Stories (2001; 2001 in US)
- Homecoming (2006; January 2008 in US)
- The Weekend (October 2010 in US)
- Self's Punishment (1987; 2005 in US)
- The Gordian Knot (1988l December 2010 in US)
- Self's Deception (1992; (2007 in US)
- Self's Murder (2001; August 2009 in US)
Movies from books:
- The Reader (April 2009)
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- Wikipedia page for Bernhard Schlink
- Beatrice interview with Bernhard Schlink
- Reading Guide for The Reader
- The New York Times review of The Reader
- Reading Guide for Homecoming
- Guardian review of Homecoming
- Times Online review of Homecoming
- Chicago Tribume review of Homecoming
- Guardian article on making movie form book of The Reader
- MostlyFiction.com review of Self's Murder
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About the Author:
Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944.
He is the author of the internationally best-selling novel The Reader, which was an Oprah's Book Club selection. This is was the first German book to reach the number one position in the New York Times bestseller list.
He has a legal background and became a judge at the Constitutional Court of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1988 and is a professor of law and the philosophy of law at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany as of January 2006.
He lives in Berlin and New York.