Fiction: “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

readerConsidering this is the second book I’ve read that was recently made into a book starring Kate Winslet in less than a month, you may think I have a girl-crush on Kate Winslet. You’d be right, but this book has as much to do with Kate Winslet as her role in The Reader had to do with her winning the Oscar last month (oh please, we all know this was the “Oops, you should have won for everything else you’ve been nominated for” Make Up Award).

At the age of fifteen in post-WWII Germany, Michael Berg is struck down by hepatitis. He is helped by Hanna Schmitz when he falls ill in a side-street. He returns to her after his illness to thank her, and is struck by her simple beauty:

I remember that her body and the way she held it and moved sometimes seemed awkward. … It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world. It was the same obliviousness that weighted in her glance and her movements when she was pulling on her stockings. But then she was not awkward, she was slow-flowing, graceful, seductive — a seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body.

They enter into an affair, with Hanna teaching him about sex and love.

Hanna has two secrets: first, she was former SS. Second, she’s illiterate. Berg is the Reader in this instance; he reads aloud to Hanna before they make love. One day, Hanna disappears, and Berg becomes not-quite-consumed with guilt, but with just enough guilt to carry through the remainder of the novel.

The days went by and I felt sick. I took pains to make sure my parents and my brothers and sisters noticed nothing … I went to school and to the swimming pool. I spent my afternoons there in an out-of-the-way place where no one would look for me. My body yearned for Hanna. But even worse than my physical desire 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. Leaving was her punishment.

We learn later that she didn’t leave because Michael disavowed her to his friends; she left because she was offered a promotion at the streetcar company, and she wouldn’t be able to hide her illiteracy anymore.

Michael sees her again as a student, studying a Nazi crime trial. He did not expect to see her there, as one of the defendants, but due to her presence, he involves himself beyond the one day he is supposed to attend the proceedings. The other SS guards knew of her illiteracy, and knew also of her vanity and fervent desire to keep it hidden, and play that to their advantage; the other four women receive small sentences, while Hanna is sentenced to life in prison for her supposed role as leader of the group.

The third part of the book brings the concept of The Reader back. Hanna is in prison, Michael goes on with his life. He has been married, he has been divorced, he has a daughter. He can’t seem to create the same type of connection as he had when he was with Hanna. One night, he starts reading The Odyssey again, and finds himself reading it aloud into a tape recorder. He records books as he reads them aloud and sends them to Hanna in prison.

And through his tapes, Hanna learns to read and write.

This novel tried to deal with guilt: Michael’s guilt over Hanna, Hanna’s guilt over her acts as an SS guard. Each dealt with their guilt in their own way. But it’s also a romance, of sorts: an undeniably messed-up romance, but a romance nonetheless.

I think I read the book too quickly – I sat down on Monday and read ninety pages, then blasted through the remaining hundred and twenty in the course of one day. I feel that I missed some things from reading it, or I couldn’t quite grasp if there was anything else Schlink wanted to say.

I did, however, see The Reader when it was in theaters over Oscar season, and it – along with Milk – made me cry buckets. Great, heaving sobs. I didn’t know all the particulars of the novel (I had read the synopsis on Wikipedia, so I wouldn’t be completely unprepared), but I did not expect the tenderness of Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael Berg. And while Kate Winslet is amazing, should she have been nominated for Revolutionary Road rather than The Reader? Of course. Would she have won? Yes, because she had quite the backlog stored up. But The Reader dealt with Nazis and had full-frontal nudity; of course that was going to be the nominee.

Anyway. I enjoyed the novel, but I think I’ll watch the movie again before I read the book again.

Grade for The Reader: 2.5 stars


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