My very first post here in WordPress was about Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.
Its not a book review [I swear I can never do a book review] but a simple entry with a thumbnail image of the book. I finished reading it while inside a bus on my way home from work. Its one of the two books that made me cry in 2007. The other one was Richard North Patterson’s Conviction.
In the movie version, Kate Winslet plays Hannah. But as I remember the book, its Charlize Theron’s image that comes to my mind.
Come now to Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader,2 a novel by a practicing judge, a professor of law at the University of Berlin, and recently a visiting professor at Touro Law School, a Jewish-sponsored institution in New York. This work, too, is an admired favorite among Jewish readers. Its narrator is a law student who is presented as a self-conscious member of the “second generation”—the children of those who were responsible for the Nazi regime. The narrative begins postwar, when an intellectual teen-age boy, the future law student, strikes up an unexpected friendship with a streetcar conductor, a woman markedly older than himself. The disparate friends rapidly become lovers, and their affair takes on an unusual routine of added romantic pleasure: in scenes tender and picturesque, as in a Dutch interior, the boy reads aloud to the woman. Only many years later—the occasion is a war crimes’ trial—is the woman revealed as an illiterate. And as something else besides: she is a former SS guard in a camp dedicated to the murder of Jews. An unsuspecting youth in the arms of an unconfessed female Nazi: over this retrospective image falls, unavoidably, the shadow of what some call Nazi porn.
Contemplating the predicament of young Germans after their nation’s defeat, the narrator asks, “What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? . . . Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt?” “Our parents,” he explains,
had played a variety of roles in the Third Reich. Several among our fathers had been in the war, two or three of them as officers of the Wehrmacht and one as an officer of the Waffen SS. Some of them had held positions in the judiciary or local government. Our parents also included teachers and doctors, and . . . a high official in the Ministry of the Interior.
In short, an educated generation. To the narrator’s observations, let us add Goebbels, a novelist and playwright, Speer, an accomplished architect, and perhaps also Goering, an art collector with a taste for masterpieces. None of this can surprise. Germany before World War II was known to have the most educated population in Europe, with the highest standard of literacy. Yet the plot of Schlink’s narrative turns not on the literacy that was overwhelmingly typical of Germany, but rather on an anomalous case of illiteracy, which the novel itself recognizes as freakish.
And this freakishness is Schlink’s premise and his novel’s engine: an unlettered woman who, because she could not read a paper offering her a job in a factory, passed up the chance and was sent instead to serve in a brutal camp. After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.
Again the fictive imagination presses its question: is the novelist obligated to represent typicality? If virtually universal literacy was the German reality, how can a novel, under the rules of fiction, be faulted for choosing what is atypical? The novelist is neither sociologist, nor journalist, nor demographer, nor reality-imitator; and never mind that the grotesquely atypical turns out to be, in this work by a member of the shamed and remorseful second generation, a means of exculpation. Characters come as they will, in whatever form, one by one; and the rights of imagination are not the rights of history. A work of fiction, by definition, cannot betray history. Nor must a novel be expected to perform like a camera.