Bernhard Schlink’s slim, eloquent 1995 novel The Reader never quite came to life for me on the page, for reasons I couldn’t initially pinpoint. Yet, it is an experience that stays with one and, in retrospect, grows richer. A delayed reaction, if you will. Because the novel is so brief, it can feel attenuated and dramatically skimpy. I also wanted to blame the vagaries of reading a German novel in translation. Certainly, in the abstract, the plot is compelling. A fifteen-year-old schoolboy has a torrid summer’s affair with a thirtysomething woman in 1950s postwar Germany. The woman, Hanna Schmitz, lives in a coldwater flat and works as a streetcar conductor. She takes an interest in the boy’s schoolwork, especially his literature studies, and before long their lovemaking sessions never fail to include his passionately reading aloud to her from great novels and plays. The writing in this first third of The Reader is evocative and sensual. At summer’s end Hanna abruptly leaves town. The schoolboy, Michael, moves on with his life, eventually attending law school. The story at this point begins to feel less dramatic than schematic, an outline rather than a full-bodied narrative. Worse, I felt, a chilliness overtakes Michael’s narrative voice. As part of a university seminar, he and his classmates attend a Nazi war crimes trial in which several women are charged as former concentration camp guards. Michael discovers that Hanna is among them. The most horrific charge involves the guards having locked the doors of a burning church trapping several hundred women prisoners inside.
Hanna Schmitz is an ingeniously conceived character. Our sympathies, like Michael’s, remain deeply ambivalent. Midway through the novel, during the trial, we learn that Hanna is illiterate. The adult Michael resumes reading to Hanna via tape cassettes sent to her prison cell. She turns her cell into a classroom and teaches herself to read and write. We, as readers, are asked to consider to what extent an individual can be forgiven or redeemed. No convenient answers are provided. Schlink also raises larger questions of national and generational guilt.
My wrong-headed verdict upon finishing reading the novel: A book too slight and narrow in tone for the enormous historical atrocities it wants to illuminate. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that Michael grapples with similar questions as he narrates the novel, mentioning by name epic cathartic works of Holocaust literature like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List (works which, he suggests, “supplement” and “embellish” our imaginations). We come to see that Michael’s emotions are shut down. He describes this dissociative state of mind perfectly in the novel (only later did I recognize that he was describing his own psychology and The Reader itself, the text itself):
All survivor literature talks about this numbness, in which life’s functions are reduced to a minimum, behavior becomes completely selfish and indifferent to others, and gassing and burning are everyday occurrences. In the rare accounts by perpetrators, too, the gas chambers and ovens become ordinary scenery, the perpetrators reduced to their few functions and exhibiting a mental paralysis and indifference, a dullness that makes them seem drugged or drunk. The defendants seemed to me to be trapped still, and forever, in this drugged state, in a sense petrified in it … Even then, when I was preoccupied by this general numbness, and by the fact that it had taken hold not only of the perpetrators and victims, but of all of us, judges and lay members of the court, prosecutors and recorders, who had to deal with these events now; when I likened perpetrators, victims, the dead, the living, survivors, and their descendants to each other, I didn’t feel good about it and I still don’t. [The Reader, p. 103.]
The movie version of The Reader works reasonably well. David Hare’s screenplay is faithful to the novel. Kate Winslat portrays Hanna’s complexity with subtlety and precision. She’s less persuasive as the older version of Hanna, however, mimicking a kind of stereotyped oldster’s stooped shuffle. While Ralph Fiennes is technically perfect as the adult Michael—detached, emotionally blinkered—the actor has played so many similarly reserved characters that The Reader is typecasting of the blandest sort. Even as an ironic counterweight to the actor’s earlier brilliant turn as the sadistic Nazi Amon Goeth in Shindler’s List, his performance here never really seems to connect. (Fiennes still has the juice: witness his zany over-the-top mob boss in In Bruges, released concurrently this year with The Reader. Fiennes gives a wonderfully dark and funny performance that personifies the sardonic heart of darkness at the of core of In Bruges bleak sick-joke universe.) Also note re: The Reader: Bruno Ganz as Michael’s law professor and Lena Olin as a camp survivor give strong, focused performances.