The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

As part of my ongoing but occasional series of book reviews, I wanted to share my Goodreads review of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, in slightly revised form.

I wanted to like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink so much more and I think if you approached it as more of a lay reader rather than someone who has studied German history extensively it would be a better read.  Another Goodsread reviewer described this book as a “Buildungsroman” and I wish I could remember who it was because they were spot on.  The plot unfolds along traditional lines. A great deal of time is devoted to the loss of innocence, particularly the narrators sexual education at the hands of an older woman.  We understand why the narrator is so smitten, but the woman, Hanna, remains aloof. I found this off-putting, particularly because the relationship reminded me of something that would be a sensationalist headline in today’s media like “Teacher seduces student.”  I wanted to know her motivation, but was left wanting.  The teaser on the back of the book promises a shocking reveal when the two meet again after a lengthy separation.  For me, even the “surprises” were predictable and that may have taken away some of my enjoyment of The Reader.

That being said, I think there is a lot to recommend in this book. I hope it is not a spoiler to say the relationship between Hanna and the narrator is meant to symbolize larger patterns of German history and an idea of who, if anyone, should be held guilty and responsible for past German crimes. For many people, this slim novel is a good way to open the door to a fuller discussion of morality, government crime, and the idea of who is a perpetrator and who is a bystander and why the distinction matters.  The memory of the Holocaust is an important issue and The Reader considers who is responsible for keeping the memory but also if it is necessary to keep the memory alive and what is the burden of knowledge.

On the other hand, for those already well versed in Holocaust literature and memory, there is not much to be gleaned from the otherwise predictable book.  Gunter Grass, the former Hitler Youth, does a better job of addressing guilt, national character and responsibility and does so in more innovative ways.  It is as if Schlink has bundled those ideas in a sexier more casual reader friendly form.  You could do worse than The Reader, but you could also do better.

Guenter Grass “The Box”

Guenter Grass "The Box"After the revelations that Guenter Grass (sorry for the lack of umlaut. I  can’t figure out how to get the thing in there) participated in the Waffen SS, I was among those, angry and betrayed who swore I wouldn’t read him again.  That lasted all of five years.

I couldn’t help myself when I saw The Box: Tales from the Darkroom at my library.  I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’m already looking forward to reading it again.  The author imagines his eight children gathering at various times and in different grouping to discuss him, his presence and his absence in their lives. The discussions rarely stray far from family friend Maria and her mysterious Agfa box camera.  The adult children debate the merits of the camera and Maria’s darkroom work, but all agree Maria’s camera showed them worlds and wishes normally hidden.

The imaginative premise blurs the line between reality and fiction. An old-fashioned camera is a perfect metaphor. We tend to think of true and false, real and fiction as absolutes as stark as black and white.  However, anyone who ever dabbled in black and white photography knows, the artistry reveals itself in the grays.