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Book Review: The Reader (Der Vorleser) by Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink’s Novel Der Vorleser weaves autobiographical strands of a young person’s post-war sexual awakening

Susan Doering
Apr 01, 2009
© Photo: PEN/Beowulf Sheehan

German jurist and writer Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader (Photo: Photo: PEN/Beowulf Sheehan)

The Reader’s Roots

The overwhelming, Oscar-promoted success of The Reader (Der Vorleser) came as no real surprise to those who had read Bernhard Schlink’s remarkable novel, either in its German original or in any one of the 39 languages into which it has been translated. Published in 1995, it attained proverbial overnight-acclaim, winning the WELT Prize for Literature, awarded by the prestigious German newspaper Die Welt, and several other international book awards.

Der Vorleser had not been Schlink’s first foray into literature. A professor of law at the Universities of Bonn, Frankfurt and most recently, the Humboldt University in Berlin, Schlink, 62, had already won the reading world’s attention with a series of detective stories at whose center a private detective with the portentous name "Selb," (German for "self") unravels mysteries that force him to confront his own past.

Schlink develops this theme further in Der Vorleser, masterfully weaving autobiographical strands of a young person’s post-war Germany into a strong narrative of forbidden adolescent sexual awakening against a backdrop of a re-emerging nation, struggling to come to terms with economic, social and ethical issues in the hope of earning a place on the world stage.

There are even relics of the detective novel structure in Der Vorleser, an attempt at a reconstruction of the crime. But here, the reader knows who ‘dunnit’ right from the very beginning. The first person narrator sets out to tell his own story, going back to the time when he was a schoolboy aged fifteen, to unravel the mystery of the unthinkable, certainly unspeakable, clandestine love affair with a woman old enough to be his mother. He must do this to try to understand his own actions and to reconcile the memory of the woman he "knew" then with the woman he later learns had been a Nazi concentration camp guard.

This is the psychological hub of the novel; the man, who can only wonder at the boy’s past, his sin and deception carried out in an almost sleepwalking state, comes to comprehend Hanna’s naïve but straightforward actions, because, strangely but obviously, they mirror his own.

Within the simplistic rationale of the rules of their affair, everything is comprehensible. Hanna’s every step, from her signing up for the SS, her selection of prisoners for the death trains, and finally the troubling sequence of choice that ends in her allowing the church to burn down without unlocking the door to let the women prisoners free, is determined by a childish belief in the unbreakable rules of a situation and an instinct for self-preservation. She has a secret shame, yes, but it not the one we expect in that time of horror. It is that she is illiterate, unable to read in a society where all the rules are written down. She could never allow her secret of illiteracy to come out, but equally she could not break out of her mold. We come to pity this woman who seems to have stopped half way along in her psychological development. She seems never to have been led to consider questions of right and wrong, or of personal and social responsibility.

The show trial in the novel is the perfect vehicle to present this issue, and the question posed by the law professor about what the Nazis did – it may have been unethical, but was it illegal according to the laws of the time? – puts the personal story into the wider context of crime and punishment, guilt and atonement, both historically and philosophically.

The art of this novel is that we see Hanna entirely through the eyes of the narrator. The story is told in total flashback, as an unraveling of the past, a psychoanalytic journey into the depths of personality, into cause and effect, and, finally, into understanding and forgiveness. He realizes that she was a mere pawn in the crushing game of war and peace, life and death, destruction and survival, love and abandonment.

Two scenes could not be more revealing or more devastating: the scene when he watches Hanna for the first time roll up her stocking, and the scene when he visits her in prison and sees an old, gray-haired woman. From beauty and attraction, to decay and loneliness. Yet, it is precisely this that moves him, forcing him to face up to reality.

In the final chapter, the narrator steps back to comment on his own action of narrating. This version of the story is only one of many. But the fact that this is the one he has written means it is the right one. Finally, then, we are left with the question of storytelling itself, the question that is also raised in the title of the book and is so bound up with Hanna’s desire for stories.

In the telling of the story, the narrator is finally reconciled with his past.


Bernhard Schlink: The Reader 

Phoenix House, Orion Books, London  (1997)

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

ISBN - 13-978-0-7538-0470-4

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