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Der Vorleser

Denial is an inconspicuous form of betrayal.

                                                                                                         Michael Berg, The Reader

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, in prescient view of what was to come by century's end, a new form of art was created that wasn't new at all. The English term for it, which I loathe, is "bourgeois tragedy," a direct calque of the German Bürgerliches Trauerspiel. Although the words quite obviously share a root, bürgerlich ("citizen's," "civil," although also "bourgeois") and Bourgeoisie in German are normally two different things with appropriately divergent associations. For that reason was the new form of art not really about the bourgeoisie per se, it was simply not about the nobility. Gone were the kings, queens, and princes who had dozens of myrmidons and helpers to do their bidding; in their stead came a merchant, a welder, a tailor, characters who hitherto had only been part of the stage props. The result was that the throngs, whose previous portrayals had been exclusively in comedy, were now allowed to suffer. 

And suffer they did. Since that time and the French Revolution we have never stopped championing the underdog, never ceased to praise the simple values of the less privileged strata of society, and currently are more inclined to listen or read or watch a story of humble beginnings (and often ends) than sit through another tedious melodrama about a king and his crown (count me among those completely antipathetic to such drivel). Despite the futile efforts of some frustrated theorists to make the bourgeoisie evil in every language, their middle class habits and middling opinions are the center of commercialized existence and will stay that way for as long as you and I roam this earth (and probably much longer). Our bourgeoisie may be proverbially average, unimaginative, inflexible, and dull, but they are also for the most part quite harmless provided that their view of the world never usurps a more enlightened examination of human affairs. Before I am accused of snobbery, I will say this: the best thing we can do in life is treat everyone the same way. We will love only a few, and we will accord them a special status; but any other soul has as much right to our respect, admiration, and friendship until proven that these are things they do not deserve. Few are they so irredeemably unpleasant or evil as to merit our indifference, indeed, our contempt, and it is much easier to despise those who put their power and money to selfish and destructive use. But let us not overlook those aforementioned myrmidons, the small petty cowards whose actions or inactions led to death just as much as that of their vilified leaders. That question, among many others, is raised in this fine book.

Our hero and narrator is Michael Berg, a native of this German state now in his mid-fifties and, just as importantly, an attorney. But as the book opens in 1958, Berg is fifteen and stricken with jaundice. One day, a wretchedly ill Michael inadvertently becomes the guest of a woman only known as Ms. Schmitz, an almost anonymous name for a citizen without anything better to do than take care of someone else's sick teenager. After making sure he is well enough to leave and sending him on the road homeward, Ms. Schmitz becomes the center of Michael's life in a way he could never have imagined. He returns to thank her and intimacy abetted by loneliness takes its course. Yet theirs is no ordinary relationship, and not only because Michael is fifteen and his lover, whose name is eventually revealed as Hanna, is thirty-six. He loves her not because he knows what that means, but because she has made him into an adult. In other words, his love is really a discovery of his own sexuality. He writes her a poem in the style of this German poet, but the exercise is solely meant for Michael – a studious, almost nerdy lad who worships books and has little to offer the opposite sex except the promise of a great mind (at fifteen, such a promise falls on the deafest of ears) – to experience what lies behind his favorite literary works. Perhaps for that reason, he thinks, is Hanna so keen on listening to him read. 

He reads her book after book as their liaison which begins in the spring as so many do, lasts into the later part of the summer, and they follow a methodical routine of reading, bathing, lovemaking, and eating. Hanna works as a tram conductor, collecting and punching tickets, and says that she has worked dozens of other jobs in her itinerant life. To Michael, who doesn't know any better, this description of her world just makes her seem all the more vulnerable and, eventually, less attractive than some of his coevals whom he now has the sexual confidence to conquer. As the end of summer comes, so fades his connection to Hanna, which he justifies by foisting the responsibility for what happened on her:

I never learned what Hanna did when she wasn't working or when we weren't together. Whenever I would ask, she refused to answer my question. Our lives had no world in common; instead, she made the room for me in her life that she wanted to make.

Their separation is sudden, as are so many details in a book that takes its time to tell what, in the hands of someone other than Schlink, might have been a pithy cautionary tale. And as suddenly as the first part of Michael's life ends  that is, his childhood and innocence  there begins a second existence as a law student at this university where he aids a professor in documenting the trial of a group of middle-aged German women who served as sentries to some unwholesome forces in the 1940s. Among them, of course, is Hanna, and that is where the real story begins.

Numerous motifs intertwine and separate throughout the rest of the novel, but the main non-historical one is the reason why Hanna asked Michael to read aloud for her (which Vorleser means, a significance lost in the English "The Reader")  Hanna cannot read or write herself. A functional illiterate as a metaphor for wartime collaborators? Precisely this point has been made by many critics, as it would appear that only the dumb and uneducated were responsible for the atrocities of the war; yet such an interpretation could not be further from the truth. In the near-endless courtroom scene which in pages lasts almost as long as Michael's childhood, it becomes clear that Hanna's scapegoating is not intended as a font for pity; if anything, it is Michael who has had his memories destroyed by "ugly facts." A more accurate portrayal of the events presented in The Reader would suggest that the political reality of a nation or period can overshadow the smallest and most unimportant of personal details, and that historical tragedies are often reflected on every level of existence, including, most sadly, in the artistic. That said, Schlink, himself an attorney, proffers his readers a wealth of observations on the world and his characters: from the association of Hanna's mole on her shoulder with the mole of the rather unscrupulous driver who loses his temper with Michael, to the detached philosophy of Michael's father (who gives his children office hour appointments like he gives his students), a man devoted to learning and wisdom and somewhat incapable of having a normal conversation unfettered by profound concerns. That the driver's mole, like the mark of Cain, is actually on his temple, should tell you enough about the crimes on his conscience.

As can be expected from such a sensitive subject, there are also a few missteps. For example, chapter thirteen of part two is too self-conscious, too plagued (as it readily admits) by popular culture and its Philistine sensibilities. Yet this is rectified in the following chapter, a brief and harrowing account of indifference, which is indeed the worst thing that has ever happened to the human heart and intellect. And so do we contemplate indifference in its two guises: as the absence of caring or as the human body and mind's ability to heal itself, to overcome, to make do with the present and press on for survival in the future. In general, Schlink also errs when he turns his attention to the broader spectrum: terms like "collective guilt," "fate of the Germans," and a "generation of those who committed crimes, those who looked on, those who looked away, those who tolerated what was happening, and those who accepted it" are revolting clichés that ultimately disparage his book. But when he keeps it personal, when he adheres to the framework of the bourgeois tragedy of Michael and Hanna (to underscore this parallel, Hanna's first theater visit is to see this play), then he succeeds mightily. Some readers will never see past the thick, political implications of the novel, but true artistry is occasionally cloaked in topicality. What Michael recalls is love, love for being a young man in a beautiful country that affords him a myriad of opportunities to explore the world, and love for a woman who shows him the most basic pleasures of human interaction: companionship, laughter, understanding, and physical intimacy. Both ends of this spectrum meet in one lonely shade whom we should not pity, nor really seek to understand. After all, she is far more powerful a force in Michael's heart and mind than in any history book.

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