I recently watched The Reader starring Kate Winslett, and the movie crystallized my problems with the novel that was an Oprah book pick. It’s of course not the only time that Oprah’s shown bad taste or been conned.
I disliked the movie when I wasn’t bored by it, so I went back to re-read the book to see if it was as unsatisfying as I remembered. It’s worse, but not in terms of writing; what stinks about The Reader is how it attempts to manipulate readers, and how it distorts history. That’s particularly dangerous given that truths about the Holocaust are under persistent assault by the Denial Industry—when they’re not in fact misunderstood.
For those who haven’t read Schlink’s short novel, it’s the first person story of Michael Berg, a German lawyer looking back at his brief affair at fifteen with Hanna Schmitz. Twice his age at the time, she was a bus conductor who Berg discovers some years later is a war criminal. Berg attends her trial as a law student specifically studying the war, and that’s where he learns the details of her time as an SS guard at Auschwitz and one of its satellite camps. During the trial Michael realizes she’s illiterate and has hidden this shameful secret all her life—hence her pleasure in being read to by him, and even by young female internees at the camp.
In prison, Hanna learns to read for herself, thanks to his sending her cassette tapes of books he read to her. But when she’s set to be released from prison, his preparations to help ease her into a new life come to nothing because she commits suicide.
The Reader is laid out like a thriller with very short chapters that hint at surprises to come, whether they’re there or not. Initially, the book is compelling thanks to the appealing narrator. Michael has annoying siblings and a father who absently cares for his family as if they were pets, but are not an integral part of his life. Just as easy to relate to is Michael’s adolescent dreaminess and awkwardness, his passion for his first sexual partner, and his general state of confusion interacting with a woman so much older than himself.
Too bad the book itself is deplorably confused, or maybe just deplorable. The problems begin with the lavish, loving descriptions of Hanna's nude, voluptuous, inviting body, so much different than the bodies of Michael’s girlfriends at school. There are many lyrical passages exploring the topography of desire. But not only is Hanna Schmitz introduced to us as an object of intense magnetism and thus made attractive and appealing, we're pushed to feel sorry for her drab existence as a streetcar conductor when he complains about having to do school work and she explodes: “Your work is idiotic? Idiotic? What do you think selling and punching tickets is?”
The book shift gears radically at the trial and here is where it rides completely off the rails for me with one deeply problematic analogy or observation after another. Michael tells us that listening to the testimony and horrific details of the camps where Hanna was a guard is “like being a prisoner in the death camps who survives month after month and becomes accustomed to the life.” While he admits there's something not quite appropriate in such a comparison, it’s never withdrawn, never negated, despite its complete speciousness.
No matter how numbed he might be by what he hears, he can leave the courtroom whenever he wanted to, can go home to a warm bed and regular meals, and he never once during his time there is in fear of his life ending on the whim of a brutal guard, or through starvation or typhus. There’s no indication whatsoever that Schlink is being ironic here, so how dare the author elevate Michael to the status of victim?
The ludicrous analysis escalates. Hannah worked in a munitions factory, and Michael says “the actual work was not difficult.” That flies in the face of everything I’ve read about such camps in the three decades I’ve been researching the Holocaust. Unlike German Aryan women laborers, Jewish women prisoners who did munitions work were ill-fed, ill-clothed and suffered through twelve-to-fourteen hour shifts. Accidents were always more frequent for the Jewish prisoners than for their German counterparts. This is “not difficult”?
Taken on a death march when the camp is evacuated is when “the misery begins” for the prisoners, according to Michael. It’s as if doing forced labor, being a prisoner in a concentration camp on near-starvation rations and facing imminent irrational death isn’t misery.
Perhaps the most disturbing statement comes when Michael discusses how Hanna let some three hundred women burn to death in a church that had been bombed, refusing to open the doors because her role was to “guard” these women. He says that he finds it impossible not to empathize with her “helplessness” in the situation. Let’s be absolutely clear. She was not remotely helpless. She was not a victim. She could have opened the doors and saved the women burning to death. She was not powerless: she had absolute power of life and death.
As the trial progresses, Michael feels deeper sympathy with her travails: “She was struggling, as she had always struggled, not to show what she could do but to hide what she couldn’t do. A life made up of advances that were actually frantic retreats and victories that were concealed defeats.” Later on, when Hanna’s able to learn enough to write short notes to him from prison, Michael feels proud of her struggle, but also “sorry for her, sorry for her delayed and failed life, sorry for the delays and failures of life in general.”
Isn’t being illiterate a bitch?
The Reader has been justly criticized—movie and film—for its shoddy thinking, and for the ways in which it seeks to make us feel sorry for Hanna even while it debates questions of German guilt. It handles those questions in a shallow, history-defying fashion, not least when Michael finds himself only able to accuse his parents and their generation of tolerating “the perpetrators in their midst” after 1945. If that’s all the Germans did, they don’t sound so bad after all.
Hanna has the choice at the trial to reveal her illiteracy when she’s accused of authoring an SS report about the church incident, but she won’t. Instead, she admits she wrote it and ends up with a longer sentence than the other women being tried along with her. I found this action totally unbelievable, even though the author wills us to identify with her shame. But that’s not the last bogus emotional moment in the book. Hanna leaves what money she has to the last survivor of the burned church. When Michael brings this bequest to her in New York, she tells him to donate the money to some charity, but since it was in an old tea tin which reminds the woman of one she herself had as a child, she keeps the tin.
I cannot imagine any survivor wanting to possess a relic of one of her persecutors that somehow has been bathed in the glow of nostalgia. It’s perverse, but then no more perverse than the book itself, which cloaks its distortions with the glories of literature and education.
Is it believable that a woman like Hanna who couldn’t read could enter the SS? Is it believable that she could have been later processed through the German judicial system and dealt with lawyers and her illiteracy escaped detection? Is it even believable that somebody in the chaos of the death marches was writing up a report like the one in the book? These conceits have been demolished by many writers, including novelist Cynthia Ozick, historian Ron Rosenbaum, and filmmaker Rod Lurie.
Their essays make worthwhile reading in a climate where even the New York Times Book Review could inanely, approvingly observe that The Reader is “ultimately hopeful.” That’s how we like our Holocaust served up these days, with side orders of uplift and redemption. Oh, and sexing it up doesn’t hurt, either.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Reader by Bernard Schlink (Vintage, 1997)
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-four years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of nineteen books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His new memoir My Germany was published in April 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.