Tuesday, August 23, 2011

International Fiction Group discusses "The Reader" by Bernard Schlink

Hogwash! This was Gabe’s comment on a review he read online about the latest selection of the International Fiction Discussion Group, The Reader by Bernard Schlink.

This review claimed that the story of Michael and his involvement with Hanna can be read as an allegory. The German people’s romance with Hitler? Hanna’s seduction of Michael? A bit far fetched was the common sentiment among discussion group members. The books that Michael read to Hanna certainly were chosen for a reason. Perhaps they were meaningful in the author’s life. Perhaps they mirror, in some respects, the struggle for control that Hanna wins in the affair. To claim allegory is going too far. In an interview with the BBC’s World Book Club host, Schlink explains that he never searches for metaphor. So, we can assume he did not intentionally devise an allegory which is an extended metaphor. To do so would have compromised his intent which was to contemplate the Second Generation’s response to the horrors committed by their fathers, professors, political leaders and, in this case, lover. Schlink leaves his book open for interpretation and refuses to answer the question of whether Hanna represents a figure from his own adolescence.


Jan posed the key question succinctly. What do you do when you discover someone you love has done a horrible thing? She calls it a great book of secrets and questions of compassion. Which begs the question of the guilt of Hanna. Was she to be exonerated because of her inability to read and write? Not according to Schlink. Although the courts were overwhelmed and unable to successfully deal with all of the aspects of the Holocaust, a measure of justice was done in this case. Justice failed overall because the horrors were simply too great and widespread but Hanna was guilty of a crime. The main secret we discover is that Michael has the ability to perhaps lessen her sentence because he knew of her illiteracy. She could not have written the report that she was accused of writing. He sees the judge in his chambers but the visit turns into a talk about the judicial life and Michael does not mention Hanna.

Phil also commented on the love story angle as thought provoking. An unusual love story that cannot gain approval on any terms. Yet, it was still love. Or was it just passion? The bicycle trip and the extended reading sessions seem to suggest more than just a passionate relationship. Once again, Hanna’a secret and her age prevents this relationship from prospering. She is of the First Generation and a former prison guard.

The Reader is an excellent exploration of the moral issues of the Holocaust and the guilt as felt by Second Generation Germans according to Mike. The author explains that during the student uprisings of 1968 many well respected professors were discovered to have been involved with the Nazi regime. He explains how it was that he found out the professor who was responsible for his love of the English language was involved with horrible things during the war.

There are hints of Schlink’s sense of guilt all throughout the book. For example, when he, as the character of author, is thinking back on why he returned to Hanna’s apartment the first time to thank her for helping him when he was sick, he thinks, “often in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something -- whatever that may be -- goes into action.” This sentiment falls short as does Hanna’s repeated questioning of the judge, “what would you have done?”

Dita asked the question: How do you find words for experiences that seem to resist expression? Exactly! How do you? One writes a novel that asks more questions than it answers but tries to add some perspective to the equation. As Dita remarked, however, the narrator seems to tell the whole story from a “stunned” perspective. This was Michael’s reaction in the courtroom upon realizing his Hanna was on trial. He was stunned. Here is one case where the book differs from the movie. In the movie, at one point during the court proceedings, Michael burst out in tears. In the book this never happens. Michael remains stoic. Hollywood caters to sentimentality. To better show the author’s (as narrator) intent, let’s quote from a passage at the end of Part Two after it is apparent that Hanna will be convicted:

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime

and condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When

I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing

to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I con-

demned it as it must be condemned, there was no room

for understanding.

Dorothy noted that this book certainly is worth a second reading. Mike mentioned that it reminded him of a judicial brief in the clear straightforward manner in which it reads. One can see various uses of the title in both a positive and a negative way. Toward the end of the discussion there were a couple of unanswered questions that the group tried to answer. Why did Hanna leave town suddenly? She left because she was being offered the job of driver and for that one must read and write. Why did she commit suicide? When she learned to read she read Holocaust literature in her cell. When faced with the light of day, she simply could not cope. Also, Michael’s reception was forced and cold leaving her no choice. As for Michael, his refusal to respond to personal letters from Hanna shows that he did not want a personal relationship with someone who committed her crimes. His reading on tape was tantamount to the author writing the book. The only way to grieve for the victims and the perpetrators is to tell the truth. Hanna learned to read by looking at the books as she was listening to the tapes. In the end, it was the ability to read that made her crime unbearable.



So, we conclude the 16th meeting of the International Fiction Discussion Group. The next meeting will be on September 21st at 6:30 p.m. in the Blum House. We will be discussing A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Anyone is welcome to attend. We always meet the evening of the third Wednesday of the month. All you do is ask for a copy of that month’s selection at the front desk of the Collinsville Public Library and check it out. Then, show up at the meeting. Next month’s selection will be available shortly. Be seeing you,


Posted by
Jim Krapf
International Book Club moderator