323 of 336 people found the following review helpful
Winner of the Boston Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, this thematically complex story is written in clear, simple, lucid prose. It is a straightforward telling of an encounter that was to mark fifteen year old Michael Berg for life. The book, written as if it were a memoir, is divided into three parts. The first part of the book deals with that encounter.
While on his way home from school one day in post-war Germany, Michael becomes ill. He is aided by a beautiful and buxom, thirty six year old blonde named Hanna Schmitz. When he recovers from his illness, he goes to Frau Schmitz's home to thank her and eventually finds himself seduced by her and engaged in a sexual encounter. They become lovers for a period of time, and a component of their relationship was that Michael would read aloud to her. Michael romanticizes their affair, which is a cornerstone of his young life. Then, one day, as suddenly as she appeared in his life, she disappears, having inexplicably moved with no forwarding address.
The second part of the book deals with Michael's chance encounter with Hanna again. He is now a law student in a seminar that is focused on Germany's Nazi past and the related war trials. The students are young and eager to condemn all who, after the end of the war, had tolerated the Nazis in their midst. Even Michael's parents do not escape his personal condemnation. The seminar is to be an exploration of the collective guilt of the German people, and Michael embraces the opportunity, as do others of his generation, to philosophically condemn the older generation for having sat silently by. Then, he is assigned to take notes on a trial of some camp guards.
To his total amazement, one of the accused is Hanna, his Hanna. He stoically remains throughout the trial, realizing as he hears the evidence that she is refusing to divulge the one piece of evidence that could possibly absolve her or, at least, mitigate her complicity in the crimes with which she is charged. It is as if she considers her secret more shameful than that of which she is accused. Yet, Michael, too, remains mute on the fact that would throw her legal, if not her moral, guilt into question. Consequently, Hanna finds herself bearing the legal guilt of all those involved in the crime of which she is accused and is condemned accordingly.
The third part of the book is really the way Michael deals with having found Hanna, again. He removes himself from further demonstration and discussion on the issue of Germany's Nazi past. It affects his decisions as to his career in the law, eventually choosing a legal career that is isolating. He marries and has a child but finds that he cannot be free of Hanna. He cannot be free of the pain of having loved Hanna. It is as if Hanna has marked him for life. He divorces and never remarries. It is as if he cannot love another, as he loved Hanna. Michael then reaches out to Hanna in prison, indirectly, through the secret they share of what she seems to be most ashamed. Yet, he carefully never personalizes the contact. The end, when it comes, is almost anti-climatic.
The relationship between Michael and Hanna really seems to be analogous to the relationship between the generations of Germans in post-war Germany. The affair between Michael and Hanna is representational of the affair that Germany had with the Nazi movement. The eroticism of the book is a necessary component for the collective guilt and shame that the Germans bear for the Holocaust, as well as for the moral divide that seemingly exists between the generations. Yet, the book also shows that such is not always a black and white issue, that there are sometimes gray areas when one discusses one's actions in the context of the forces of good and evil. There is also the issue of legal and moral responsibility. One would think that the two are synonymous, but they are not always so. It also philosophizes on the ability to love another/a nation who/that was complicit in war crimes. This is an insightful, allegorical book that defies categorizing. It is also a book that is a wonderful selection for a reading circle, as it has a wealth of issues that are ripe for discussion. This is simply a superlative book. Bravo!
109 of 110 people found the following review helpful
The topic of the Holocaust is raised almost every day in some manner. Many books have been written about the topic. Whether in studies, documentaries or fictional accounts, finger-pointing at the perpetrators of the crimes against millions has been part of the process of coming to terms with the Nazi atrocities. For Imre Kertesz, renowned author and Nobel laureate of 2002, there is no other topic. Yet, when he reflects on the traumatic impact of Auschwitz, "he dwells on the vitality and creativity of those living today" and "thus, paradoxically, not on the past but the future." Bernhard Schlink, professor of law and practicing judge in Germany, born in 1944, has attempted to capture the struggles of his generation in confronting the past and the future in "The Reader". "Pointing at the guilty party did not free us from shame", his narrator and protagonist contemplates, "but at least it overcame the suffering we went through on account of it".
The usually unambiguous distinction between villain and victim has facilitated the identification with those who lost their lives or suffered under the Nazi atrocities while all scorn, abhorrence and hate was piled on the perpetrators. Until recently, few books have focused on the after-war generation. While growing up, the children had to come to terms with the, often sudden, exposure of their parents' active or passive participation in the crimes of the Nazi regime. "The Reader", set in post-war Germany and against the backdrop of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid-sixties, takes this new and, for our generations, important angle: in the form of the fictional memoir of Michael Berg. Michael, while not refuting guilt, shame, and atonement, is led to examine and dissect the complexity of inter-generational conflicts in the context of his personal experiences. Like Schlink himself, he grapples with the fundamental problem of the relationships between these two generations.
Michael recounts the most important stages in his life, starting with experiences long passed in his youth. While his account follows the chronology of events, he progressively interleaves retrospective reflections on his past conduct, questioning his conflicting emotions - his behaviour. The story starts with Michael's first, secret, love affair at age 15 with a woman more than twice his age. The blossoming erotic relationship strengthens his self-worth and confidence yet, at the same time, increasingly isolating him from his family and peers. Hanna Schmitz, of whose circumstances and background Michael knew very little, was affectionate and standoffish at the same time, prone to abrupt mood swings. The young lover is completely captivated and eager to please. He is the "Reader", in German "Vorleser" is a person who reads aloud to an audience. At her insistence he reads his books to her and it becomes an important element of their shared intimacy. When she disappears one day without any warning, her loss leaves him devastated and scarred for life. He can only seek the reasons in his own actions. Seeing Hanna again years later and in unanticipated surroundings, triggers a flood of questions about the person he loved and thought he knew. Her behaviour raises many questions and Michael discovers a long secret that puts in doubt the facts as they are exposed. He also wrestles with himself over his own inaction when confronted with choices. "What would you have done?" Although addressed to the judge by the defendant, this question hangs over Michael, as it does over his whole generation. It encapsulates the primary dilemma of the child-parent generations relationships. Finally, writing the story of his life, drafting and redrafting it in his head until it is in a publishable form, is seen as a chance for his own recovery and for living his own life.
The Reader, while a work of fiction, is deeply anchored in the personal experiences of the author and symbolic for his generation. His spare and unemotional language underlines the impression of a biographical investigation and is used quite deliberately. The English translation captures the tone and style amazingly well. Reading this book should not be an "easy pleasure" as some reviewers have suggested. The Reader covers difficult and complex terrain in a way that it forces the reader to reflect and question their own position long afterwards. Although written directly for a German audience of Schlink's and my generation, the novel, surprisingly, has attracted world-wide attention. While reviews and reactions among readers are highly diverse and even contradictory, it should be read by as many people as possible and with the care the subject matter deserves. [Friederike Knabe]
64 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 1999
What impressed me far more about this book than the main plot (15 year old has sensuous affair with much older woman who turns out to be former SS Guard), was a seemingly minor issue in the book. That issue was that of how the sons and daughters of the Germans who lived in Germany during WWII dealt with their "Holocaust Legacy". My parents are Holocaust Survivors, and I have read a lot about the Holocaust, but little has been written on the topic of that first generation of Germans born after the end of WWII. The author articulately and clearly describes how the sons and daughters of those Germans who lived through WWII absolutely had no respect for their parents; that the sheer force of the genocide that their parents conspired in, ignored, or did whatever, demanded that their children's feelings toward them just had to plunge far deeper than the "typical" disdain which every generation of young people have toward their parents. My only wish is that the author had delved into this topic even further; as he himself was born in Germany in 1944, he is indeed a member of that postwar generation of Germans, and therefore has a unique perspective on the subject. As for the book generally, the plot was nothing short of incredible. With that said, I thought Parts I and III (the beginning and ending of the book) were very well-written; the author does a great job describing the sensuous affair of the teenager, and a great job at the end, about his conflicting feelings towards his former lover during and after her trial, and about what ultimately happens to her. However, the middle of the book was awful; it was written in a superficial manner, with no real character development. So remember: just keep reading until the end. All in all, a fascinating portrayal, from a German, of what it means for the post-war German generation to live with tremendously complex feelings concerning the Holocaust and their parents.
57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
For the three hours it takes to read this short book, the outside world disappears. When it reappears at the book's conclusion, the reader's view of the behavior of some "ordinary" Germans during and after World War II is changed. Schlink sweeps up the reader and totally immerses him/her in dramatic tension, quick narrative pace, and thought-provoking views of the German past by creating a unique love story involving singular characters and spanning several decades. The book would have had a longer lasting effect for me, however, if an important "secret," one which, in fact, impels Hanna's actions, had not been obvious to me from the start. Her behavior as the book progresses simply confirmed my early suspicions, preventing the suspense from developing fully. By the time the author formally reveals Hanna's secret, almost 2/3 of the book has passed. Additionally, I am not sure that protecting this secret is sufficient motivation to rationalize the full extent of Hanna's self-destruction. Michael's philosophical questioning, which adds immeasurably both to the thematic scope and pleasure of this book, does not fully explain his motivations, his actions, or his inactions, at least on the human level. Nevertheless, this is a totally absorbing, memorable novel with unusual characters in unusual conflicts, one which will reverberate long after you close its covers.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
"The Reader" is an intensely moving novella in which Michael, a fifteen-year old German boy, falls in love with a thirty-six-year old woman, Hanna, a streetcar conductor. A story as old as the hills, yet their affair became a life-altering event for both of them. The narrative is divided into three sections: one, the affair, two, Hanna's trial as the perpetrator of war crimes atrocities while she was serving as an SS guard in concentration camps, and three, Hanna's years of imprisonment following the trial and Michael's half-life seeking answers and salvation.
In Part One Michael thinks he has betrayed Hanna by disavowal, by not admitting her existence to his friends. That is nothing compared to his betrayals of her during the trial and in her prison years. In the sections of the book in which Michael is trying to probe his own moral predicaments and dilemmas, his philosophical positions, his reasoning is complicated and convoluted.
He goes to the judge to give him information, and he chickens out. He goes to his father and is satisfied with non-answers to his problems. He lacks moral courage and conviction and is willing to let events take their course. It is not a story of redemption, and no one gets off easy in this sad story.
Michael attended all of Hanna's long trial and watched her tortured and damaging testimony. She realized he was in the courtroom but didn't acknowledge him. Hanna had a cold-blooded streak, and Michael had a selfish, cowardly stripe.
When they first met he could see her tough side, her coldness at times. She called him, at first sarcastically "kid," but it becomes obvious that she loved him. She loved to be read to, and he read serious stuff to her. When she left him, he vowed "never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose." In later life he can't get over two parts of his life: Hanna and the trial.
The book gives no easy answers. We cannot forgive Hanna for what she did. She had a secret that she tried desperately to keep.
I think each reader will come away from this book with a different outlook, different opinions, different conclusions, but with a recognition of how real the two people have become and how they continue to inhabit and haunt our minds.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 1999
For the first part of "The Reader" I was totally engrossed by the powerful tale of passion so eloquently expressed by Mr. Schlink. As the plot unfolded the writing appealed less to the emotions but more to the intellect as the author dealt with the complexities of the German postwar conscience. A tribute to the power of this work is the fact that I finished the book over 2 months ago and yet I still think about it regularly and still feel the passion between the characters as if I myself had been part of their story
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2000
I will give you some good reasons why you should read this book.
Although this is a book about the Holocaust, it is not primarily a book about the suffering of the Jews. It is instead a book about the Germans and, more importantly, the legacy of the Holocaust which has been left to a new generation who have had to deal with the disturbing and sometimes cruel knowledge of what their parents and loved ones may have done (or failed to do) during the Nazi era.
When reading this book, I found myself wondering what I would be like if I were a young modern German and had to deal with the knowledge that my parents and grandparents did nothing to stop the horror of those times or perhaps may have actively contributed to it. Michael has the misfortune to fall in love with an older woman who was complicit in a horrible crime. The question that torments him is this; how can I be a good, warm, loving person if the person I love more than any other has done such a terrible thing? The story of Hanna, and his own inexplicable love and regard for her, haunts him throughout his life. Michael's quest to understand why this should be so is the basis for much of this subtly compelling book.
Perhaps it is the banality of Hanna's secret - ie. that she is illiterate - that is the reason some reviewers have felt disappointed by this book. We are so used to stories of the Holocaust such as "Sophie's Choice" where the magnitude of the suffering seems to dwarf anything we could possibly imagine and if that is the type of story you are looking for, "The Reader" will not deliver that. However, the value of this work is that it looks at another aspect of the Holocaust, that is to say, the way in which young Germany has had to try to come to terms with the crimes of the past. This is an interesting subject to me.
If you do not want to read yet another forumlaic book about those dreadful times, and if you want your mind to be open to another perspective of the Holocaust, then I recommend that you read this book.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
"The Reader", like a fine play, evolves over three acts.
In Act I, 15-year old student Michael Berg falls for an anonymous older woman who he later learns is Frau Hanna Schmitz. She helps him as he falls ill on the way home from school and he is so touched by her gentle and quiet deameanor that he continues to visit her. This love affair is more than physical and they connect deepest when Michael reads to the illiterate Hanna. He reads classic novels, philosophical essays and poetry. The prose Bernard Schlink uses to describe the blossoming love affair is tender and deeply affective.
In Act II, the startling revalation that Frau Schmitz was guilty of several war crimes as a member of the Nazi party - specifically causing the death of many women and children at various concentration camps. A startled Michael sits through every day of the trial in disbelief - right up to her conviction of life imprisonment.
Act III finds a broken Michael - divorced after 5 years and leaving a young daughter behind. He has never gotten over Hanna and she haunts him still. He begins to record full novels on cassettes and mails them to her jail. Upon learning she may be released early - after 18 years imprisonment - he meets with her again. She is now a quiet old woman and he no longer a boy. The ending is both tragic and just as the questions of life & death and morale beliefs are strained.
I can only hope Stephen Daldry's film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes can carry even a little of the emotional energy brought forth in this moving novel.
46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Once again, I read an "Oprah Pick" without realizing it until afterword. Anyway... this is a superficially simple novel that, for all its flaws, is worth spending a little time thinking about. The foremost thing to realize about it, is that it's main theme concerns postwar Germany's grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust. It's about those who were adults during the war, and the next generation. It's about how that younger generation (of which Schlink is certainly a member) reacted to the generation and individuals who participated in the Holocaust.
Recounted in memoir form, the story begins with the tale of a 15-year-old boy and his sexual affair with a 36-year-old tram female tram conductor. The man tells of this time with a certain air of nostalgia that is somewhat understandable. And yet, if one thinks about the ages of the two people, it's also horrific. Make the boy a girl, and make the conductor a man, the psychological dynamic becomes rather clear. This is a problematic element in the novel, and one that is never dealt with in any way.
Years after their affair had ended, the now young man discovers that his older lover was a concentration camp guard and was involved in an incident in which a number of prisoners were locked inside a burning church. The twist in the matter is that she fails to properly defend herself of the charges of being the ringleader in the incident because she is secretly illiterate. Clearly the author isn't trying to excuse her war crimes in any way, or imply that she's somehow not really at fault. In prison she learns to read and studies the Holocaust in great deal, and importantly, decides that there is no redemption or atonement available for what she did.
But does the author mean this to apply to all Nazis? Or just those who fell into it? And what precisely does that mean? And, and important, but unexplored point, why does he chose to mention at the very beginning that she is Romanian, and never again? So, plenty to think about and discuss. I found the writing to be very precise and clean, an apparently excellent translation, although others' tastes may vary. Someone should translate and publish his crime novels.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2000
I loved this short little book which brings up so many deep questions about life. A 15-year old is not emotionally mature enough to cope with such an intense relationship and will more than likely be affected for the rest of his life. How well do you know the people you become involved with? Is it wrong to love someone who has done bad things in the past? Do we ever really "get over" anything? And how true, the last chapter is. Whenever I cry for any little thing, I cry for the unhealed emotional wounds of the past. I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come.