Monday, March 7, 2011

Bloggers' Book Club - The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I have to confess that I read this book a few years ago and didn't get a chance or time to re-read it - it was a library copy and I know it is still in the library here but I haven't had a minute to get back there- and I also was being distracted by reading the marvellous new book by Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. I adored that book, as I did his last book, The Corrections, and as I'd read The Reader before, I didn't feel too guilty. Thanks to Lorna for recommending it.

Also I saw the DVD of the film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes a year or two ago. It was one of those rare films that was faithful to the book. It captured my impressions of the book's atmosphere - lyrical and very evocative of the era in which it is set, which is post-war 1950s Germany when Michael is a teenager and meets Hanna and their affair starts, right to the war trials of the 1960s which are underway when he's a law student.

I remember the book left an impression as a powerful read, which has stayed with me in its general context rather than the detail. Michael's whole life is changed and affected by his encounter with the older woman who is Hanna, whom he meets when he is sick near her apartment and who takes him in to care for him. The initial meeting leads to revisits and the start of a torrid affair. He knows little or nothing about her other than her work as a tram conductor, and her secret of illiteracy is only discovered by him much later on.

The title of the book comes from Michael's role in their relationship, that of her reader, when he reads aloud the German classics, in a post-coital haze, and this pattern shapes their encounters. It's an intense relationship, excluding all others, and its eroticism precludes too much information. When the denouement of her Nazi past is disclosed in such a shocking manner to Michael when he turns up at her war crimes trial it's a life-changer for him. He has to come to terms with the fact that his lover was an SS guard at a camp for women prisoners, 300 of whom died in a fire in a church on the death march from Auschwitz, and her illiteracy is such a secret shame she accepts responsibility for a report on the fire rather than admit illiteracy. She also admitted to selections at Auschwitz of women who ended up in the gas chambers.

As she had left him suddenly at the height of their affair years earlier, he never got over her and had no chance to expunge her from his impressionable youth, and this lasting damage led to his subsequent marriage breakdown, and his sad and lonely future is well portrayed out when he renews his relationship with Hanna - albeit on a platonic level - in prison. He sends her tapes of his readings, and she learns to read by following the recordings with the books in the prison library. He seems to treat her like a benevolent nephew but he never visits her in her 18 years in jail. On her release he agrees to find her a place to live, but she hangs herself prior to her release, and he discovers her conquest of illiteracy through his readings.

I liked Schlink's style of writing. It's a very spare and sparsely written book, and he chooses his words very thoughtfully. I found the eroticism almost contradictory to the spare style of the writing, yet paradoxically it fitted into the intensity of an affair predicated on lust, secrecy and isolation - they were locked away from the wider world in their own bubble, and it's full of conflicting emotion, and the old debate on German collective guilt is well illustrated. It's not a very long book, and I remember it as a gripping read at the time. I think I would re-read it again, if and when I have a minute. Would I recommend it to friends or our book club? I think it would be a great trigger for a good heated debate, and well worth the effort.

Don't forget to visit the other members of the Bloggers' Book Club - Lily is the terrific moderator who keeps us all coordinated, and as it's late and I'm wrecked after a day in Dublin at the Labour Party Special Delegate Conference deciding to go into Government with Fine Gael later this week, I won't list the other members here - rather you can find them over at Lily's blog. Read their reviews, always entertaining and informative and they're a great bunch of women(thus far, no men, but I'm sure that's always open to change!)

I have our own Book Club tomorrow night and have a few chapters to finish of our chosen book - Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill - who was on BBC World Service this morning on The Interview which was a bit of a blagger's guide for me! Serendipity I can live with, as I enjoyed putting a voice on this feisty 90 year old.


Ann said...

I haven't read this book or seen the film. It is on my to read and see list, but I need to be in the right mood for it. Heard on the news the new gov't is on its way. Exciting Days.

Rita said...

We are on holidays right now; thank you for sharing good books; This is about the only time I read anymore. Lovely post.

Lorna said...

HI Catherine,
Enjoyed your review, interesting that you thought Michael was the reader - I wasn't sure if there was a play on that. I must get the DVD now that I know it is good, hate when the film is awful after a good book

Lily said...

Catherine, Fair play to you to remember the book so clearly, my memory wouldn't serve me so well these days.

Like you I had assumed that the title referred to Michael and so was very interested when Lorna suggested other possibilities in her review.

As you say Michael's relationship with Hanna was obviously largely responsible for his inability to form meaningful relationships in later life, I was also interested in his references to his own family life - his having to make formal appointments to see his father. This may have been normal parenting style at the time but sounds so strange!

For a change I read this book early in the month and find it staying with me. I love books that pack such punch in so few pages.

I liked your comment where work/life are annoyingly interfering with your current read ... surely the sign of a good book :)