In Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, a teenager becomes intimate with an older woman, only to discovers years later that his lover once was an SS concentration camp guard.
The telling of the story is at once deeply personal and concerned with matters of universal importance: morality, justice, and the effects on the human psyche of prolonged exposure to brutality. Schlink is a German law professor and practicing judge, and was involved in Germany’s reunification.
The Reader is the kind of book that unexpectedly occupies part of a weekend. Not only did I read it in one sitting, but I was filled with the urge to write late into the night.
In an interview, Schlink said that the way modern Germans approach the problem of their past and their immediate ancestors has “been one of the big subjects for my generation. For many families it’s a personal issue, because it pits fathers against their children. One of my favorite teachers, the one who taught me English, taught me to love the English language, also taught us gymnastics and we could see his SS tattoo. One way or the other, we all had to confront it not as a theoretical abstract, but as a very real and personal problem.”
Cynthia Ozick argued in “The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination,” published in the March 1999 issue of Commentary, that Schlink’s book distorts history by focusing on an unusual character whose actions serve divert responsibility for the past from the more typical members of the population.
But Carole Angier contended in The Spectator, in 1997:
The Reader brings the question of guilt as close to us as to the Germans. Should we resist? Is The Reader revisionist? Is its portrait of Hanna loaded? Is it fair to give her that secret, which explains, if it does not excuse her, when most perpetrators did not have it? Or is there perhaps a suggestion that they did, that each had his or her own weakness which left them unarmed against the system? Every reader will have a different answer. Mine is that The Reader is not revisionist, because it is too profound; that it is more destructive of our ability to point the finger away from ourselves than any merely revisionist work could ever be.
If you’re curious, you can hear Schlink read a section near the start of the novel.