Rarely can a novel of this modest size have made such demands on its readers. The more slowly and carefully you follow the narrative, the more tortuous, unsettled, and uncertain or ambivalent it grows, and the more difficult to epitomize. Such, we suppose, is to be expected of what is concurrently a small, personal attempt at sustained moral accounting and a large, public one.
The opening promises a relatively simple story in an established genre, that of the éducation sentimentale. Michael Berg, a fifteen-year-old German schoolboy, is violently sick in the street, and “when rescue came, it was almost an assault.” (Virtually every phrase here has its significance, even though the significances, often at variance with one another, are not going to add up neatly.) A woman, a stranger, hauls him into a courtyard, briskly washes him clean with tap water, and escorts him home. His sickness is diagnosed as hepatitis. Some four months later, at his mother’s instigation, he calls on the woman, with a bunch of flowers, to thank her. Her name is Hanna Schmitz, she is thirty-six years old, with ash-blond hair and “a broad-planed, strong, womanly face,” and she works as a streetcar conductor.
Michael finds her beautiful, the first woman he has desired, and begins to fantasize about her. “As the days went on, Idiscovered that Icouldn’t stop thinking sinful thoughts. In which case I also wanted the sin itself.” He visits her again, reasoning that, dangerous as this may be, it would be more dangerous to become trapped in fantasies, and anyway Frau Schmitz will merely be polite to him and send him on his way. “That is how I rationalized it back then, making my desire an entry in a strange moral accounting, and silencing my bad conscience”: a series of rationalizations is to follow. Before long—after he has dirtied himself fetching scuttles of coal for her and has to take a bath—they make love.
The next night, he knows he is in love with Hanna. Was that, he will ask himself in the future, when hindsight has failed to bring wisdom, the price for her having gone to bed with him? “To this day, after spending the night with a woman, I feel I’ve been indulged and I must make it up somehow—to her by trying at least to love her, and to the world by facing up to it.” Though much is made of Michael’s obsession with Hanna, and by implication the distortion of his emotional life this brings about, the suspicion sets in that there is some other obsession or distortion, deep within him, independent of Hanna. Yet their lovemaking is genuinely passionate, zestful, a little rough on occasion. They fall into a routine: at her request (“You have such a nice voice, kid”) he reads to her from his school texts, Schiller’s Intrigues and Love, Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, Eichen-dorff’s Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing; they take a shower; they make …