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 love; they lie quietly together. Over the Easter holiday—Michael’s parents, glad that he is well again and keen to get out and about, are oddly incurious—the two go on a four-day cycling trip along the Rhine, registering at inns as mother and son.
Eventually his generation reclaims him, in part; he spends the summer afternoons at the swimming pool with Sophie and other schoolmates. Important though she is to him, he cannot tell them about Hanna. At first he doesn’t feel close enough to his friends; then the right moment, and the right words, fail him; and then it is too late. Thus he rationalizes, without believing in his rationalizations: he is “denying” Hanna, and he feels guilty. One afternoon, at the swimming pool, he sees her standing at some distance. Instead of running spontaneously to her, he cogitates: Why is she at the pool? Does she want to be seen with him? Does he want to be seen with her? When at last he gets to his feet, she has gone. Gone for good, it appears, without trace, for the streetcar company knows nothing of her whereabouts, nor does the owner of the building in which she lived. Michael yearns for her body, but more powerful is his sense of guilt, of betrayal: “Leaving was her punishment.”
Michael finishes school, and takes up law studies at a university. His life is effortless: “everything was easy; nothing weighed heavily,” neither work nor relationships. Nothing could touch him, it seemed; he involved himself in nothing, as if he had decided never to let himself be humiliated again, never to feel guilty, never to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose. He marries a fellow student and has a daughter, but the marriage—to someone he could lose without it hurting too much—doesn’t last long. Again, we doubt that this emotional paralysis can be solely attributed to Hanna and his love for her; something in his character, more than any extraneous circumstance, has shaped his destiny.
When Michael next sees Hanna, it is in a courtroom, circa 1965. He is part of a seminar group that is investigating such questions as retroactive justice (and its absence). For instance, while concentration-camp guards were contravening ordinances on the statute book at the time of their crimes, they were not acting against the laws as actually interpreted and applied at that time. The students have no doubts about their guilt, or the collective and continuing guilt of others. They are intent on exposing and reviving the past, and bringing shame on their parents, even if the parents are apparently innocent. (Under the Nazis, Michael’s father lost his job, teaching philosophy, because he had announced a lecture on Spinoza.) It is sufficient that after 1945 they had tolerated the criminals in their midst. Michael finds comfort in sharing a common passion with his companions, in feeling that he “belongs,” but later, in his self-subverting fashion, he speaks of the “swaggering self-righteousness” of the students. “How could one feel guilt and shame, and at the same time parade one’s self-righteousness?”
As it happens, Michael is attending the trial of several former camp guards, all women, accused of war crimes, in order to gather data for the seminar. His first reaction on seeing Hanna in the dock—not one of surprise or distress—is to suppose she must be guilty, not so much because of the gravity of the charges she faces as because in a prison cell she will be safely out of his life, continuing as a mere memory. Or so he deludes himself. “I recognized her, but Ifelt nothing. Nothing at all.”
The trial goes badly for Hanna. She had turned down an offer of promotion at the Siemens factory in Berlin, and joined the SS instead, serving in Auschwitz and then, until the winter of 1944-1945, in a small satellite camp for women near Cracow. It was there, while the prisoners were locked in a church, that misdirected bombs set the village on fire. The guards made no attempt to unlock the doors. The four other defendants allege that it was Hanna who wrote the report on the incident, found in SS archives; they claim that the report is inaccurate, and that this proves that Hanna was the prime agent in the crime they are unfairly accused of.
Only now—late in the day for one so sharp-witted—does it dawn on Michael that Hanna is illiterate. She couldn’t have written the report. She had turned down the foreman’s job at Siemens because she couldn’t read or write. It was not to satisfy her perverted desires, as the other defendants insinuate, that she invited her “favorites,” frail young prisoners, into her quarters; it was so that they could read to her—and, it might be, that they should have a few days or weeks of rest from forced labor before being “selected” for return to Auschwitz and for death. Hanna was too proud to tell Michael of her illiteracy; she is too proud to tell the court, even in her own defense. Not that Michael leaves it at that; he speculates, he adduces a variety of possible reasons for her behavior, as if she, the woman he loved or still loves, is a more than usually complicated sort of animal in a research laboratory.
“If I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.” Michael says that during the weeks of the trial he felt nothing; he shared in the numbness that affected everyone in the courtroom. He asks himself, in a passage that lies near the heart of the book:
What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose?… That some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame, and guilt—was that all there was to it now?
Michael’s feelings are customarily strong, even manifestly anguished, yet so splintered by his relentless intellectualizing, and set at odds, that they cancel out. But they do not evaporate; they persist.
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, Ihad the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.
The effect on Michael of the trial is to make prosecution seem “as grotesque a simplification as defense,” and judging “the most grotesque oversimplification of all.” Given his powers of intricate argumentation, one might think of him as potentially an able lawyer; not a judge, though, for he would never reach or condone a verdict. As it is, rather than practice law, he chooses to teach its history.
Hanna is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Over the eighteen years that follow, Michael tapes his readings of The Odyssey, Chekhov and Schnitzler, Kafka and Heine, and sends the cassettes to her. In the fourth year a note arrives: “Kid, the last story was especially nice. Thank you. Hanna.” She has taught herself to read and write. But not one word does Michael write to her. This procedure “was so normal and familiar, and Hanna was both close and removed in such an easy way, that Icould have continued the situation indefinitely. That was comfortable and selfish, Iknow.” Then the prison warden writes that Hanna is likely to be released soon, and perhaps, since Michael is her only contact with the outside world, he could help by finding her a small apartment and something to do. He visits her a week before she is to be released. She has thickened; she, whose smell he had loved, smells like an old woman. Hanna senses his reactions. Despite misgivings about the “actual closeness” this will involve, he finds her somewhere to live and a job with a Greek tailor. In the early hours of the day set for release, Hanna hangs herself. In her cell Michael notices the books she had ordered for herself: Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski… And, in a fine touch, the warden tells him how Hanna had once staged a sit-down strike until cuts in the prison’s library funding were restored.
Hanna has saved some money, and leaves a note asking Michael to take it to a young woman, a camp inmate who survived the fire in the church, so that she may decide what to do with it. The woman, now living in New York, refuses to accept the money: “Using it for something to do with the Holocaust would really seem like an absolution to me, and that is something I neither wish nor care to grant.” Then, Michael suggests, perhaps it should go to an organization concerned with illiteracy, preferably a Jewish one. Pre-empting the reader’s gratified recognition of the sole moment of humor in the book, the woman remarks that illiteracy is hardly a Jewish problem. She allows, though, that if there is an organization for something, for anything, there’s bound to be a Jewish organization for it. He sends the money to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy, and receives a letter thanking Ms. Hanna Schmitz for her donation. Then, for the first and only time, he visits Hanna’s grave. And there the story ends. Though not without Michael interrogating himself about his motives for writing it down: To be free of it? To capture it before it slipped out of memory? Or because, whether sad or happy or both or neither, it was true? “Maybe I did write our story to be free of it, even if Inever can be.”
A counterpointing of two stories, or a story and a history, of victim and victimizer, culpability and disavowal, indictment and extenuation… Bernhard Schlink has taken on a grievously formidable subject. Primo Levi and the other authors found in Hanna’s cell were, if one dare express it so, the happy ones, recording at first hand, with the freshness and force of the moment, the unbelievable yet unarguable, untrammeled by the welter of complicity and recrimination, mitigation and atonement, agonizing and numbness, which Schlink has described so searchingly. (And which the translator, it should be mentioned, has rendered so convincingly.) Both the author and his creation, Michael, are professors of law, and subject to the troublesome fact that not everything is as clear-cut, definitive, and amenable to just legal process as might be desired. The Greeks, knowing that we never enter the same river twice, couldn’t believe in homecoming. Michael observes that Odysseus returned home not to stay but to set off again. “The Odyssey is the story of motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile. What else is the history of law?”
We praise books that, as we say, make us think. The Reader makes us think too much about things we would rather not think about, issues which the book leaves open and we might wish to have closed one way or another. This can only be a grim and arduous experience.