Are words pointless?

Benjamin Markovits

  • Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink, translated by John Woods
    Weidenfeld, 309 pp, £12.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 297 82903 3

The generation battle, in its particular post-Third-Reich incarnation, runs through Bernhard Schlink’s work, both his bestselling The Reader and Flights of Love, a collection of short stories loosely arranged around various break-ups and infidelities. Reviewers tend to discuss the books together, partly because Flights of Love develops plots, characters and arguments already present in The Reader, but mostly because The Reader is better, more interesting even in its failures than this sequel. The Reader is a first-person account of a boy’s love affair with an illiterate older woman, Hanna, and his subsequent discovery that she had acted as a concentration camp guard in her youth. It has won great praise for its sensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject, and drawn angry criticism for its insensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject: a lesson that impossible subjects and heightened sensitivities tend to produce a range of responses. Critics have pointed out that the book’s premise wrongly suggests that German brutality stemmed from a kind of lower-class illiteracy, from an absence of culture. Hanna learns the full horror of her involvement only when she learns to read, and begins to absorb the best of bourgeois literature: Keller, Fontane, Heine, Mörike, Kafka, Lenz etc.

There is some truth to this charge, but it partly misrepresents the book, and generally misses Schlink’s point. Hanna is no idiot before she learns to read; she is warm, curious, sensual, adventurous, greedy equally for love and knowledge. Even in the camps, she delighted in being read to. Her young lover carries the practice on through their affair: they tackle Schiller and Tolstoy together. Illiteracy, in her case, stands not so much for her own lack of sophistication, as for the incomprehensibility of the world around her, and the narrowness of her choices within it. Illiterates learn by rote, and she acted in the camps according to her duties. As one character explains the role of an executioner, ‘he’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them.’ Hanna is brought to trial, along with a group of other female guards, for her part in the camps. She is the only defendant to acknowledge the truth: that the guards knew prisoners were being sent to their deaths, that it was their job to choose between them. ‘So what would you have done?’ she asks the judge. This – rather than ‘How much did you know?’ – proves the hard question, and the judge has no answer for it.

Hanna’s illiteracy is not the most important thing about her. The Reader, like its sequel, centres on a love story. The love story is more than the sugar-coating, in William Golding’s phrase, to sweeten the pill of the novel’s message; it is the bitter pill itself. Hanna is lovable, capable of arousing the full passion of first love, of raising the pitch of life to memorable joy. Schlink writes best when he looks and breathes the part of the heart-sick youth. Hanna’s qualities, physical and intellectual, make her the defining passion of the narrator’s life. After the affair both life and prose dry up, fall into argument and analysis. The question the novel poses is this: what to do with such a love, and the guilt it provokes, less by association than continuing affection? As the narrator declares,

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, I had 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.

Either way, he feels ‘guilty of having loved a criminal’.

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