Last year in Bonn in the brand-new Museum of Modern History (Haus der Geschichte) I watched a video about concentration camps. A row of female guards captured by the Allies stood in line, middle-aged and grim. Then a younger one spoke straight to camera. She was blonde and dishevelled; she said her name, her age – 24 – and that she had been at Belsen two months. She looked terrified. I felt sorry for her, and shocked that I was. This novel is about someone like her, and examines the feelings I had.
It is an anxious, intense and gripping work, and the opening is characteristically abrupt: ‘When I was 15, I got hepatitis.’ That was in 1958. The narrator is Michael Berg, the son of a professor of philosophy. One day on his way home from school he throws up and nearly faints. A woman takes him into the courtyard of her apartment block, sluices him down at the pump, then sluices down the pavement. He is crying, so she gives him a hug, and walks him home. He spends the next six months in bed. As soon as he gets better, his mother sends him off with a bunch of flowers to thank the woman. He goes to see her again a few days later, and they make love.
Hanna is 36 and a tram conductor. She lives alone, and Michael visits her every day after school. She is brusque, sexy and affectionate in a briskly maternal way. She calls him ‘Kid’. (Fortunately this very good translation is American. Whatever would have happened to Jungchen in English?) She is always washing; a lot of their love-making takes place in the shower, and Michael’s elation at his initiation and growing competence, as well as the pure delight of sex, come steaming off the page. Schlink writes marvellously about adolescence and about sex. He is particularly good on smells like soap and fresh sweat, and he does it with hardly any adjectives. Michael’s idiom is spare to the point of austerity, in keeping with the man he has become 30 years later when he writes this memoir.
Hanna likes being read to, and Michael reads her his school set books: Homer, Lessing, Schiller; and after that, War and Peace. ‘Reading to her, showering with her, making love to her, and lying next to her for a while afterwards – that became the ritual in our meetings.’ But the idyll is not perfect. Hanna is subject to unpredictable fits of pique and fury; once she strikes Michael with her belt and the buckle tears his face. The boy blames his own insensitivity, imagining that because of his inexperience he has wounded her in some way he can’t fathom.
But his new-found confidence makes him popular with his school-mates, and he begins to spend a lot of time hanging out with them at the swimming-pool. One day Hanna turns up there; he does not run immediately to join her; and a moment later she has gone. The next day he goes to her flat. It is empty. She hasn’t even left an address. Again he blames himself for having behaved badly to her.
Seven years pass before he sees her again. He is now a law student, and his professor sends him to watch a trial of concentration camp guards. Hanna is among the women in the dock. Seated behind her, he watches strands of hair escape from her chignon and curl on her neck. She readily admits certain charges, but argues when she disagrees or doesn’t understand. She seems to want to get at the truth more than to defend herself. The trial hinges on the fate of a group of prisoners during the retreat from Auschwitz at the end of the war. They burned to death in a locked church when the Americans bombed the village. The other women claim that Hanna refused to unlock the church. She wrote the report on the incident, they say: so she was in charge. She denies it. But when the judge calls for a handwriting test, she refuses and admits the accusation. She is sent down for life. The others get shorter sentences.
It comes to Michael that Hanna is illiterate. This is the most stunning of the retrospective revelations that make this brooding examen de conscience into a cliffhanging mystery. Hanna’s handicap dictated her life. It is the reason she liked being read to. At the trial she confesses to having young prisoners read to her in exchange for better conditions: sinister motives are inferred. Her illiteracy is also the reason that she disappeared: not because Michael disowned her in front of his friends, but because her tram company wanted to train her as a driver; they would have discovered what she regards as her shame. Her flight was a replay of her entry into the SS. As a young girl at the start of the war she worked for Siemens. They offered her promotion, but then her secret would have come out. So she chose the SS, who were recruiting women from Siemens at the time. It was her escape route.
Should Michael go behind Hanna’s back, see the judge and tell him that Hanna can’t have signed the report, can’t be responsible for the prisoners’ death? He asks his father for advice – an unusual step, because the professor has always been a remote, neglectful parent. The answer he gets is negative – and Kantian: ‘He instructed me about the individual, about freedom and dignity, about the human being as subject and the fact that one may not turn him into an object.’ ‘Not even if he himself would be happy about it later?’ Michael asks. ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy, you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.’ The conversation ends with the professor saying:
‘I can’t say I’m sorry I can’t help you. As a philosopher, I mean, which is how you were addressing me. As your father, I find the experience of not being able to help my children almost unbearable.’
I waited, but he didn’t say anything else. I thought he was making it easy on himself: I knew when he could have taken care of us more and how he could have helped us more. Then I thought that perhaps he realised this himself and really found it difficult to bear. But either way I had nothing to say to him.
The conversation is excruciating as well as crucial, because the professor is in pain: but that, like Hanna’s illiteracy, is not revealed until the end of the episode. Schlink creates opportunities for sentiment, but never takes them; and the refusal helps to give his novel its moral poise. Michael leaves his father’s study, glad to have been let off the hook; then he forces himself to go to the judge just the same. But the man is so amiable, patronising and bland that he never gets round to telling him why he came.
The trial forms Part Two of the novel. Part Three is a backward look from the Nineties at the intervening years. Michael’s life has been dimmed by a kind of anomie, except in dreams and night thoughts about Hanna. Some are erotic replays of their affair, others even more erotic fantasies of a brutal Hanna in her role as wardress. Guilt torments him: the guilt of his own generation and his parents’; guilt at having loved someone like Hanna, guilt at abandoning her, guilt at betraying her by keeping her a secret from his friends.
I didn’t reveal anything I should have kept to myself. I kept something to myself that I should have revealed. I didn’t acknowledge her. I know that disavowal is an unusual form of betrayal. From the outside it is impossible to tell if you are disowning someone or simply exercising discretion, being considerate, avoiding embarrassments and sources of irritation. But you, who are doing the disowning, you know what you’re doing. A disavowal pulls the underpinnings away from a relationship just as surely as other more flamboyant types of betrayal.
One can sympathise with Michael’s analysis of his own bad behaviour and understand that he feels shame; but when he agonises – as he does all the time – about his guilt in having loved a criminal, even though, at the time of loving her, he did not know she was one – then his moral fastidiousness seems excessive. He condemns his parents’ whole generation, including his father, who opposed the Nazis and had to resign from the university. They were all guilty, and his own contemporaries are guilty too because ‘their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes.’ He interprets the events of 1968 as an attempt by the young to dissociate themselves from these crimes: ‘the parade of self-righteousness ... the sounds and noise ... were supposed to drown out the fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit.’
Michael marries a fellow law student called Gertrud, but they drift amicably apart. All he feels is pity for their little daughter. He has affairs, but they peter out. As for his career: ‘I didn’t see myself in any of the roles I had seen lawyers play at Hanna’s trial. Prosecution seemed to me as grotesque a simplification as defence, and judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all.’ So he moves from the university to a research institute. ‘Gertrud said it was an evasion, an escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life, and she was right ... [it was] a niche in which ... I needed no one and disturbed no one.’ But he can’t sleep. He reads through the nights. Then he decides to tape what he reads and sends the tapes to Hanna. He never sends a message, but after three years he gets one: ‘Kid, the last story was especially nice. Thankyou. Hanna.’ Hanna has learnt to read and write.
The end of the novel is shattering. Eighteen years after the trial, 15 years after the first tape, Michael has a letter from the prison governor: Hanna is about to be released. She will need help. Michael appears to be her only contact. He finds her a flat and a job. A week before her release, he visits her and arranges to pick her up; he suggests spending her first day of freedom together by the river. When he arrives at the prison she is dead: she has hanged herself. ‘For years and years,’ the governor says,
she lived here the way you would live in a convent. As if she had moved here of her own accord and voluntarily subjected herself to our system ... She was greatly respected by the other women, to whom she was friendly but reserved. More than that, she had authority.
Then in the last years, she changed.
She got fat and smelled. She didn’t seem unhappy or dissatisfied. In fact it was as though the retreat to the convent was no longer enough, as though life in the convent was still too sociable and talkative, and she had to retreat even further, into a lonely cell safe from all eyes, where looks, clothing and smell meant nothing.
Guilt about the war and the Holocaust has been the staple of serious German fiction for at least two generations: from Böll and Grass to Hofmann, Ransmayr and Sebald. Novels are set against a background of destruction: a background first of ruins, then of new buildings – resented rather than welcomed, whether the old buildings were bombed or simply pulled down for redevelopment. The ghosts of the old buildings haunt the new, ghosts as melancholy as Rachel Whiteread’s, but more vindictive. The Reader has a magical second chapter about the dilapidated apartment block where Hanna lived, and which Michael used to pass long before he met her. It was pulled down in the Sixties. As a little boy he fantasised about the interior behind its grand façade of balconies, pillars and stone lions. Later, it became a recurrent feature in his dreams, turning up in quite alien settings – in Rome, in Berlin, on a country road. In the dream he always recognises it, always knows he has seen it before. The chapter is so hallucinatory that the end feels like waking up.
The Reader is a very short novel crammed with incident and analysis, and yet Schlink finds room for virtuoso passages of evocation. When Michael pays his ineffectual visit to the judge, for instance, at the end of the day in court, ‘the window was open. In the car park, doors were being slammed and engines turned on. I listened to the cars until their noise was swallowed up in the roar of the traffic. Then children came to play and yell in the car park. Sometimes a word came through quite clearly: a name, an insult, a call.’ It would be hard to do better with night falling in a city.
The writing is so compelling that one comes to accept the not very acceptable idea that Michael is both innocent and guilty. But that is because Michael’s agonies of conscience and gradual change of personality are so vivid that one forgets he is only the Kantian intellectual hero of someone else’s novel, and that the story of Michael and Hanna is an allegory of two generations of Germans: for she is old enough to be his mother (a fact highlighted when they spend a weekend in the country and sign the hotel register as mother and son). The Reader offers no solutions, and the ending is Kantianly bleak: ‘What a sad story, I thought for so long. Not that I now think it was happy. But I think it is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.’