Tom’s Bookshelf: Did it gross you out, too? Reviewing Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader

2/5 Stars


Critic Score: C-
Reader Score: C+

*This review contains spoilers*

Mainstream American audiences were already aware of The Reader, a 1995 German novel by law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink, before the 2008 film adaption starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes was released to wide acclaim. Yet, I found my reading experience largely consumed by a distaste for the author’s thematic intentions. In the book, we follow teenager Michael Berg in post-WWII Germany and his relationship with the older and mysterious Hanna Schmitz. She suddenly vanishes from his life, though, and later when studying law, he sits in on a trail where Hanna is now facing the judge for unspeakable crimes.

Let’s dive in. The writing here didn’t impress or allure me, given it’s supposed to be erotic and controversial. I know this is a translation, though, and that could make a huge difference in style. More challenging than this, I felt there were two different stories functioning here: one is a romance with a 20 year age difference, and one is a courtroom drama with faux-philosophical reflections on Nazi morality, which often never reached the bravery I wished for considering the author is asks if a Nazi can be excused of her crimes. There’s also Hanna’s illiteracy brought in, which just awkwardly places itself in some political stance that might make more sense if it were contextually significant in postwar Germany.

To touch on that faux-philosophy, many of the “deep points” Schlink made were hard to follow not because they were just so intelligent, but because they didn’t seem to make much sense or follow a line of traceable logic. That was my experience, at least.

Despite this book playing into sexuality and the age difference, which is rightfully seen as rape by today’s audiences, I couldn’t help but taste vanilla on its erotic sections, and overall the story was not as provocative as it wanted to be, nor as self-aware as it needed to be.

The treatment of women is probably my largest problem with this book. Hanna’s character is largely uninteresting because beyond her closed-off nature and conflicted moral complexion, there’s not really much to her, except of course pages and pages detailing the scents of her every body part and such extraneous, objectifying, male-gaze details.

The work paints WWII with a largely female focus and only includes one male Nazi, who’s present for barely a few pages as a taxi driver. Why can’t we discuss the morality of Nazism with men, because no one could possibly be open-minded with men and readers need women, the pretty and naïve half of our race, to convince readers to feel ethically conflicted over a Nazi’s morality? Really? It’s honestly bogus and preposterous to deny that WWII, as all wars, was a masculine event, created and led by men. The aggressive, violent, attributes of genocide are largely masculine traits, sorry-not-sorry, so when the Nazi characters are basically all females, I’m left wondering why we can’t approach Nazism philosophically using a more accurate representation of the history at hand.

On a few side notes for those who have read the book fully. The story suggests that learning to read and write was only done by Hanna to win over the narrator, and that there is no benefit beyond that. Hanna’s transformation into a nun-like figure full of repentance and self-punishment is too easily moralistic and preachy. Michael gets offended when she doesn’t write him a personal message in her will, a legal document, when he never even wrote her a letter all her time in jail…why is that reasonable? The characters were a real struggle here.

Now I’ll comment on that ending. I believe Hanna’s suicide is uncalled for and undeserved. The story doesn’t build toward such a melodramatic and final ending; I think this conclusion was poorly chosen. It allows for no nuance and is too stark and unaligned with the atmosphere and sensitivities preestablished. I would have felt more emotionally impacted on a bittersweet, quiet ending in which both Michael and Hanna live near each other but cannot love each other, and they carry out the rest of their lives in a silent yearning for the past, and perhaps they still care deeply for each other in strange ways that won’t be fulfilled. But I’m not the writer, so I’ll quiet down.

I liked the comments on aging made by the scope of novel’s timing. I appreciated the sadness of watching someone close to you decline from substantial power and beauty.

This book’s sort of reminiscent of The Stranger, which may explain a little of why it sold so well. My copy’s large font and wide margins, in addition to the book’s short chapters, made for a fast and pleasant reading experience.

The final image of Michal standing over Hanna’s grave reading to her one last time is kind of sweet and sad but also sums up the misogynist tendencies at work throughout the novel. It’s a fitting final image for better and worse.

How’s my review system work? I give stars out of five based on the averaging of two letter grades, Critic and Reader. My Critic Score is based on writing quality, contribution to culture, ethics, consistency, plot development, characters, style, originality, and overall how well the book accomplishes its creative and intellectual goals, among other factors. On the other hand, my Reader Score is a personal reflection on how much I enjoyed the work, regardless of what makes a book “good” or “bad;” it takes into account both entertainment value and my own tastes and life experiences. B is the median of my letter grades, with As for outstanding work and Cs for generally disappointing work. D and F grades are out of the ordinary and given when my disapproval is severe.

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