The story is set in post-war Germany. 15-year-old Michael Berg meets, by a chance, an older woman when he collapses in the street, suffering from hepatitis, and the woman, Hanna, helps him. They embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. Their relationship is tempestuous, but it has many moments of happiness, particularly when Michael reads to Hanna after their love-making. Among the stories he reads is Chekov’s The Lady with the Little Dog which is a reflection of their relationship. She remains an enigma to Michael, and he is distraught when Hanna disappears, but he grows up, becomes a law student, and finds a girl friend, who he later marries. Observing a trial, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna, and that the woman he had loved is charged with a dreadful war crime. Her behaviour during the trial seems irrational, but suddenly, and terribly, he realises that Hanna is not only obliged to answer for the crime she is accused of, but is also desperately concealing what is to her an even more shameful secret. The disclosure of this secret would exonerate her, but she cannot use this means of escape.
That the relationship is between a 15 year-old boy and an older woman is an important part of the story, and the imbalance between their experience is sensitively explored (the age of consent in Germany, as in most of Europe is 15). The title of the book (Der Vorleser in German) recalls the active role of a parent reading to his child, a significant gloss on the relationship between Hanna and Michael. In medieval Germany, a Vorleser, a public reader, was an office with the duty of reading aloud, passing on the knowledge of the Reader to others.
Michael’s past and Germany’s past are bound together, and the issues of guilt and responsibility are sensitively explored. This is a story that it would be unkind to discuss in any detail; the gradual revelation of Hanna’s past and development of Michael’s understanding both of Hanna and of himself is what makes this novel such an achievement. It would spoil the reader’s enjoyment to reveal much of what happens. Even preceding the revelation with a spoiler warning would be wrong. A sensitive reader would pick up a clue. But could he have saved her if he revealed what he knew, something she didn’t want to be disclosed?
Hanna is convicted, and spends years in prison, and Michael sends her tapes, on which he has recorded stories, starting with the Odyssey and the Chekhov story, The Lady with the Little Dog, that he had read to her when they were lovers. Then, in the eighteenth year off her imprisonment, the prison governor writes to him telling him that Hanna is to be released, that he is her only contact with the outside world, and asking if he will help her in the difficult adjustment to freedom. He knows he has to help, but is reluctant to do so. Finally the governor writes that Hanna is to be released in a week, and he knows he has to go to the prison, He does, and is shocked to find her an old woman. He tells her about the flat he has found for her, and the job at a tailor’s shop, and they part. When he arrives at the prison to collect Hanna, she is dead: she has killed herself. Michael is filled with guilt and rage at himself. Did he fail her? Should he have revealed what he knew?
To what extent is Michael traumatised by this discovery? He marries, they have a child, but the marriage breaks down. Well, that happens to many couples. But the final chapters of the book do show a man trying to come to terms with himself. He writes the story of his relationship with Hanna, a way of freeing himself from the past. Hanna left some money, savings from her earnings in the prison to the daughter of the Jewish woman who died in the camp due to Hanna’s actions, and Michael takes this money, in the tea caddy in which it was kept, to this women, who lives in New York. They talk about Hanna, the woman refuses to give Hanna the absolution that Michael wants for her, but he recognizes that he has no right to expect it.
A film was made based on this book, with Kate Winslet as Hanna, a perfect performance for the actor who created a convincing Marianne Dashwood in a film of Sense and Sensibility, a remarkable young German, David Kross, as the young Michael Berg, and Ralph Fiennes, as the older, tormented, Michael. The film departs from the novel in many ways, of course, but they are all sensitively appropriate. The most enlightening is the scene in which the older Michael takes his daughter to Hanna’s grave, and starts to tell her how these events have affected his life. How could they not have done?
Bernhard Schlink has also written a book of essays on The Guilt of the Past, based on a series of lectures which he gave at Oxford. In it he explores the issues central to The Reader, that of guilt for past actions, to what extent those Germans who took no part in the awful actions of the national socialists are also involved in guilt for what took place, including those not yet born. German children born in the 1930s and during the war often asked “how could our parents have allowed it to happen?”. One of the most difficult problems is the question of ‘who can forgive?’, and he discusses sensitively what more can be done if forgiveness by the victim is withheld.
Bernhard Schlink is a lawyer, and was a judge in the Constitutional Court of North Rhine-Westphalia (one of the German States, a constituent part of the Federal Republic, and later, re-unified Germany) and professor for public law and the philosophy of law at Humbolt University, Berlin. The Reader has won many prizes, including being the first German book to reach the top position in the New York Times best seller list. The translation, by Carol Brown Janeway, is perfect: it is difficult to believe that the book was not written in English.