Critics of Bernhard Schlink's bestselling "The Reader" accused it of being an apology for Nazi evil. His new novel covers many of the same themes, but takes pains to distinguish right from wrongby Philip Oltermann / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99
Back in 1995, Bernhard Schlink published a little novel that was highly successful and highly controversial. The Reader told the story of a 15-year-old boy who starts a sexual relationship with a woman more than twice his age. In secret, they establish an after-school ritual that involves bathing each other, making love and him reading her stories. One day the woman vanishes. Years later, the boy—now a law student—discovers that his former lover used to be a guard in a concentration camp. When she is imprisoned for life, they resume their relationship in an indirect way—he records himself reading stories and posts the tapes to her.
The Reader, translated into English, became the first German novel to reach the top spot in the New York Times bestseller list and did well in Britain too; it is currently being turned into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. But it was hated with as much passion as it was loved. In a stinging attack in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Jeremy Adler condemned Schlink’s “cultural pornography”: The Reader, he said, let the real war criminals off the hook and offered little more than a sentimental tale about the redemptive power of literature in return. Frederic Raphael’s verdict (Prospect, March 1998) was even more damning. In an article called “Judge not?” he decried the culture industry’s new moral nihilism: “No one could recommend The Reader without having a tin ear for fiction and a blind eye for evil.”
Perhaps the criticism hit home. For almost ten years, Schlink went back to his main jobs: lecturing as a law professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin and continuing his series of crime novels about private eye Gerhard Selbs (which sell well but get scrutinised less closely). Now he is back with a new “serious” novel, Homecoming, and on reading it, one senses that Schlink still can’t get those reviews out of his head.
Initially, the novel comes across as a sort of mini-Reader, with only minor variations. Again, we have a boy-narrator growing up in the postwar years. Again, it is through the act of reading that the protagonist finds his life connected to that of the SS generation. Peter Debauer has collected piles of scrap paper while visiting his grandparents in Switzerland over the years—proofs, discarded from his grandparents’ pulp fiction publishing house. One…