In the last issue of Prospect, Frederic Raphael declared that anybody recommending The Reader must have a tin ear for fiction and a blind eye for evil. AS Byatt was incensed-The Reader, she argues, is a beautifully constructed fable about guiltby AS Byatt / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The reader is a precisely and beautifully constructed fable about guilt, public and private. It is, like its narrator, meticulous, reflective and intelligent. It is also full of what Henry James called “felt life,” urgent, messy and painful.
It opens with an encounter between a 15-year-old boy and a woman in her late 30s. He is recovering from jaundice and vomits outside the building where she lives. The woman grabs him “roughly,” cleans him up, and makes him help her to clean the pavement. He sees her putting on her stockings, through a keyhole, and is haunted by this image. He goes back, becomes even dirtier helping her to carry coal, is undressed and bathed and accepted into her bed. The relationship evolves-he visits her after school and develops a habit of reading aloud to her; they then bath together and make love. This secret life gives him an adult confidence at school and separates him from his companions. After a time he becomes more interested in his fellow students, and joins in the messing about at the swimming pool. One day, he sees Hanna there, and feels he has betrayed her by not immediately acknowledging her. The next week she has mysteriously disappeared.
He does not see her again until, as a law student interested in the working-through of the past, he sees her across a courtroom where, with other concentration camp guards, she is on trial for the murder of a group of Jewish women who burned to death in a bombed church. He realises that her life has been dictated by the need to conceal her illiteracy-that she became a guard to avoid being promoted at Siemens, that she had left the tram company and his own city for the same reason, and that she accepted the responsibility of ordering the imprisonment in the church rather than betray her own incapacity. Hanna gets a life sentence. The narrator, after a failed marriage and a retreat from the practice of law into legal history, begins to send her cassettes of books he has read aloud. In the camp she had been accused of seducing the young and vulnerable prisoners, but the only survivor present exonerates her on that count, and says that all that was required was reading aloud to her. The readers were then returned to be exterminated at Auschwitz.
After years of sending cassettes, he…