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 receives a written acknowledgement. He continues to read, but never writes. When Hanna is due to be released he is summoned as her only known acquaintance to help with her rehabilitation. He is repelled by her-she looks and smells like an old woman. But he arranges a flat and a job. Then Hanna hangs herself.
These are the bones of the fable; its power depends on the writing. This in turn depends on the narrator, who is entirely convincing in his meticulous recall of the past, his precise analysis of a moral and emotional world irredeemably confused. His guilt is Freudian-he feels after love-making that he “had been indulged and must make it up to her,” which he knowingly compares to a rare moment when his mother spoiled him. Only slowly does it become clear that the guilt has ruined his life-his marriage founders because his wife does not move and smell like Hanna, he loses his much-loved daughter. The private guilt is wound-economically and painfully-into the vicarious guilt of the postwar generation of Germans through the bold conception of love-making between generations. His generation, the narrator says, went into the courtroom full of indignation and righteousness and became numbed both by the horrors and the disproportionate daily banality of the trials. He writes succinctly of the aggressiveness of the postwar generation towards their parents, even those who had done nothing culpable-and dissociates himself from their “swaggering self-righteousness.” His own father, a retiring Kantian philosopher, gives him the right moral answer about what to do about his discovery of Hanna’s illiteracy-talk to Hanna-but cannot make contact with his son.
He becomes a historian of law, rather than an advocate or a dispenser of justice, as a result of the shame and disgust and impotence he experiences in Hanna’s trial. He describes history as a building of bridges between the present and the past, which changes things on both sides of the river. Enlightenment law was “based on the belief that a good order is intrinsic to the world and that therefore the world can be brought into good order.” “For a long time,” he says, “I believed that there was progress in the history of law, a development towards greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity, despite terrible setbacks and retreats.” This is a chimera. All that can be achieved is “an eternal return to the beginning.” He compares this postwar circling-back to the Odyssey, which becomes the first tape he sends to Hanna in her prison.
The Odyssey, he says, is not as he thought it was, the tale of a homecoming. How could the Greeks, who knew one never sets foot in the same river twice, believe in homecoming? This novel is haunted by the German words Heimweh, Heimkehr, homesickness, homecoming, which the narrator applies to his love for Hanna, but which also recall the idea of Heimat, the homeland, lived in and loved. Postwar German literature is full of the idea of an unbridgeable cleft between the past and the dreadful present-German postmodern texts are violent fragments akin to the (much more profound and moving) paintings of Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke.What the narrator reads for Hanna are the bourgeois texts-which include Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann and Lenz, but not “experimental” texts in which “I didn’t recognise the story and didn’t like the characters.”
The illiterate Hanna responds by treating the texts as though all the people in them were present, accessible, alive, and open to her own trenchant personal judgments. The narrator sends her his own texts when he begins to write, which may be seen as a piece of deliberate and riddling bridge-building between the narratives of the lost past and the present.
This is a plain book, written in brief, alternating passages of narrative and reflection. It is both simple and cunning. The narrator is not “unreliable”-he is so carefully honest, so judicious in his assumption of guilt, that the final narrative shock, when it comes, is a dreadful surprise. He takes Hanna’s bequest-a tea-caddy of money, a cheque-to the Jewish survivor, in New York. She refuses the legacy and the pardon implicitly asked. The narrator confesses-for the first time-what his relations with Hanna were. The survivor provides swift judgement. She describes with uncanny accuracy what has happened to his marriage and asks whether Hanna ever showed any sign of knowing what she had done to him. She calls Hanna, roundly, “brutal.” He protests mildly. But we (the readers) are suddenly set outside his guilt, can see him as a victim, can judge.
The Reader is one of those few fictions in which one cannot afford to miss a word or a sentence, for fear of getting something wrong. It is like a mosaic, where each piece makes the picture more startling, and more of a living whole. Images are like mines with slow fuses. The narrator’s first keyhole vision of Hanna putting on her stocking is given a wickedness by her bright green petticoat, but it is animal energy and strength that attract him, not sleaze. Finding nicknames, he upsets her by comparing her to a horse-which represents that strength-and later finds that a particularly brutal camp guard was called “the mare.” Later still, during the trial, he dreams of Hanna in “pathetic clich?s,” fantasies of uniforms, whips, sadism, which have become part of our shameful response to the terrors of the camps, and contribute to our numbing. But these fantasies adhere to, and corrupt, the initial vision of Hanna. She is a creature of strong smells-the relationship opens with the boy vomiting, and the first account of her flat contains a description of an enclosed loo. “Wenn es im Klo stank, stank es auch im Gang (When it smelled in the loo, it smelled in the passage).” This sentence lies in wait for the readers of the narrator’s nostalgic memories of all Hanna’s smells, from love-making to ironing, and that “strong dark” smell. These, in turn, lie in wait for their final encounter in the prison, when she smells prematurely like an old woman.
The narrator’s initial sickness is like those of Thomas Mann’s nervous bourgeois heroes, sensitised by high temperatures. Sickness recurs. After the trial, he has to make himself ill by skiing in freezing temperatures in shirt sleeves to break the dreadful numbness of fever; and it is during this fever that he meets and briefly loves his wife. An earlier girlfriend interprets his mysterious absences from their group as a consequence of the jaundice-perhaps he has to have tests, to give blood? “Hanna as sickness?” he asks himself, and goes on: “I was ashamed. But I could not speak of her.” The metaphor persists.
The other metaphor that is also a living part of the Geschichte (story and history in German), is Hanna’s illiteracy. This could so easily have been a device for letting off the guilty-here was someone who could not read the signs, who was therefore in some sense not guilty. It does not work like that, partly because in his rigorously economical way, Schlink brings to real life the subterfuges, the evasions imposed on the illiterate by their inadequacy. The narrator, in exasperation at Hanna’s comportment in the courtroom, reflects that if she had put half the energy into learning to read that she put into her life-lie, she would not have been there in the first place. Illiteracy has made her skilled in evasion, and she is still to be judged. The metaphor works because we believe in Hanna as an individual woman who cannot read.
At the beginning, the narrator recounts a recurrent dream about the building in which Hanna lived. It appears in many places-in lavender fields in Provence, among vines and wheat in the Palatinate-and is always surrounded, in shining weather, by forbidding firewalls (Brandmauern). The dreamer is pleased to recognise it, fears he is too late, tries to go in-and cannot. The house is dead. It is a perfect image both of the loss of the woman and of the loss of the home, the Heimat, made dusty and dead by the prison walls and the burnings of the death-camps. It is an image a writer has to earn, and Schlink has earned it. The Reader describes and exemplifies the painful courage of the return to narrative.
Phoenix 1998, ?5.99