The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A quick, effortless read owing to the incredible translation by Carol Brown Janeway. The novel explores questions inherent to a generation riddled by guilt of grave misdoings by their forbearers – underlying themes of love, friendship, loss, age, shame and memory compliment the main plot.

The story starts off on an erotic note, a passionate relationship between a young boy and an older woman Hanna. The mode of narration is innocent with senseless hope and naiveté on part of the narrator. The second part of the story unfolds the woman’s past as the boy, now a student of law, witnesses her trials. The narration accompanying this is constantly marked by self-doubt and an attempt to understand his own relationship with Hanna, what she means to him now after having discovered the ugliness of her actions. The third part of the novel offers the narrator with closure in respect to his relationship with Hannah in the past which had echoes throughout his life.

The novel is wrought with terse relationship between philosophic and practical morality. Is indifference inhumane? Despite the fact that passage of time and concentration of any phenomenon will ultimately and naturally result in indifference of those living through it? Isn’t that how the myopic lens through which we witness history functions? Does absolution conform to a limited time period, after which it may be too late? Or does the adage “better late than never” suit human motivations better? Can absolute moral and ethical wrong be made right by the slightest of goodness conceived by perpetrators? Can one generation rid itself of guilt by distancing themselves from the past, to be objective viewers and ordain change?

I digress…

The Reader leaves one with hefty weight of questions that can only be answered as one lives out a life. It is not up to me, a mere reader, to judge the character of Hannah or evaluate as to what the primary motivations of the author were in writing this story. The sense of guilt is balanced by resorting to self-pity in throes of certain events in history that reverberate to this day.


PART ONE

  • an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body. I knew none of this-if indeed I know any of it now and am not just making patterns in the air. But as I thought back then on what had excited me, the excitement came back. To solve the riddle, I made myself remember the whole encounter, and then the distance I had created by turning it into a riddle dissolved, and I saw it all again, and again I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
  • Her face as it was then has been overlaid in my memory by the faces she had later. If I see her in my mind’s eye as she was then, she doesn’t have a face at all, and I have to reconstruct it
  • I wasn’t relieved, the way you can sometimes be when you feel funny about a certain decision and afraid of the consequences and then relieved that you’ve managed to carry out the former without incurring the latter
  • Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths?
  • Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever?
  • I kept something to myself that I should have revealed. I didn’t acknowledge her. I know that disavowal is an unusual form of betrayal. From the outside it is impossible to tell if you are disowning someone or simply exercising discretion, being considerate, avoiding embarrassments and sources of irritation. But you, who are doing the disowning, you know what you’re doing. And disavowal pulls the underpinnings away from a relationship just as surely as other more flamboyant types of betrayal.
  • We did not have a world that we shared; she gave me the space in her life that she wanted me to have. I had to be content with that
  • What do you want now? Your whole life in one night?
  • She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station

PART TWO

  • Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly. Look at this!
  • I wanted her far away from me, so unattainable that she could continue as the mere memory she had become and remained all these years
  • perpetrators reduced to their few functions and exhibiting a mental paralysis and indifference, a dullness that makes them seem drugged or drunk
  • She contradicted vigorously and admitted willingly, as though her admissions gave her the right to her contradictions or as though, along with her contradictions, she took on a responsibility to admit what she could not deny
  • And as always, the alien language, unmastered and struggled over, created a strange concatenation of distance and immediacy
  • She was struggling, as she always had struggled, not to show what she could do but to hide what she couldn’t do. A life made up of advances that were actually frantic retreats and victories that were concealed defeats.
  • That she was guilty, but not as guilty as it appeared.
  • In both places, the windows did not open the room to the world beyond, but framed and hung the world in it like a picture

PART THREE

  • I was astonished at how much older literature can actually be read as if it were contemporary; to anyone ignorant of history, it would be easy to see ways of life in earlier times simply as ways of life in foreign countries.
  • Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance. I was afraid that the small, light, safe world of notes and cassettes was too artificial and too vulnerable to withstand actual closeness
  • The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive
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