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24th February
2009
written by Steph
When it comes to "The Reader", don't let the reader be you!

When it comes to "The Reader", don't let the reader be you!

This movie season has been all about Kate Winslet, who starred in two films that were based on books.  Her appearance in The Reader had nothing to do with me picking up a copy (for 75 cents!) a while back, and by and large, it seems that the book community has been less interested in it than in the book that inspired her other film, Revolutionary Road.  Having read  The Reader, this is so much the better for people who like books.  I don’t care if Oprah selected this for her book club, I am going to tell you flat out that The Reader is a truly awful novel. The back of the book tells you that The Reader is a book filled with tightly coiled eroticism, while the front claims it is morally devastating.  It was neither of these things.  The Reader tells the story of a 15-year old boy growing up in post-WWII Germany, who falls in love with a much older woman.  They embark on a passionate relationship (or so the back cover tells us… I really thought they were kind of tepid and extremely dysfunctional (that last part probably goes without saying), until one day a couple of months into it all, Hannah disappears without leaving any information as to where she’s gone.  Fast forward many of years later, when our young narrator (I don’t remember his name, that’s how little he connected with me) is now a law student who is witnessing the trial of several women who are accused of Nazi war crimes on the basis of them having been employed as SS camp guards back in the day.  Lo and behold, Hannah is one of the convicted women, and we find that our narrator is still captured by her, and is essentially incapable of having a functional relationship with any other woman because he just couldn’t get over what they had.  Oh, also, the narrator totally discovers a secret Hannah has been guarding fiercely for many years, a secret the back cover teases she might consider is worse than murder (but I will tell you it is totally not and the insinuation that it might be is ludicrous).   Why it took the narrator so long to figure out this secret, when I, a perpetually unimaginative reader figured it out within the first 40 pages of the book is beyond me, but that is really the least of this book’s problems. This book failed on so many levels.  I never bought that these two characters were in love with each other, mostly because the narrator was 15 when he was involved with Hannah, and while young love is certainly one kind of love, it’s also the kind of thing that most people rebound from.  Also, Hannah treated him really terribly, going so far as to strike him across the face with the belt at one point in a moment of rage.  I know, really dreamy and romantic, right?  Furthermore, I felt like this book wasn’t morally complex as it was patently obvious and trite.  Schlink essentially offers very little insight into the Holocaust or the ravages of war.  His basic thesis seems to be that in extreme situations, people may resort to doing things that they would otherwise not do.  That when society gets thrown into turmoil, the mores and laws that traditionally govern us also wind up in upheaval.  That in war, sometimes people treat other human beings abysmally, even though they feel no hatred or malice towards the other people, but rather devaluing other human lives is a job for them, not unlike any other.  Are you kidding me with this crap?  This is not insightful, this is stuff you cover in Psychology or Sociology 101.  Sure I can see how German citizens faced a dilemma when it came to either standing up to the Nazi party at great cost or taking a safer route and instead joining it, or at the very least, not causing a fuss.  One of the huge themes running throughout the novel is when is it appropriate to intervene on the behalf of others, to do what you think is right, even if the other person has the power to do it for him or herself but will not?  But is this really a huge moral quandary for people?  At the end of the day, you either decide that you know best and that the “end justifies the means” and you do intervene and “subvert another person’s will”, or you stand by and choose not to meddle, live and let live.  I don’t know, maybe other readers felt the weight of the narrator’s struggle to decide what he should do when he finds out Hannah’s secret, but given how unimpressive her secret turns out to be, I’m just not sure that it required all of the agonizing he invested in the thought process.  Honestly, I’m still totally cheesed off about Hannah’s big secret.  I don’t want to diminish the issue, but it wasn’t something that couldn’t have been easily resolved in a positive way, rather than being allowed to fester and ultimately ruin her life.  Gah! Also, the writing in the book is completely bland and soulless.  I thought it was ironic when the narrator talked about having read a book about the war and finding it sterile and severe, mainly because that is how this entire book read to me.  I didn’t think the language was sparse but evocative, I thought it was simplistic and like words had just been placed on the page in order to tell the story Schlink wanted to tell with as much efficiency as possible.  His attempts to make the narrator seem haunted by his past felt hollow and overly melodramatic, kind of as though he never stopped being a 15-year old boy.  Maybe the translation wasn’t awesome, or maybe this is just how Schlink writes, but either way it was not doing it for me. The one thing I thought was kind of positive about the book is that Schlink had the ability (and did at times) to delve into the generational conflict between the young and the old following WWII.  Namely children feeling ambivalent towards their parents for either having been part of the SS, or for not having done anything to prevent or mitigate the atrocities.  It was the one element of the book that I felt offered an interesting perspective, and one that was somewhat different than most other Holocaust literature I’ve encountered.  Then again, Schlink was so emo about this at times yet also so dry (a weird paradox, I realize), that although there were glimmers of an interesting conflict to be explored, it never really amounted to very much. I really didn’t like this book and felt it wasted my time.  Don’t be similarly fooled!  Even watching trailers for the movie upon finishing the book I started to cringe, as it reminded me of how the book was just so underwhelming in every possible way.  I think I will probably see it at some point since Winslet did win the Oscar for her portrayal of Hannah, but for the record, the fact that anything based on this book has won anything but scorn and derision does sting quite a bit.   Don’t let this terrible reading experience of mine be in vain!  So long as I can dissuade at least one other person from reading this terrible dreck, it will have been not a totally worthless endeavor.  Surely the time it would take you to read this is worth more than 75 cents? UPDATE:  As fate would have it, Matt over at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook has just finished reading this book as well and had a very different take on it than I did.  It's a very thoughtful and articulate review, so I urge you to go check it out by clicking here! Rating: 1.5 out of 5

15 Comments

  1. 02/24/2009

    I read this book probably eight or so years ago and I don’t remember anymore how I reacted to it…your review is interesting because I think I would have remembered if I hated it 🙂 Still, I’d be very curious to see what I would think now on a re-read. And I am interested in seeing the movie, because depending on how it’s done, a film representation could be good.

  2. 02/24/2009

    I am curious to see whether the movie turned out well, but I think I will have to wait for some of my rage towards the book subsides! At least the movie will likely not be plagued by the cut and dry writing of the book…

  3. 02/24/2009

    I thought the story is well-written and has afforded many layers. Hanna’s secret might be laughable and unbelievable, but her turmoil seems real. I have repeatedly asked myself, what about the fact she is not dumb and deaf. She could have heard it from Hitler’s mouth in his infamous 1939 radio broadcast to Germany and the world, threatening extermination of the Jews if war started. In sense her claim to be illiterate is not stupid, but that she has rather chosen to guard this secret is stupid.

  4. 02/24/2009

    I don’t want people to think that I believe illiteracy is a laughable matter or that it can’t be written about in an earnest way. I do believe that Hannah felt her secret was shameful – I’m sure most people who can’t read or write feel the same way. But I still don’t think that her response to this circumstance is proportional; I just can’t see why anyone would rather be convicted of such terrible crimes rather than letting some people know that she can’t read and write. I can’t imagine that this was something that was all that uncommon back then, so her vehement desire to keep others from finding this out about her was unfathomable to me. Also, did her secret (or any kind of turmoil) really justify her being so cruel and down-right vicious towards the narrator at times?
     
    I guess even apart from that, I didn’t buy the story as a romance/love story either. And we’ll have to agree to disagree about the writing. When the narrator remarks, upon reading a concentration camp survivor’s book, ‘Years later I reread it and discovered that it is the book that creates distance. It does not invite one to identify with it and makes no one sympathetic, neither the mother nor the daughter, nor those who shared their fate in the various camps and finally in Auschwitz and the satellite camp near Cracow.’ I felt like he could have just been talking about the very book I was reading.

  5. 02/25/2009

    Steph, I’ve been thinking of reading this, because at first I thought it sounded like something I’ve read by Don DeLillo before (The Body Artist) which was a strange, silent book, that most of the time didn’t make sense. But then now I remember that I loved that book because of the writing, not the story. DeLillo’s way with words was entrancing.

    Anyway, I’ve read Matt’s review and it is very thoughtful (and also convincing). I’m again at odds now, because your review is also convincing. I do see both of your views, though, thanks.

    Regarding the secret, it reminds me again of another book, Graham Swift’s Tomorrow, where from the beginning we are told about a secret, and then in the end the secret turns out to be a dud. That book made me never want to read Swift again.

    So probably if I do decide to read this I’ll just have to borrow from the library first.

  6. 02/25/2009

    Yes, Claire, I would strongly recommend that you read this from the library before going out and purchasing a copy yourself. It might be the kind of book that would be good for a book club, because clearly people can talk about the issues that are covered in it for quite a while, but again, I think that is mostly a virtue of the fact that Schlink had juicy subject matter, not that he wrote a good book. If anything, I suspect most people would wind up talking about how the characters in this novel behaved incredibly foolishly more than anything else!
     
    I suppose the writing style,in a way, reminded me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I didn’t think the writing in that was particularly evocative or haunting, just kind of sparse and drab, so that might give you something to go buy. Or check out Amazon, where you can read the first few pages. The writing has that kind of bland tone throughout the whole thing. I thought the trial section of the novel was the biggest failure, because it had the potential to be so personal and tortured, and instead was flat.
     
    Anyway, if you do read it, I’ll of course be interested to know what you think!

  7. 02/25/2009

    I remember reading this book a few years ago and wondering what all the Oprah hype was about. As a whole, I found the story to be a bit perplexing. I mean I just didn’t think the big reveal at the end was all that shocking and kept wondering if that was it. Was that the big secret? Really? I was expecting something more in that area. I also thought the love story was a bit strange. I find that thinking about it now it seems even stranger, as I am the mother of a 15 year old boy. I remember being really unmoved by this book and wondering if there was something wrong with me as a reader, because everyone else seemed to think it was excellent. I found it completely unremarkable. Glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like this one. Great review!

  8. 02/25/2009

    That was another thing, too, the age gap between them. Not that I would think anything less of people in relationships who had that much difference in age, but I don’t think I can relate. I think that’s the biggest reason why I hadn’t picked this up.

  9. 02/25/2009

    Yes, I can see how as a mother, this book would become a lot more disturbing. I wasn’t personally super skeeved out about the relationship, though of course I did think it was inappropriate, but mostly I found it repulsive for reasons other than the age gap. I found Hannah really abusive and emotionally manipulative of Michael, and I just didn’t see anything erotic in their relationship (or the details of it) either.

    And you know, another thing I don’t get is that if Hannah so obviously enjoyed literature (so much so that she had many people read to her over the years), why did she not try to learn to read before being sent to jail? Honestly, I would think that a desire so strong as that would have trumped the humbling shame of not being able to do it already. I think I might have found the whole story more touching (those still trite) if Michael had been the one to teach her to read. Instead, we get this huge connection (on his part early on), and then there’s never really a renewal of that. He would have been in his 40s when she died… he seriously couldn’t get over her in the 35 years they were more or less apart? She wasn’t even nice to him!

  10. 02/26/2009

    I remember reading this a long while ago, although I don’t remember not liking it that much. I didn’t love it, either; in fact, it was one of those books that I just can’t remember because nothing about it really caught my attention.

    I’m curious about the movie though.

  11. 02/27/2009

    So you didn’t like it then?

    I read this when it came out in English and was unimpressed for reasons like your own. With the movie out, I’d been trying to summon up the will to re-read it but just can’t make myself. I recently read a very clear critique of The Reader at Slate which expresses my problems with it much better than I can. (the link is http://www.slate.com/id/2210804/)

    For a fictional treatment of Germany’s WWII history and its effect on different generations, I much prefer and would recommend Crabwalk by Gunter Grass or The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert. Both more enjoyable as novels and with a more nuanced ethical discussion.

  12. 02/27/2009

    Thanks for the tips, Sarah. I think that Slate article is spot on – not just about The Reader, but my problems with so many German/Holocaust films and books – so thanks very much for linking to it.
     
    I haven’t read anything by Gunter Grass, but I do have his novel The Tin Drum sitting in my TBR pile. I think it also deals with WWII history in its own way, and I’ve heard it’s excellent.

  13. 03/09/2009

    I’ve been wondering whether to read this book. I own it, but I’m pretty sure I’d find the “relationship” to be annoying at best. I didn’t bother reading Matt’s review, as I can guess I’ll have the same issues with the book that you did. Thanks for saving me hours of my life!

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