Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Reader, by Bernard Schlink

I may be the only person you know who hasn’t seen the film of The Reader yet. The week it was showing locally I was up to my eyes in other boring stuff. Then I heard that we were doing it in our book-group and decided to read the book before seeing the film.

Somehow that works best. Reading a novel you build your own pictures of a character. Very often it’s not down to the descriptions of characters. For me, building a picture of a character is more likely to be based on their behaviour, or a name, perhaps a mannerism.

So we don’t only have a picture in our mind of the character’s appearance but of the way they move, talk, smile. Then out comes the film: if it’s well cast we say, Ah, Just as I imagined them! Or perhaps – rather more often - quite the opposite. If the film is really good, the viewer can live with the difference between the personally imagined and the film-makers vision.

But to see a film then read the book does mean that the imagination does not kick in the same. The picture of the character is already there and it often jars with the description. And one of the things I love about reading is the pictures …and the suspense. See the film first – no suspense. Why bother reading it. The moving images have already been filtered and digested. The plot has been simplified and truncated.

Needless to say, there was so much in the press about the film, The Reader, that although I hadn’t seen the film I had seen clips. I knew that the central character was played by Kate Winslet, so I saw the character Hanna as her. She was well cast, fortunately, but it means I was denied my own image.

Bernard Schlink is quite a writer. The book is easy to read. Deceptively simple. Short chapters, large print, not (for a refreshing change) very long. And it was not, we all agreed in the book group, a holocaust novel. It was a novel about relationships, primarily, and shame.

A young boy, Michael, aged fifteen, is seduced by a mature woman, Hanna. He becomes totally besotted by her. She uses him. He is fixated on her to such an extent that when she has left he is unable to form other lasting bonds. He learns of her shameful past in the Second World War. But it is her other shame – that of being found to be uneducated – that informs her actions. Not the shame that should.

And we, the readers, are expected to believe that Hanna’s fear that her secret will be discovered is the prime reason for her hateful work in the war. Schlink leaves some points such as this unclear, questions not answered, things unresolved. Some found this annoying, others challenging.

But as the we never get under Hanna’s skin, never get to know her true motives, or any bar those rather tenuous ones, the character Hanna gets little sympathy from the reader. Certainly not those in our group. Although, at the end, one or two had begun to pity her.

For my part, I thought that Hanna was portrayed as someone who finally learnt about victims’ reactions to imprisonment, torture and death through their printed stories. Not as someone who instinctively came to realise that what she had done was wrong. She was amoral. If she had known that what she did was wrong then she could have done something about it sooner.

Michael was another of Hanna’s victims. Although not everyone agreed with that view either. Some felt that his actions were just too far fetched. Others that he loved her, simple as that, and continued to do so. Personally I think that’s over simplified. In my mind his personal life had been blighted by his relationship with her. And I did not feel there was any redemption at the end of the novel. The ending was not a surprise.

But, in spite of all this, it was a good read, an interesting story to discuss and it generated much talk about emotions – fear, shame, cruelty, love – and how a people come to terms with the sins of their fathers. Now all I have to do, is watch the film.


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