Friday, May 31, 2013

German love and guilt

Book: The Reader
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Published: 1997 (Random House, American edition)
Pages: 218

Lives of quiet desperation that explode into unexpected directions make for the best stories because they feel the most real. This story of how a German schoolboy falls in desperate and eventually reciprocal lust with his middle-aged neighbor, only to fall out of touch with her until decades later when she’s on trial for a war crime, is so achingly human in its juxtaposition of the boy’s blunt adolencent emotions against her rigid self-control, and now I’m making it start to sound like a bondage novel, but there is something so matter-of-fact about it all that you can’t help but believe it.

Then he grows up and watches her get sentenced to jail because she can’t read but won’t admit it to the court that convicts her to life in prison, and he comes to slow terms with the fact that he loved a woman who could (maybe – it’s never super-clear) do such horrible things, and then he gets to feel guilty all over again when he starts reading books on tape for her to listen to in prison and she learns how to write but he never sends her any notes until she needs someone to help her on the outside when she’s about to get released.

It’s about growing up and facing change and trying to hold fast to the good you first saw and loved in people, and it’s in such low-key language like a piano piece where the melody is set down low in the left hand that you feel it more than hear it and some deep part of you keeps time until it ends on a minor note and you’re all, “Damn, that was gorgeous. I think I’m gonna go wring my heart out now.”


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