Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is sensual and philosophical, moving from the former, which predominates in the beginning, toward the latter in a manner “both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile,” as Michael describes the journeys in the Odyssey. “What is else is the history of the law?” he asks, and one might ask the same of history, full stop, or of love; The Reader implies that there is no answer save that the law, history, or love have whatever purpose we graft onto it, just as one could argue for a sensual reading of the novel, especially in the first part, or a philosophic, especially as Michael grows older. A young man with an older woman named Hanna feels the sensual as well as their, and its, doom, while the second, comes from an older lawyer who finds that his first love, if one can call it that, is being tried for crimes that would seem astonishing if not for the time period and location. There is a third part I will demure from speaking much of; to do so would give too much away in a novel that often feels like it gives too little away, especially of its feelings. Chapters end with no sense of ending beyond the beginning of the next chapter. Chapters of Michael’s life end with a similar lack of fanfare, and The Reader is, at its base, a novel that almost demands readings as analytic as its protagonist is inclined to give.
Some descriptions in The Reader are simple and true enough not to need elaboration, and those who have undergone extensive trials will recognize what happens when Michael’s bout with hepatitis renders him hospitalized for months: “although friends still came to see me, I had been sick for so long that their visits could no longer bridge the gap between their daily lives and mine, and became shorter and shorter.” Then again, Michael does not make friends easily, and his eventual wife is a ghostly presence who seems to affect him less than the hepatitis, or, for that matter, the weather. Perhaps this event combined with natural temperament and his liaisons with Hanna make Michael himself. Or maybe he was always this way, and that’s what brought him to Hanna and her secrets. Alas: those apt sentences like the one describing Michael’s illness tantalize us for more, and yet they are not forthcoming.
This novel is hardly alone in its remote, abstract mode. What is it about these Europeans—Schlink, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa*—who write short, sheer novels in which scenes are described and then left, like shards of a pot or torn pages from a book, for us to construct, or reconstruct? The length of the mostly rhetorical question probably indicates how little of an answer I can give. It’s almost as if the denial of a character’s interpretation, or the uncertain certainty they display when they do give interpretations, are or should be a statement of what we won’t know. Although this is overly abstract, perhaps I’m given to say it by having just finished The Reader, which challenges us to read the unreadable, and my chief response to it has to be a level above the action itself. The book just ends with a statement so devoid of interpretation that the feeling it must submerge becomes enhanced all the more because of its hiddenness. Like a great novel, we are left to wonder.
But I purposefully say “like a great novel,” rather than calling the novel itself great.
* I know: Llosa was born in Peru. But he feels European and lives part-time in European countries, so I count him as one here.