It wasn't that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It's there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?
I was, I confess, surprised by Bernhard Schlink's The Reader (German original 1995; English translation 1997, by Carol Brown Janeway). The novel was so widely praised, and its subject matter so rich and weighty - an exploration of wartime guilt and culpability through an illicit cross-generational relationship - that I really hadn't expected it to be so utterly banal. But in the end I find I can't put it any better than did Peter Bradshaw, in his scathing review of the recent film adaptation; this is a "middlebrow sentimental-erotic fantasy" that, if nothing else, proves that not even the Holocaust is secure against tedious phallocentric solipsism.
Put another way, it's 200 pages of a grown man, Michael Berg, looking back through rose-tinted, faux-intellectualising spectacles at all the sex his fifteen-year-old self used to have. That the woman he used to have it with was a) more than twice his age (illicit thrill!) and b) a former concentration camp guard (dark secret!) was Definitely Not His Fault, oh no, although from time to time Schlink has Michael strike an angsty pose in order to make him seem more thoughtful than he actually is.
Michael's first encounter with the woman, Hanna Schmitz, is "almost an assault", once again underlining his complete innocence in the whole affair. Still, when she takes him home (to an apartment block marked by "the same smell of cleaning fluid, sometimes mixed with the smell of cabbage or beans, or fried food or boiling laundry" - descriptive prose isn't Schlink's strong point) Michael soon settles into finding her "seductive", seeing "an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body". Obedient to the rules of male adolescent fantasy written on her body, Hanna is not fazed or even amused by the boy's evident arousal, but quickly gets naked and starts groping him. They then spend the next 60 pages or so having having boring sex, increasingly prefaced by Michael reading various novels aloud to Hanna.
The dynamic of their relationship is, as might be expected, hardly egalitarian. Initially, Hanna uses the lure of her body to control him, and when that fails she opts for flat-out emotional manipulation; who can fathom, after all, the irrational mystery that is Woman's mood swings?
I admitted mistakes I hadn't made, intentions I'd never had. Whenever she turned cold and hard, I begged her to be good to me again, to forgive me and love me. Sometimes I had the feeling that she hurt herself when she turned cold and rigid. As if what she was yearning for was the warmth of my apologies, protestations, and entreaties. Sometimes I thought she just bullied me. But either way, I had no choice.
As if to underline the point, adult-Michael struggles to assign individuality to her in his memories:
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 know that I found it beautiful. But I cannot recapture its beauty.
So far, so tediously unerotic coming-of-age story. Before long, Michael duly grows out of his Mrs Robinson, preferring to spend time with friends his own age; Hanna, disregarded as thoughtlessly as she was taken up, moves away.
At length, Michael becomes an equally self-absorbed university student, where he develops strong Views about both the war and the role of ordinary German people in the Nazi regime, whether through active participation or passive failure to resist. The notion of collective guilt, he says, was "a lived reality" for his "generation of students", who found themselves in the grip of a bitter conflict with their parents, over all the things that had gone unspoken since the war:
The more horrible the events about which we read and heard, the more certain we became of our responsibility to enlighten and accuse. Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly. Look at this!
But Michael's comfortable self-righteousness is disturbed when he discovers that Hanna, too, is on trial. Literally: she was a guard at Auschwitz, in 1944, and stands accused of (amongst other things) letting 200 women burn to death inside a church during a bombing raid. Michael rubbernecks at her trial and indulges in a spot of aimless Holocaust tourism, during which he demonstrates afresh his complete lack of empathy or emotional imagination - having visited a memorialised concentration camp, he notes "my awkwardness was not the result of real feeling, but of thinking about the way one is supposed to feel after visiting a concentration camp". He eventually concludes that he does feel a bit responsible for all those atrocities, after all, because he used to love Hanna - who, by the way, couldn't read all along, poor thing, which maybe excuses her from having done all that bad stuff back then.
I was no stranger to shame as the cause of behavior that was deviant or defensive, secretive or misleading or hurtful. But could Hanna’s shame at being illiterate be sufficient reason for her behavior at the trial or in the camp? To accept exposure as a criminal for fear of being exposed as an illiterate? To commit crimes to avoid the same thing?
I suppose that this second half of the book - the revelations of Hanna's trial, and Michael's journey into Germany's history - is meant to make his earlier moral outrage seem smug and naive, a conclusion reached before all the facts were known. It doesn't, or at least not in the way Schlink (apparently) believes. Michael's youthful condemnation of his parents' generation for their comlplicity with the Nazi regime and its death camps is the very definition of kneejerk, it's true, but that's more an artefact of him than of his youth or moral stance itself. For one thing, as I've noted before, I find attempts to excuse culpability for such crimes (on the basis of circumstance or, as in this case, putative shame) to be questionable at best, and deeply distasteful at worst. Hanna's challenge to the judge, during her trial - she asks him what he would have done in her place - is pointed and urgent and correct, but it doesn't make the people who died in the camp any less dead just because someone else might well have acted (or failed to act) in the same way as Hanna, under the same pressures. Hanna's secret shame of illiteracy, and the culture of conformity surrounding her, go some way to explaining her actions, but they don't excuse them. A bad act isn't magically less bad just because it was done by a good person.
Secondly, while it is useful and interesting to engage in such debates, what pushed this reader over the edge as far as the book's banality was concerned was that even in the midst of this, it is still All About Michael. His initial reaction is to hope Hanna will be convicted, because that way she remains a fond and slightly moist memory for him, rather than a living human being who has an existence independent of his fantasy:
I realized that I had assumed it was both natural and right that Hanna should be in custody. Not because of the charges, the gravity of the allegations, or the force of the evidence, of which I had no real knowledge yet, but because in a cell she was out of my world, out of my life. 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. If the lawyer was successful, I would have to prepare myself to meet her again, and I would have to work out how I wanted to do that, and how it should be.
Later, his main concern is the effect her trial and subsequent imprisonment have upon him: his adolescent memories, his relationship with his parents' generation, his ability to be self-righteous, his achievement of (a tiny bit of) self-awareness, his "appointment with the past" when he meets her again (I swoon before your clichés, sir!). In the end, there isn't enough eyeroll in the world for his self-serving annexation of her guilt, and consequent trivialisation of those who truly suffered, among both victims and perpertrators:
I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I had pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to tell myself that I had known nothing of what she had done when I chose her. [...] How could it be a comfort that the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna, was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate, and that it was only more difficult for me to evade, more difficult for me to manage than for others. All the same, it would have been good for me back then to be able to feel I was part of my generation.
Soft porn, mass murder, and navel-gazing. Not a winning combination.