Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader – the basis for the film that starred Kate Winslet getting “repeatedly naked,” according to Bill Simmons – is an impressively complex work given its length, around 220 pages. It is nominally the story of Michael Berg, who is fifteen when the story opens, and Hannah Schmitz, who is more than twice that age; the two end up in an intense sexual relationship, one that echoes the relationship of Lolita but that is told from the younger participant’s perspective. (Of course, older man/younger girl is significantly more scandalous than older woman/younger guy, which further pushes this issue into the background.) Hannah breaks the relationship off suddenly, disappearing from Michael’s life without warning, only to reappear years later in a substantial coincidence as Michael finds himself assigned by a college class to cover a war-crimes trial in which Hannah is a participant. Michael realizes that he knows something about Hannah that would exonerate her of the worst of the charges – it won’t take you that long to figure it out – and his choices from that point forward dictate the course of the rest of Hannah’s life, much as her choices with him when they were lovers dictate the course of the rest of his life.
My theory of the book is that Schlink was not referring to Michael or Hannah with the title “The Reader,” but is referring to us. In the first part of the novel, he gives us the affair, one that despite Michael’s youth and a heavy reliance on sex with little conversation is not scandalous and is even presented positively. Hannah is mysterious and moody but appears to be hiding some secret pain. Michael is young and innocent but cares deeply for Hannah. There are a few hints of the age imbalance, but the net for Michael is give to us as positive. Schlink is just setting us up, however; the sympathetic characters of part one are not so sympathetic after all – Hannah was a guard in the SS and is accused of complicity, if not outright responsibility, in the deaths of hundreds of female Jewish prisoners; Michael, ruined emotionally by the teenage dalliance with Hannah, can’t take simple steps to help Hannah or simply make her life in prison a little better, much less offer her any sort of absolution for breaking off a relationship that, ultimately, was wrong. Did Michael have an obligation to come forward during Hannah’s trial with his exculpatory evidence – or to at least confront Hannah about it? Why would Hannah refuse to set aside her shame to avoid a horrible fate – did she want to go to prison, to seek absolution through the justice system because the dead could not absolve her? Hannah’s choices are particularly mysterious, since she rarely speaks to Michael when they’re together and has but a handful of lines of dialogue after part one. In a short novel, Schlink presents moral dilemmas while also challenging us to reconsider our loyalties to the two main characters. Why are those two sympathetic in part one, when ultimately, we know so little about them, and some of what we know is less flattering than we believed at first glance? Is the responsibility on the author to reveal everything at once, or on the reader to consider all possibilities before drawing conclusions or developing attachments to specific characters?