Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Reader

The seventh book read in my ongoing attempt on 100+ books this year was The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink.

This is a spare philosophical novel with many layers of meaning.   A German academic is looking back over snapshots of his lifetime.  He is interrogating the meaning of particular memories and memory itself.

"I knew none of this then - if indeed I know any of it now and am not just making patterns in the air."

As a fifteen year old he became involved with an older woman. One day she left without warning. In some way he felt that he had betrayed her -  "I didn't acknowledge her."

Later he finds out more about her and his memories of his time with her are forced to change.

Although there are times when the language is slightly stilted the translation doesn't get in the way. The book burrows down into the thoughts of the main character and faces the events with clarity and honesty.

Bernhard Schlink
It is a book about the difference between guilt and shame; the power of reading and thought and also its powerlessness and how the past is assimilated into our lives.

"..if something hurts me, the hurts I suffered back then come back to me, and when I feel guilty, the feelings of guilt return; if I yearn for something today, or feel homesick, I feel the yearnings and homesickness from back then. The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones..."

The book operates on much more than the personal level and is a wider exploration of Germany's relationship to the Holocaust. What to do with the sins of our fathers, or lovers? How to read a culture that led to this point?

1 comment:

  1. How interesting! I didn't see it as a philosophical novel at all. I'm fascinated by the questions you thought the novel asked. It makes me wonder if I don't have a slightly myopic view of things I read - I have often missed what others thought of as a philosophical or allegorical context in favor of the story or the social commentary.