Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Bernhard Schlink’

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink


I’ve been reading novels by Bernhard Schlink since coming across The Reader some time ago, hoping for another book by this author which would live up to that extraordinary story. The Woman on the Stairs was just okay. Maybe nothing else this author writes will ever be as good as The Reader.

The Woman on the Stairs has a coldness to it. I didn’t care about the characters or their story. The story was written in German and translated into English, so the feel of the book may have changed with the translation, unless that was the author’s intention and the characters were not there to be cared about.

The story with a German businessman having finished his business in Sydney, when he goes to the Art Gallery of NSW and sees a painting of a woman he has been in love with his whole life after knowing her very slightly in his youth. Back when the German businessman knew the woman, he helped her to steal the painting from her husband, who owned the painting, and from her lover, the artist who painted it. The woman then disappeared with the painting.

The German businessman (he was un-named) paid a detective to track down the painting’s owner and was not at all surprised to learn that the woman was the owner and that she was living a remote hermit’s life somewhere north of Sydney.

He delayed going home to Frankfurt to visit the woman, but was surprised when she turned out to be forty years older than he remembered her, (so was he, but she instantly recognised him) and dying of cancer. The artist and the woman’s former husband turned up at her home too, although it wasn’t clear if they wanted her or the painting.

I did finish the book, but I forget what happened next.

The translation annoyed me, as some of the words weren’t right for an Australian setting. One example which I remember was the use of ‘wildfire’ instead of ‘bushfire.’

I really must get around to watching the movie of The Reader sometime. That was an amazing story. I think I’m probably done with Bernhard Schlink otherwise.






The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink


I read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink quite a while ago, and while I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed the story, the plot and characters stuck in my head. I have to say the same thing about The Weekend. The characters are not very likeable and the story has some nastiness about it, so in this case I hope I won’t remember what happened for years to come.

The story begins with Jorg, a German terrorist, being released from prison after 25 years. Jorg’s sister Christine collects him, taking him for the weekend to her country home, a secluded, run-down place she bought with a former girl-friend. Christine has arranged for a group of their old friends to spend the weekend together in an attempt to help Jorg to find his way in society again.

The group are quite prickly, although they were friends and supporters of the terrorists back in their day. The characters have a hard time coming to terms with each other as they are today.

Jorg murdered four people, and seemingly feels no remorse, arguing that had his side won, the people he killed would have been considered casualties of war and that their deaths would have been for the greater good, rather than him being trialled for murder.

I don’t know anything about German terrorism in the early 1970’s when Jorg’s crimes would have taken place, or what they were fighting for, but the use of a character who is a writer telling the story of people who jumped from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks made me feel for Jorg’s victims rather than for Jorg, Christine and their friends. I found Jorg, Christine and the other characters to be unlikeable and their behaviour, unlikely.

Much of the character’s present-day behaviour made me feel uncomfortable, including the sexuality of a teenage girl who was staying with her parents over the weekend. I’ll spare you the details, but have come to the conclusion that some parents are much more liberated than other parents. The characters give each other a hard time about the past, almost in the manner of a mock-trial, but none of them seem truly remorseful for their actions, just jaded.

I think The Reader was a better book and more interesting than The Weekend, but will continue to read further works by this author.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway.

The story of The Reader is told in three parts in the first person by Michael Berg, who is a fifteen year old living in a city in Germany in the late 1950’s during the first section. Hanna Schmitz, the other main character in The Reader, calls the narrator ‘kid.’

The story starts with Michael becoming ill and vomiting in the street. An unknown woman cleans him up and accompanies him home. When Michael recovers from his illness, which turned out to be hepatitis, he returns to thank the woman, Frau Schmitz, at his mother’s request with flowers.

As Michael is about to leave Frau Schmitz’s apartment, she asks him to wait while she changes her clothes to go out. When she catches him watching her dress through the slightly open door, he runs away in shame.

Predictably, fifteen year old Michael can not get the images of Frau Schmitz in her petticoat and garter belt out of his head. He returns to her flat in and he and Hanna, who is a 36 years old tram conductor, start a physical relationship. She guesses his age at seventeen and he doesn’t tell her otherwise.

Hanna dominates their relationship and is often physically and verbally abusive to Michael. He reacts to Hanna’s cruelty by begging her forgiveness, usually for things he hasn’t done. Hanna’s disappointment in Michael telling her he was neglecting his schoolwork to be with her, causes him to try to win her approval by working hard to catch up on what he missed during his illness. Eventually, their relationship evolves into a pattern of bathing together, followed by sexual relations, then Michael reading classic literature aloud to Hanna.

One day, Hanna disappears from her flat. Michael realises she has left the city, but doesn’t know why she left. Six years later he goes to university to study law and as part of his studies, attends the war trial of a group of female SS guards, who were guarding a camp near Auschwitz when the 300 Jewish women occupying the camp burned to death in an accidental fire. Hanna is one of the guards on trial.

During the trial, Michael realises Hanna is illiterate. She accepts sole responsibility for the 300 deaths rather than have anyone realise she cannot read and is sentenced to life imprisonment.

Michaels marries, has a child and divorces. Over the next 20 years, he records himself reading literature aloud and sends the tapes to Hanna. He never responds to the letters she sends to him after she learns to write in prison.

Neither Hanna nor Michael are very sympathetic characters, but regardless of this, it came as a shock to learn during the course of the book that Hanna had been part of the SS. I pitied her, which seems strange when you learn she did, because although she is a victim of her circumstances in the book, there were so many other victims who died as a direct consequence of her actions, or lack of. The other victims are much more deserving of pity than Hanna, but she is the character who the reader has come to know. During her trial, Hanna asks the judge what he would have done in her situation, a question he cannot answer either.

Michael is also a character to feel sorry for, as he spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with his love for someone who has turned out to be a war criminal, and searching for women who remind him in some way of Hanna. Michael is also representative of his generation, in that his parents lived through the war, either blamelessly or not, but he and his peers who were only children are blameless.

The English translation of The Reader is beautifully written and the book must be even more wonderful in German. The Reader feels like an ‘important’ book, one that will be remembered and discussed for years to come.

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