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Holocaust as Fiction: Bernhard Schlink’s “Nazi” Novels and Their Films, by William Collins Donahue. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 251pp. $85.00.
The title of this book is somewhat mischievous: it could be misconstrued as suggesting that some of Schlink’s novels were National Socialist in character. Of course, this is not what Donahue does. But his thesis is pointed nevertheless. Early on in his study, he draws an imaginative comparison between Schlink’s approach to the National Socialist period in his fiction and traditional depictions of Aphrodite in painting and sculpture. Just as such depictions simultaneously depict Aphrodite as “a voluptuous nude and as an undeniably modest woman” (p. 11–12), so Schlink deploys an aesthetic strategy which promotes inherently contradictory interpretations: thus the figure of Gerhard Selb (in Schlink’s trilogy of detective novels) is both a “fantasy resistor figure” and “a figure of harmless fun” (p. 12). For the most part, however, Donahue applies his Aphrodite theory to Schlink’s world-famous novel Der Vorleser (The Reader, 1997).
Thus Hanna, as Donahue shows, is on the one hand depicted as a Nazi perpetrator, while on the other the actual nature of her guilt remains unclear, and in court she becomes the victim of the machinations of her co-defendants. On the one hand, again, Schlink would appear to be pursuing Levi’s nuanced idea of a perpetrator-victim “grey zone,” yet on the other, in focusing on Hanna’s illiteracy, he offers a monocausal explanation for her conduct that would seem to work against any commitment towards exploring ethical complexities. As for the narrator-figure, Berg, Donahue sees him as equally ambivalent. Berg appears to work through all the difficult questions associated with German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). Indeed asking questions is his speciality. He is less good at finding answers, yet surely this a sign that the process of reflection will continue, not just in the second generation, represented by Berg, but in future generations, too? Donahue points to another possible interpretation: is there not a danger that precisely because of his probing questions, Berg will be taken as a reliable and trustworthy narrator? That being the case, will not Berg’s surely rather empathetic, indeed apologist stance towards Hanna, and indeed towards the perpetrator generation in general, be accepted all too uncritically by readers? Furthermore, what exactly is Berg’s relationship to this first generation? Is he a conscientious representative of the second generation, working through the guilt of the first, or is he not rather a pitiful victim of the latter? (an interpretation Schlink encourages by dubious means, namely by placing Berg in relation to Hanna’s Jewish victims, who, like him, functioned as Hanna’s “readers”).
It is to Donahue’s great credit that he has explored and laid out these ambiguities in The Reader. He does so with panache, irony, and a stylistic sophistication which make this book a pleasure to read, for all the fundamental and very serious concerns it explores. Donahue also ventures to suggest that the novel’s “have your cake and eat it” philosophy is at the root of its success not just in Germany, but abroad, not least in the United States, where it was famously championed by Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps, as Donahue shows, the ambivalence of the novel maps perfectly onto the ambivalent stance of readers across the globe, who all know of the Holocaust, and know it should remembered and faced, and yet feel overburdened by or overexposed to this task. Schlink’s book caters to both sentiments: it appears to be about the Holocaust and the need to work through it socially, politically, and by all judicial means, and yet it is also about the seemingly oppressive nature of this process, not least for Michael Berg. If readers identify with Michael, then because they too feel they have had “too much” of the history of the Holocaust. Schlink’s novel oscillates between taking the culture of Holocaust memory seriously, and wishing it was over. That, at least, seems to me to be the gist of Donahue’s book. If he is right, we really need to think through our reactions to The Reader more than we have done to date.
To my mind, though, Donahue pays too little attention to the novel’s more interesting and challenging ambivalences. It is not at all clear, for instance, that Hanna’s overcoming of her illiteracy in prison necessarily leads to her moral development; indeed, she may commit suicide not because of insight into her crime, but because she realises that Michael is no longer interested in her, or in spoon-feeding her the classics. Donahue praises Stephen Daldry’s film of The Reader for its implication that the conditions of working-class life may provide a more meaningful clue to Hanna’s involvement in Nazism than her illiteracy, but I am not sure it makes a difference whether it is underprivilege in general or a specific, symbolic articulation of it—illiteracy—which is seen as the major factor. Nor does Donahue reflect on whether it is really illiteracy that is Hanna’s main difficulty, and not rather the attendant problem of shame and stigma. Hanna, under Nazism, was living in a world where it was seen as shameful to be illiterate, while no shame attached at all to killing Jews. There are richer complexities in the novel than Donahue, committed as he is to debunking all ambivalence as superficial or stage-managed, would allow.
Nottingham Trent University