By Bernhard Schlink.
New York: Vintage International, 1997. 218 pages. ISBN: 0-679-78130-7

Comments of Bob Corbett, July 2000.

A brilliant philosophical love story which retains it intense suspense until the very last pages. The basic story is of a love affair which begins between a 15 year old boy and a 30 year old woman. The affair, which is both intense yet distant, lasts about 6 months, perhaps a bit longer. It ends mysteriously and tragically for Michael Berg when he discovers that Hanna has simply up and disappeared one day.

It is several years later when he accidentally stumbles upon her, on trial for a hideous crime, and with a critical personal secret which keeps her from defending herself. In the midst of the trial, which Michael attends as part of a legal seminar, and the discussion of the trial, a two-fold set of philosophical questions arise:

Michael continues his relationship with Hanna in a quite strange manner in the later part of the book and the questions keep tumbling to the floor.

The book is written in a compelling manner in which we enter into the life of narrator Michael Berg. Along the way we are not only drawn deeply into the love affair between him and Hanna, but into the general philosophical discussion of love and particularly this love affair. We are also exposed to the whole line of arguments concerning German guilt in the 1950s and 60s.

For Berg the two issues of German guilt and his love affair with Hanna are intimately and inseparably linked, furthering the notion that each question of guilt, or degree of guilt is much determined by the specific case rather than any abstract and universal principles.

Schlink, who has written several prize-winning mystery stories has the ability to hold back details and keep new developments flowing into the story until the very last pages, keeping the reader a bit off kilter. One is never sure when a new wrinkle and new questions will pop up, impacting the general flow of both story and ideas presented.

It is a gripping and brilliant book. I would welcome discussion with any other readers of this novel about the philosophical questions raised by it and with which we are teased and challenged.


A note I wrote to an internet correspondent

Winifred, good evening, almost morning,

As I read Michael, Schlink doesn't make clear enough why he is so very hurt by her. She treated him badly to just disappear. But she was aloof even in their early intimacy. That he would be devastated at 15 when it happened I can follow, but -- now comes the puzzle, if I read him correctly -- I can't quite figure out his behavior at the trial.

What I see is a frightened young man, perhaps frightened isn't quite strong enough, almost terrified of the power she had exercised over him and the power he feels she might. Yet he is drawn to her both in love and pity, or at least sorrow.

The most he can do is to read to her, especially when he figures out her illiteracy and how much she's willing to pay for it. At least that's how I see him.

His father's advice -- the bottom line -- seems quite good advice as I see it, but for the wrong reasons. His father seems to follow a sort of Kantian line. Hanna is an autonomous person and as such entitled to her own life. Michael must respect it.

I like the conclusion, but the not argument. Hanna has demonstrated in her life with Michael, and then again at the trial, that she desperately needs her world in order to survive and have some self-respect. Thus it is knowing who she is that should be the ground of his consent to not spoil her deception. He loves her that much. That's in no way passive, but it is safe and consistent with what he needs in his fear of what she has the power to do to him.

Like lovers who just can't fully be together on the exact same wave length, yet who continue in their relationship, I think the balance they strike is the best they could do. If one follows this line, the her suicide is also best, even the only way to resolve the impossible situation they are put into. Neither could bear being with one another. Michael wouldn't wish her death, but can easily accept it. I think it follows.

I've not read anything about Schlink, so I have no idea about the autobiographical possibilities. I don't like to be influenced by things like an artist's life. I prefer to stick with the created world of the artwork itself. I guess I normally think the artist's life if fairly irrelevant to his or her work. There are exceptions where I'm willing to violate that general stricture, but I tend to operate within it as far as it works to allow me to make what I find to be adequate sense of thing inside the created piece.

I haven't thought much about how the social structures in which they find themselves impacts and limits them. I've thought LOTS about how it impacted Hanna and her colleagues and, more abstractly, many in the war, both perpetrators of the holocaust and victims of it. This is certainly a theme of Schlink's and one that fascinates me.

I just read a piece somewhere within the last week or so about a famous (but not to me, and I can't recall a name) Jewish scholar of the holocaust who was denouncing those who denied the holocaust and cautioning all about such thinking.

Denying the holocaust seems utterly crazy to me, but when one allows what happened happened, then reflects on the incredible power of the social structures and strictures, the times and all, then some odd patterns begin to emerge and are shocking to me. I begin to think that people like the Hannas of the Germanic world, or the citizens of the town who also did nothing, are no much different than most of us, they just happened to be caught in a very horrible and evil time, the making of a relatively few who were able to shape all the pain of the depression and historical anti-Semitism and other anti-s into the Third Reich. But I don't really think the general public were much more evil than we are as we tolerate the misery and suffering caused by the division of wealth in our contemporary society. Nor do I think the Jews who ignored the situation, not believing it could really last, or really get so bad were any more stupid that the millions of our underclasses who believe that they too can be those who pull themselves up by their own boot straps.

What's different are the stakes and that's an accident of history.

I do think that's all in Schlink.

I don't know how Schlink fits in with Habermas. Nor do I see Schlink fitting the mold of any particular philosophical system. While I think the book treats of some profound philosophical topics, and he seems to have positions on them, I couldn't predict which of several contemporary philosophical perspectives he might take.

I like the book as a text for this course for two main reasons:

  1. The odd, and for me, deeply moving love story.
  2. The open and most honest treatment of the famous question of supposed German guilt that I've yet read.

I can't wait to hear what my students say. I say almost nothing before hand. I did tell them I find it to be an "interesting" love story -- that's nice and evasive, and that it raises the question of German guilt. That's about it.

I will, following my patter on the other novels, say nothing of my own in the first day, and hopefully even the second of the five days we spend on it. I'll participate as fully as I feel the desire or need in the last three days. In the first two I will interrogate their views with some rigor. But this course is more about their discovery than my positions.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett