Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Team of Readers

Although there was a split of opinion about the selection of the month, it did engender a lively discussion among the members of my book group.

Beforehand, we chuckled over the book club piece in this week's Style Section of the NYTimes, Book Club Trouble Often Has Little to Do With Books. Sad to say, our book group doesn't have anywhere near the drama depicted in the article. We've certainly have had our share of lively discussions over various books, as well as book picks, but it's all good-natured. We also tend to veer off into discussions of politics and life (above cartoon personifies us, sans TV), but we all seem to be similarly inclined, from a political and philosophical perspective.

In fact, my law partner refers to my book group as my Jewish Book Club (even though she's the one who's Jewish, not me). Although only half of the group is Jewish, a significant number of books we read tend to be written by Jewish writers or focus on stuff like the Holocaust. Not so much with the chick-lit.

Continuing the theme from last month, this month's selection was The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. It's another book that probes the Holocaust from viewpoint of Germans who lived through the war, rather than victims of the Holocaust. As described by The Boston Bibliophile:

Bernhard Schlink's meditation on guilt and accountability is set in post-World War 2 Germany, as a young man named Michael Berg embarks on a sexual affair with a mysterious, 30ish woman named Hanna who lives alone and works on a trolley. She is passionate but curiously withdrawn- and then one day she is simply gone. When she reappears, she is on trial for crimes Michael never could have imagined- and she has a secret.
The Reader received critical acclaim and a few members of the group loved it. There is much to praise. The complexity of the issues is aptly pinpointed by Suzanne Ruta's description, in a review for the NYTimes, Secrets and Lies:
Learning that the love of your life used to be a concentration camp guard is not part of the American baby-boomer experience. No matter. This offbeat novel, by a German writer born in 1944, about a high school kid in love with a woman formerly employed at Auschwitz, leaps national boundaries and speaks straight to the heart. Spare and direct, it follows a pair of star-crossed lovers across the decades, with the kind of transparent yet mysterious, even outre, narrative line that you find in the 19th-century German novellas of, say, Heinrich von Kleist or Kafka's favorite, the Austrian Adalbert Stifter.

* * * *
In Germany, one often hears the doubtful phrase ''the lucky late-born'' for those too young to be held accountable for Nazi crimes. But what's so lucky, German writers wonder, about having to ask, ''What did you do in the war, Daddy?'' What's so lucky about loving your suspect parents and feeling complicitous in their crimes? Or, alternatively, hating your suspect parents and losing your humanity in ''swaggering self-righteousness''? Recent history complicates family relations in Germany in ways that are hard for Americans to imagine.
Notions of guilt and shame are explored in various ways, between the characters and the generations, throughout the book. The moral issues involved in the book, as experienced by those who confronted the reality of Nazi's during the reign of Hitler are thought-provoking, to say the least.

Yet, I thought the detachment of the characters -- to each other and the reader -- is the very thing that allows the type of environment that happened in Germany to occur. Ironically, Schlink mentions a book written by a holocaust survivor in the novel, saying "that it is the book that creates distance. It does not invite one to identify with it and makes no one sympathetic," which also describes the detached observer of the narrator in his novel. And, it is this very distance that creates the situation where a group massacre can happen. I'm sure that was his point, but this very distance precludes an affinity with the characters, which could lead to the kind of undertsanding that can help avoid a similar result in the future.

Echoing that sentiment, in the second section of the book, where Michael is a law student watching the trial of his former lover, Hanna, he travels to a concentration camp during a break in the trial. On his way, he engages in a conversation with the taxi driver, who wryly says:
"Ah, you want to understand why people can do such terrible things. . . . What is it you want to understand? That people murder out of passion, or love, or hate, or for honor or revenge, that you understand?"

I nodded.

"You also understand that people murder for money or power? That people murder in wars and revolutions?"

I nodded again. "But..."

"But the pople who were murdered in the camps hadn't done anything to the individuals who murdered them? Is that what you want to say? Do you mean that there was no reason for hatred, and no war?

I didn't want to nod again. What he said was true, but not the way he said it.

"You're right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred. But executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them just the same. . . . No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. he's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not."
I think that is the part that disturbs me most about this book. Even though it is no doubt an accurate reflection of the reality of the time, the fact that the Holocaust, when all was said and done, was such a mundane part of life during the Nazi regime, is the true horror of it all. That and the fact that Hanna's secret -- her illiteracy, is a source of greater shame to her than her role as a guard at Auschwitz and the other war crimes she participated in. That her inability to read equates with her role in the Holocaust, is in fact so repugnant to her that it seals her fate in the trial. That is, her silence results in her conviction of war crimes, as Richard Bernstein notes, in his Times review, Once Loving, Once Cruel, What's Her Secret?:
What is striking is that Hanna refuses to defend herself, even though she is being made a scapegoat by the others. As Michael soon understands, she has been falsely accused of primary responsibility for the worst of the atrocities committed against the inmates of the camp. The truthful Hanna is sentenced to life imprisonment while the mendacious, opportunistic others get briefer terms.

Suddenly Michael understands that Hanna has a secret unrelated to her wartime activities that prevents her from defending herself in court. It would be unfair to reveal that secret here. But it is a secret that makes a whole of Hanna's life and it changes, not everything, but a great deal, for Michael and for us as we attempt to judge the degree of culpability that should be put to Hanna's legal and moral account.

Although some members of my book group could understand the depth of self loathing intertwined in being illiterate, I -- as well as a few other members -- found this particular aspect of the book to be unrealistic and overshadowed my view of the story. I think my opinion is best expressed by The Literary Wombat:

This book = eh.

I’m [not] really sure how much I liked it. I know that I DID like it, but I suppose I just didn’t find it as compelling as a lot of other reviewers do. The book starts out explaining a meeting 15-year-old Michael Berg has with an older woman when he becomes sick walking home from school one day. She finds him and helps him. After he recovers, he tracks her down to thank her and eventually forms a sexual relationship with her. Later on, she leaves him behind, he grows up and becomes a law student and the next time he encounters her it’s in a trial that he is watching for a seminar.

The story is well done. The characters are interesting and unique. The writing, though not complex (actually very simple) is appropriate to the story and it IS well-written. However, I just wasn’t able to get very emotionally involved in the story. I understand the parallel Michael and Hanna’s relationship is at with the gap between pre and post-WWII German generations, and I find that interesting and all. I just don’t know.
We didn't realize it when we selected this book, but a movie version is coming out this week. See Translating Love and the Unspeakable. Not sure that I'll see it.


Susan said...

I have not read the book and I am far from an expert or even a widely-read amateur on this topic. But I have read the 2 parts of Now I Will Bear Witness [forget by whom] and I recall neither detachment nor a sense of business-as-usual as the prevailing mood. Rather the deliberate arousal of stronger, more primitive emotions by the Nazis and an omnipresent sense of fear and powerlessness in their targets. Overall, a populance of raw nerves.

Anonymous said...

Greetings. I am the author of a new love story framed within the Holocaust, called, Jacob's Courage. Portions of the novel were based upon my mother’s memoirs. She is currently 99 and lives here in Ohio. My mother experienced intolerance and brutality as a young Jew in Russia. Members of her family perished in The Holocaust.

Jacob's Courage chronicles the dazzling beauty of passionate love and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. In 1939, seventeen-year-old Austrians Jacob Silverman and Rachael Goldberg were bright, talented, dazzlingly happy and deeply in love. But, because they were Jews, their families lost everything. The Nazis took away their jobs, their houses and apartments, their possessions and their money. They lost contact with loved ones. Finally, they lost their liberty. Jacob and Rachael "grew up" during the Holocaust. As teenagers, they survived the beatings, rapes, and murderous acts of the Nazis, enjoyed the physical and spiritual pleasure of being in love and were able to become husband and wife in the Theresienstadt camp. They escaped, joined the partisans and fought the Nazi enemy, before Jacob and his father were imprisoned in Auschwitz. In the end, only their love and their faith that God had a plan for them kept them alive.

A retired university administrator, I was published for nonfiction in 1986 and I completed my first full-length novel last year. Jacob’s Courage (Mazo Publishers), is reviewed by Jewish Book World and the Association of Jewish Libraries, and is sold through Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble and many other fine bookstores. Here is a web site with brief summaries of some of the reviews You can read the reviews more extensively at the Amazon site

Would you be interested in reviewing Jacob’s Courage or writing an article about it? I believe that your readers would find the novel intriguing.