It is with regret and disappointment that I make the following admission:
I have officially given up on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the Infinite Summer challenge along with it.
As of last week, I was 200 pages behind schedule, and much as I really did love Wallace’s writing, I didn’t feel like spending four months of my life reading just one book when I could be reading a book every week or so. Someday, perhaps I’ll get back to it.
I spent my afternoon at BookMan/BookWoman yesterday, mostly just browsing and enjoying the freedom of being able to contemplate buying a book, now that I’d released myself from the restrictions of Infinite Summer. I picked up a complete collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems and a battered copy of The Little Prince that, according to the inscription in the front, Wende Hall was given as a birthday present on September 25, 1976 by someone called Rene. The Little Prince seems to be referenced everywhere I turn, but I was never read it as a child and I had never really heard of it until one of my friends in high school read it in the original French for an assignment.
In giving up David Foster Wallace, I wanted to read something simple, but still profound. I wanted something short and quick, but with some depth to it still. I found that all in Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. I picked the book up several months ago, when the movie of the same name was getting rave reviews. And with a title like The Reader, how could I resist?
The story was surprising, and completely unexpected. It’s a bizarre and unlikely love story, written through the lens of a very sterile, black-and-white moral compass. Schlink’s writing is modern and terse, without being harsh, but starkly reflective of the German author and his country’s history.
I’m so used to reading stories of the Holocaust from the victims’ perspective that, at first, I was shocked and almost put-off by the novel’s setting in post-war Germany. But it’s funny, in the warped way of things, because the novel attempts to display, as the protagonist says, both “understanding and condemnation” of what average Germans experienced under the Third Reich. And the whole time I was reading, I kept trying to do the same thing: to condemn Hanna for her acts, while at the same time, under the impossibly subtle, beautiful, and philosophical guidance of the author, understand and empathize with her.
This novel was in no way a celebration of the extraordinarily inhuman acts ordinary Germans carried out during World War II, but neither did it elevate Jewish suffering. Instead, Schlink astutely examined the way modern society thinks about things like war and death and collective history. And much as I wanted to villify him, or criticize him, I couldn’t, because I found myself agreeing with him.
When Michael, the narrator and protagonist, examines his love for Hanna after he learns of her crimes, he feels guilty and shameful for having loved a criminal. He visits a concentration camp, hoping the experience will atone, in a way, for the sin of having loved her. But rather than coming away from Struthof feeling repenetent and absolved, he came away feeling even more ashamed. Ashamed that his sadness was a product of morality and not of genuine empathy or regret.
When I think back on the weeks I spent in Bosnia last summer, and the suffering and loss etched in every aspect of Bosnian culture, I realize that it did not upset me the way it upset the other people I was with. It upset me in a clinical way, in a philosophical way. I looked at Bosnia and I thought, “This is upsetting because tragedy and genocide and mass murder and war should be upsetting.” If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I was not upset or affected because something about Bosnian suffering touched me on a personal level; I was upset because I recognized that as the appropriate social response. And much like Michael, something about that response really bothers me. Especially, because under normal circumstances, I am an incredibly sensitive person.
I don’t want to make it seem as though The Reader was simply a dry and academic look at post-war life. It’s not; it was a novel, and a very fine and insightful novel at that. It was an interesting story and if the characters weren’t exactly compelling, they weren’t without merits or believability, either. And though Schlink’s writing was sparse and bare, it was not without emotion or depth.
This was quite a singular novel, able to infuse a really odd love story with philosophy and morality, while avoiding being heavy-handed. It was disturbing, in some ways; humanizing in others. But mostly, The Reader questions modern life and what it means to share a collective history and why we respond to things the way we do.
George Steiner says in his endorsement, “The reviewer’s sole and privileged function is to say as loudly as he is able, ‘Read this’ and ‘Read it again.'” And I think he may be right.