The generation battle, in its particular post-Third-Reich incarnation, runs through Bernhard Schlink's work, both his bestselling The Reader and Flights of Love, a collection of short stories loosely arranged around various break-ups and infidelities. Reviewers tend to discuss the books together, partly because Flights of Love develops plots, characters and arguments already present in The Reader, but mostly because The Reader is better, more interesting even in its failures than this sequel. The Reader is a first-person account of a boy's love affair with an illiterate older woman, Hanna, and his subsequent discovery that she had acted as a concentration camp guard in her youth. It has won great praise for its sensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject, and drawn angry criticism for its insensitive portrayal of a nearly impossible subject: a lesson that impossible subjects and heightened sensitivities tend to produce a range of responses. Critics have pointed out that the book's premise wrongly suggests that German brutality stemmed from a kind of lower-class illiteracy, from an absence of culture. Hanna learns the full horror of her involvement only when she learns to read, and begins to absorb the best of bourgeois literature: Keller, Fontane, Heine, Mörike, Kafka, Lenz etc.
LRB 21 March 2002 | PDF Download