Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Schlink Interview

Bernhard The Reader Schlink gave a fairly interesting interview to the FAZ the other day. No mention of that whole Ilse Koch kerfuffle, by the way. One of the points he does address is misinterpretations of the novel. Schlink comments:

There have been a whole list of crass misinterpretations. As if I thought because Hanna Schmitz is illiterate she isn't guilty. As if I thought you are a moral person as long as you're educated. As if I thought that by learning to read, Hanna Schmitz had understood her guilt and cleared her character. The interesting thing is, these aren't readers' but critics' misinterpretations.

Which I find a little facile - because how on earth does the man know how all his millions of readers understood the book? Not to forget that the author wrote the damn thing and might perhaps have left scope for these interpretations. The interviewer, Andreas Kilb, points out that many of these criticisms came from the USA:

Cynthia Ozick argued that every book about the Holocaust was inescapably a kind of symbolic discourse and every person in it a representative of their nation. Thus Hanna Schmitz can't help standing for all Germans.

Presumably Cynthia Ozick didn't know that part of general knowledge about the Third Reich here is that academics were over-proportionately represented in the mobile killing squads and that Hanna therefore can't be a typical perpetrator. Perhaps she would judge differently now than twelve years ago, when we had far less literature, far fewer films about the Third Reich. In the meantime it goes without saying that the image of the Third Reich is made up of many mosaic pieces. Not every piece has to offer the whole picture.

Well, he's right about the literature on the Third Reich. A colleague commented to me that Schlink's book acted as a kind of watershed, introducing a new approach towards writing about the Holocaust that Böll and Grass would never have taken. And in fact, German-language literature is richer for that. The example that immediately springs to mind is Kevin Vennemann's dense and complex Close to Jedenew, in which a German author reckons with Polish complicity with the Nazis, surely inconceivable twenty years ago. Or to name a title to be published in English in June, Julia Franck's Mittagsfrau (The Blind Side of the Heart), which looks at the devastating decision taken by a Jewish woman living under a false identity to abandon her child at the end of the war, a rather complex moral issue. And for that at least I am grateful to Schlink.

At least now Kate Winslet has her Oscar we may have a little peace on the whole Reader front though.

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