The Reader

101299The Reader has garnished my shelves now for about three years and I have finally gotten a chance to enjoy it.  If anything it’s made me want to review all the unread books on my shelves and to get cracking on them.  This novel has been talked about here and there over the years but I’ve never heard any of my book buddies talk about it.  I feel it’s a hidden jewel that everybody should try to possess.

Michael Berg becomes ill one day on his way home from school when Hanna picks him up and cleans him off.  She is twice his age and he is only fifteen years old.  Michael continues to go back to visit Hanna and they carry on a love affair for a while.  As time goes on, the complexities of Hanna start to show, but Michael is virtually incapable of any analysis of this mysterious woman and her ways, who awakens his sexuality, his senses, as he becomes a man.

The novel is told in first person which makes it personal, as if a friend is telling his story.  The narrator is a very reliable source because he’s very honest about some very personal private emotions that sometimes aren’t too flattering.  The Reader is erotic, melancholic, hopeful, and infuriating.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that put me through so many profound emotions.  At times I felt like a voyeur.  Schlink was a master at writing this story because it contains all the aspects of what’s needed to make a perfectly balanced.  Nothing is done for sensationalism.  Every scene has its reason for existing.

Schlink also did an excellent job exploring how the generation of World War II born during or right after the war must have felt and how the collective conscience tries to adapt.  The guilt was terribly heavy and doubt was looming over friends but especially family – wondering to what extent they had participated in the war or to what degree did their silence cost lives.  It’s terrifying having had to face such heavy actions.  This theme is carried right through the book when Michael deals with different characters, his father included.

The Reader was translated into 37 languages and won a few awards including the Hans Fallada Prize (awarded every two years to a young author from the German speaking world since 1981) in 1988, while being the first German book to top the The New York Times bestselling books list.  The film adaptation lead to Kate Winslet winning an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz.  Bernhard Schlink has written many books including non-fiction and crime novels.  He was born in Bethel, Germany in 1944 although he was brought up in Heidelberg and worked as a professor of law at the University of Berlin and later became a judge.  The Reader was his first novel that was translated into English in 1997.  Watch the link below to find out more about how and why he wrote The Reader.  He’s a very interesting speaker.

Title: The Reader

Genre:  Historical Fiction/German literature/World War II Holocaust

Published:  1995 – 1997 translated to English

Edition:  Vintage International

Pages:  218

Language:  English

My rating:  * * * * 1/2


34. The Fountainhead

On a rainy cool day twenty-two years ago, I walked to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore  on the left bank of Paris.  I had two hours to kill before catching my train back to Normandy.  I didn’t have much money on me, but I was determined to find a treasure since I was desperate to read in English.  I was learning French intensively at the Sorbonne and my brain desired nothing more than an English break.

Combing the shelves for something good wasn’t easy because there are so many goodies there, but since I was broke my choice was limited  to a really cheap book.  What did I run across?  A dried water-logged version of The Fountainhead for 2 francs.  I had only heard of this book but hadn’t had the chance to read it at university.  So, for 2 francs I figured I had nothing to lose. It’s was a steal!

I began reading it on the train and found myself immediately engrossed  in this story of Howard Roark, passionate, arrogant, driven architect who’s been thrown out of architecture school.  I was glued all weekend to this book that I found fascinating and intriguing.  I enjoyed immensely the architectural descriptions and the complexity of the story.  Now I realize I really loved this book probably because I was young when I read it.  Who wouldn’t be inspired by such a character; who is self-assured and inspired to build to perfection, no matter who doesn’t like it.

Now it’s twenty-two years later and I’m re-reading The Fountainhead with my book club.  I read it in four days just like the first time but not with the same enthusiasm.  The constant preachy theme of Ayn Rand’s unrealistic philosophy of objectivism was an omnipresent whisper throughout the novel.  Objectivism can best be described as “an uncompromising  defense of self-interest as the engine of progress.”(back cover of the Penguin Classics edition of The Fountainhead)  After researching the philosophy of Rand a bit closer I discovered that objectivism can be broken down into five branches: reality, reason, self-interest, capitalism, and romantic realism.  Did this discovery make me understand and believe in her philosophy more?  Absolutely not.  Rand stated that man’s “highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness, and that he must not force other people, nor accept their right to force him, that each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.”  Blah, blah, blah…  This is the principle philosophy in all of her books and essays including the well-known Atlas Shrugged, which is a big whopping 1200 pages(surely a lot more of the same) and Anthem, which examines a dystopian world in the future where individuals don’t have names, values, or independence.  Other work by Ayn Rand include The Virtue of Selfishness, We the Living, Capitalism:  The Unknown, and The Romantic Manifesto.

As I read along diligently, I marvelled at the quality of writing and the intricacy of the story, since English was not Rand’s maternal language.  The names of the characters to the descriptions of life, expressions, and so forth are like a step back in time.  The novel is divided into four parts named after the principal characters beginning with Peter Keating, Ellsworth M. Toohey, then Gail Wynand, and finally Howard Roark.  The amazing parade of secondary characters is unbelievable but adds to the quality of the story.  If you go on there is a book discussion for The Fountainhead:  Best character in The Fountainhead and why?  Difficult.  Ellsworth M. Toohey is an amazing antagonist – manipulative, cold, calculating, with a pertinacious cruelty; where Howard Roark is a hard-working, knowledgeable, self-confident, arrogant, perfectionist architect.  You can’t help rooting for Roark and hoping for the violent death of Toohey.  Needless to say, all the characters are low down and despicable!  I have never read a book like that before.

All in all, this is a must read.  I don’t agree with Rand’s philosophy at all but it’s an intriguing, well-written story on capitalism and how it can go wrong (like we don’t already know) and that was written over sixty years ago.  When I first rated it on Goodreads I gave it five stars but I’ve decided to take off a star because of the philosophy even though I know this book wouldn’t be what it is without it.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-American author, playwright, and screenwriter.  In 1926, she came to the United States where she worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and produced a play on Broadway.  Her first novel The Fountainhead got her noticed but Atlas Shrugged is her best-known novel.  She was largely ignored in the literary world because of her philosophy of objectivism.  In her early life, Rand’s father was a pharmacist in Saint Petersburg and his shop was confiscated by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.  Her family then fled to Crimea.  Rand was twelve years old at the time and that incident no doubt contributed to her development of objectivism.  Check out the video below of Rand ardently defending her philosophy to Mike Wallace!