The success of Bernhard Schlink's novel, The Reader, has proved literally inexorable: it could not be prayed away, fervently though a coterie composed of those with a certain sense of smell wished it consigned to oblivion, if never to the bonfire. To burn such books is to put them in better company than they deserve; but to go along with their many admirers is to subscribe to the virtues of vulgarity and its daimon, smirking fame. Almost ten years ago, when the novel was first pub-lished in English, I set out, in an essay, re-printed in The Benefits of Doubt, my view of the merits imputed to the book by various luminaries, of whom Lady Antonia Fraser, A.S. Byatt, George Steiner, Ruth Rendell and Neal Ascherson carried the greatest candle-power.
For those who had better things to do than discover how trash can be dressed as art, or "mercy" (Ascherson's contributory term), let me rehearse the plot before considering the film version, which has already been acclaimed as a "masterpiece" by some conspicuously capitalised reviewers. The story's first-person narrator is the son of a lawyer (Schlink himself is of the same profession), growing up in post-war West Germany. At 15, young Michael is taken ill, on the way to school, outside some low-cost housing. His vomit is sluiced away by a sympathetic woman called Hanna, who calls him "Kid" and, when she sees him crying, takes him in her arms. After the youth recovers from his hepatitis, he goes to thank his benefactress with flowers.
Having offered to walk him home, she says that she has to change her clothes, thus affording him a furtive sight of her upper leg while changing her stockings. As soon as she intercepts his curious look, he flees. But, of course, he comes back and then has some comic difficulties when recruited to refill her coal-scuttle. He gets so dirty that - guess what! - he has to have a bath in her proletarian tub. Once he is clean, Hanna arrives with a towel and says "Come" as she wraps him in it "from head to foot" (no cliché is spurned) and rubs him dry. Then: "...she let the towel fall to the floor. I didn't dare move. She came so close to me that I could feel her breasts against my back and her stomach against my behind. She was naked too. She put her arms around me, one hand on my chest and the other on my erection.
‘That's why you're here!'"