Mr. Schlink tells this story with marvelous directness and simplicity, his writing stripped bare of any of the standard gimmicks of dramatization." — The New York . When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. Oprah Book Club® Selection, February Originally published in Switzerland, and gracefully translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, The Reader is a. the Holocaust. - Schlink was part of this generation of Germans. - the effects of the Holocaust influenced many of his novels. - Ex: The Reader with German guilt.
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The Reader. by Bernhard Schlink. Translated by Carol Brown Citations; Metrics ; Reprints & Permissions · PDF. Click to increase image. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. For year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to more than he could have imagined. Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion.
I was determined to see her and to wait until she came. The clock in the hall struck the quarter hour, then the half hour, then the hour. I tried to follow its soft ticking and to count the nine hundred seconds between one stroke and the next, but I kept losing track. The yard buzzed with the sound of the carpenter's saws, the building echoed with voices or music from one of the apartments, and a door opened and closed. Then I heard slow, heavy, regular footsteps coming up the stairs.
I hoped that whoever he was, he lived on the second floor. If he saw me — how would I explain what I was doing there? But the footsteps didn't stop at the second floor. They kept coming. I stood up. It was Frau Schmitz. In one hand she was carrying a coal scuttle, in the other a box of briquets. She was wearing a uniform jacket and skirt, and I realized that she was a streetcar conductor.
She didn't notice me until she reached the landing — she didn't look annoyed, or surprised, or mocking — none of the things I had feared.
She looked tired. When she put down the coke and was hunting in her jacket pocket for the key, coins fell out onto the floor. I picked them up and gave them to her.
Will you fill them and bring them up? The door's open. The door to the cellar was open, the light was on, and at the bottom of the long cellar stairs I found a bunker made of boards with the door on the latch and a loose padlock hanging from the open bolt.
It was a large space, and the coke was piled all the way up to the ceiling hatch through which it had been poured from the street into the cellar. On one side of the door was a neat stack of briquets; on the other side were the coal scuttles. I don't know what I did wrong. At home I also fetched the coke from the cellar and never had any problems.
But then the coke at home wasn't piled so high. Filling the first scuttle went fine. As I picked up the second scuttle by the handles and tried to shovel the coke up off the floor, the mountain began to move.
From the top little pieces started bouncing down while the larger ones followed more sedately; further down it all began to slide and there was a general rolling and shifting on the floor. Black dust rose in clouds.
I stood there, frightened, as the lumps came down and hit me and soon I was up to my ankles in coke. I got my feet out of the coke, filled the second scuttle, looked for a broom, and when I found it I swept the lumps that had rolled out into the main part of the cellar back into the bunker, latched the door, and carried the two scuttles upstairs.
She had taken off her jacket, loosened her tie and undone the top button, and was sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of milk. She saw me, began to choke with laughter, and then let it out in full-throated peals. She pointed at me and slapped her other hand on the table.
I'll run you a bath and beat the dust out of your clothes. The water ran steaming into the tub. The water was rising quickly and the tub was almost full. I won't look, kid. I turned red, climbed into the tub, and submerged myself. When I came up again she was out on the balcony with my clothes. I heard her beating the shoes against each other and shaking out my pants and sweater. She called down something about coal dust and sawdust, someone called back up to her, and she laughed.
Back in the kitchen, she put my things on the chair. Glancing quickly at me, she said, "Take the shampoo and wash your hair.
I'll bring a towel in a minute," then took something out of the wardrobe, and left the kitchen. I washed myself. The water in the tub was dirty and I ran in some fresh so that I could wash my head and face clean under the flow. Then I lay there, listening to the boiler roar, and feeling the cool air on my face as it came through the half-open kitchen door, and the warm water on my body.
I was comfortable. It was an exciting kind of comfort and I got hard. I didn't look up when she came into the kitchen, until she was standing by the tub. She was holding a big towel in her outstretched arms. From behind, she wrapped me in the towel from head to foot and rubbed me 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. Not yes, but not no either. I turned around. I couldn't see much of her, we were standing too close. But I was overwhelmed by the presence of her naked body. I put my arms around her too. I was afraid: But when we had held each other for a while, when I had smelled her smell and felt her warmth and her strength, everything fell into place.
I explored her body with my hands and mouth, our mouths met, and then she was on top of me, looking into my eyes until I came and closed my eyes tight and tried to control myself and then screamed so loud that she had to cover my mouth with her hand to smother the sound.
I could barely sleep, I was yearning for her, I dreamed of her, thought I could feel her until I realized that I was clutching the pillow or the blanket. My mouth hurt from kissing. I kept getting erections, but I didn't want to masturbate. I wanted to be with her.
Did I fall in love with her as the price for her having gone to bed with me? To this day, after spending the night with a woman, I feel I've been indulged and I must make it up somehow — to her by trying at least to love her, and to the world by facing up to it. One of my few vivid recollections of early childhood has to do with a winter morning when I was four years old. The room I slept in at that time was unheated, and at night and first thing in the morning it was often very cold.
I remember the warm kitchen and the hot stove, a heavy piece of iron equipment in which you could see the fire when you lifted out the plates and rings with a hook, and which always held a basin of hot water ready. My mother had pushed a chair up close to the stove for me to stand on while she washed and dressed me. I remember the wonderful feeling of warmth, and how good it felt to be washed and dressed in this warmth.
I also remember that whenever I thought back to this afterwards, I always wondered why my mother had been spoiling me like this. Was I ill? Had my brothers and sisters been given something I hadn't?
Was there something coming later in the day that was nasty or difficult that I had to get through? Because the woman who didn't yet have a name in my mind had so spoiled me that afternoon, I went back to school the next day. It was also true that I wanted to show off my new manliness. Not that I would ever have talked about it. But I felt strong and superior, and I wanted to show off these feelings to the other kids and the teachers.
Besides, I hadn't talked to her about it but I assumed that being a streetcar conductor she often had to work evenings and nights. How would I see her every day if I had to stay home and wasn't allowed to do anything except my convalescent walks? When I came home from her, my parents and brother and sisters were already eating dinner.
Your mother was worried about you. I said that I'd lost my way, that I'd wanted to walk through the memorial garden in the cemetery to Molkenkur, but wandered around who knows where for a long time and ended up in Nussloch. My older brother snorted contemptuously. There's north and there's south, and the sun rises. It's not his strength he's lacking, it's his brains. He was three years older than me, and better at both.
At a certain point I stopped fighting back and let his attacks dissipate into thin air. Since then he had confined himself to grousing at me.
He set his knife and fork down on his plate, leaned back, and folded his hands in his lap. He said nothing and looked thoughtful, the way he always did when my mother talked to him about the children or the household.
As usual, I wondered whether he was really turning over my mother's question in his mind, or whether he was thinking about work. Maybe he did try to think about my mother's question, but once his mind started going, he could only think about work.
He was a professor of philosophy, and thinking was his life — thinking and reading and writing and teaching. Sometimes I had the feeling that all of us in his family were like pets to him. The dog you take for a walk, the cat you play with and that curls up in your lap, purring, to be stroked — you can be fond of them, you can even need them to a certain extent, and nonetheless the whole thing — downloading pet food, cleaning up the cat box, and trips to the vet — is really too much. Your life is elsewhere.
I wish that we, his family, had been his life. Sometimes I also wished that my grousing brother and my cheeky little sister were different. But that evening I suddenly loved them all.
My little sister. It probably wasn't easy being the youngest of four, and she needed to be cheeky just to hold her own. My older brother. We shared a bedroom, which must be even harder for him than it was for me, and on top of that, since I'd been ill he'd had to let me have the room to myself and sleep on the sofa in the living room.
How could he not nag me? My father. Why should we children be his whole life? We were growing up and soon we'd be adults and out of the house. I felt as if we were sitting all together for the last time around the round table under the five- armed, five-candled brass chandelier, as if we were eating our last meal off the old plates with the green vine-leaf border, as if we would never talk to each other so intimately again. I felt as if I were saying goodbye.
I was still there and already gone.
I was homesick for my mother and father and my brother and sisters, and I longed to be with the woman. My father looked over at me. He nodded. If it gets to be too much for you, you'll just stay home again.
And at the same time I felt I'd just said my final goodbyes. She came home at noon, and I cut my last class every day so as to be waiting for her on the landing outside her apartment.
We showered and made love, and just before half past one I scrambled into my clothes and ran out the door. Lunch was at one-thirty. On Sundays lunch was at noon, but her early shift also started and ended later.
I would have preferred to skip the shower. She was scrupulously clean, she showered every morning, and I liked the smell of perfume, fresh perspiration, and streetcar that she brought with her from work. But I also liked her wet, soapy body; I liked to let her soap me and I liked to soap her, and she taught me not to do it bashfully, but with assurance and possessive thoroughness.
When we made love, too, she took possession of me as a matter of course. Her mouth took mine, her tongue played with my tongue, she told me where to touch her and how, and when she rode me until she came, I was there only because she took pleasure in me and on me.
I don't mean to say that she lacked tenderness and didn't give me pleasure. But she did it for her own playful enjoyment, until I learned to take possession of her too.
That came later. I never completely mastered it. And for a long time I didn't miss it. I was young, and I came quickly, and when I slowly came back alive again afterwards, I liked to have her take possession of me. I would look at her when she was on top of me, her stomach which made a deep crease above her navel, her breasts, the right one the tiniest bit larger than the left, her face and open mouth. She would lean both hands against my chest and throw them up at the last moment, as she gave a toneless sobbing cry that frightened me the first time, and that later I eagerly awaited.
Afterwards we were exhausted. She often fell asleep on top of me. I would listen to the saws in the yard and the loud cries of the workers who operated them and had to shout to make themselves heard. When the saws fell silent, the sound of the traffic echoed faintly in the kitchen. When I heard children calling and playing, I knew that school was out and that it was past one o'clock. The neighbor who came home at lunchtime scattered birdseed on his balcony, and the doves came and cooed.
She had fallen asleep on me and was just waking up. Until then I avoided saying anything to her that required me to choose either the formal or the familiar form of address. She stared. I know your last name, but not your first.
I want to know your first name. What's the matter with. My name is Hanna. What's yours? At that time it was the in thing not to carry your schoolbooks in a bag but under your arm, and when I put them on her kitchen table, my name was on the front. But she hadn't paid any attention to them. And I wished I were with her more often. I've missed too much in the last months while I was ill.
If I still wanted to move up next year I'd have to work like an idiot. I'd also have to be in school right now. And if you don't want to do your work, don't come back. Your work is idiotic? What do you think selling and punching tickets is? With her left hand she opened the little holder with the blocks of tickets, using her left thumb, covered with a rubber thimble, to pull off two tickets, flipped her right hand to get hold of the punch that hung from her wrist, and made two holes.
I was stunned. I'll do my work. I don't know if I'll make it, school only has another six weeks to go. I'll try. But I won't get through it if I can't see you anymore. But then I didn't. Maybe she was right, of course she was right. But she had no right to demand that I do more at school, and make that the condition for our seeing each other again.
I'll be home at five-thirty and you can come. Provided you work first. I didn't understand what was going on. Was she thinking of me? Or of herself? If my schoolwork is idiotic, that makes her work even more so — that's what upset her? But I hadn't ever said that my work or hers was idiotic. Or was it that she didn't want a failure for a lover?
But was I her lover? What was I to her? I dressed, dawdling, and hoped she would say something. But she said nothing.
Then I had all my clothes on and she was still standing there naked, and as I kissed her goodbye, she didn't respond. Is it yearning for past happiness — for I was happy in the weeks that followed, in which I really did work like a lunatic and passed the class, and we made love as if nothing else in the world mattered.
Is it the knowledge of what came later, and that what came out afterwards had been there all along? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily.
Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain? I think back to that time and I see my former self. I wore the well-cut suits which had come down to me from a rich uncle, now dead, along with several pairs of two-tone shoes, black and brown, black and white, suede and calf.
My arms and legs were too long, not for the suits, which my mother had let down for me, but for my own movements. My glasses were a cheap over-the-counter pair and my hair a tangled mop, no matter what I did. In school I was neither good nor bad; I think that many of the teachers didn't really notice me, nor did the students who dominated the class.
I didn't like the way I looked, the way I dressed and moved, what I achieved and what I felt I was worth. But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I'd be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations.
Is that what makes me sad? The eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill?
Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I feel in remembering myself. Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept?
She — I should start calling her Hanna, just as I started calling her Hanna back then — she certainly didn't nourish herself on promises, but was rooted in the here and now. I asked her about her life, and it was as if she rummaged around in a dusty chest to get me the answers.
She had grown up in a German community in Rumania, then come to Berlin at the age of sixteen, taken a job at the Siemens factory, and ended up in the army at twenty-one. Since the end of the war, she had done all manner of jobs to get by. She had been a streetcar conductor for several years; what she liked about the job was the uniform and the constant motion, the changing scenery and the wheels rolling under her feet. But that was all she liked about it. She had no family.
She was thirty-six. She told me all this as if it were not her life but somebody else's, someone she didn't know well and who wasn't important to her.
Things I wanted to know more about had vanished completely from her mind, and she didn't understand why I was interested in what had happened to her parents, whether she had had brothers and sisters, how she had lived in Berlin and what she'd done in the army. I was glad to see Felix Krull end up in the arms of the mother rather than the daughter.
My sister, who was studying German literature, delivered a report at the dinner table about the controversy as to whether Mr. I imagined how our relationship might be in five or ten years. I asked Hanna how she imagined it. She didn't even want to think ahead to Easter, when I wanted to take a bicycle trip with her during the vacation. We could get a room together as mother and son, and spend the whole night together. Strange that this idea and suggesting it were not embarrassing to me.
On a trip with my mother I would have fought to get a room of my own. Having my mother with me when I went to the doctor or to download a new coat or to be picked up by her after a trip seemed to me to be something I had outgrown. If we went somewhere together and we ran into my schoolmates, I was afraid they would think I was a mama's boy. But to be seen with Hanna, who was ten years younger than my mother but could have been my mother, didn't bother me. It made me proud.
When I see a woman of thirty-six today, I find her young. But when I see a boy of fifteen, I see a child. I am amazed at how much confidence Hanna gave me. My success at school got my teachers' attention and assured me of their respect. The girls I met noticed and liked it that I wasn't afraid of them. I felt at ease in my own body. The memory that illuminates and fixes my first meetings with Hanna makes a single blur of the weeks between our first conversation and the end of the school year.
One reason for that is we saw each other so regularly and our meetings always followed the same course. Another is that my days had never been so full and my life had never been so swift and so dense. When I think about the work I did in those weeks, it's as if I had sat down at my desk and stayed there until I had caught up with everything I'd missed during my hepatitis, learned all the vocabulary, read all the texts, worked through all the theorems and memorized the periodic table.
I had already done the reading about the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich while I was in my sickbed. And I remember our meetings in those weeks as one single long meeting. After our conversation, they were always in the afternoon: Dinner was at seven, and at first Hanna forced me to be home on time. But after a while an hour and a half was not enough, and I began to think up excuses to miss dinner.
It all happened because of reading aloud. The day after our conversation, Hanna wanted to know what I was learning in school. I told her about Homer, Cicero, and Hemingway's story about the old man and his battle with the fish and the sea. She wanted to hear what Greek and Latin sounded like, and I read to her from the Odyssey and the speeches against Cataline. So I had to read both, which I did after finishing everything else. By then it was late, and I was tired, and next day I'd forgotten it all and had to start all over again.
I had to read Emilia Galotti to her for half an hour before she took me into the shower and then to bed. Now I enjoyed showering too — the desire I felt when I arrived had got lost as I read aloud to her. Reading a play out loud so that the various characters are more or less recognizable and come to life takes a certain concentration. Lust reasserted itself under the shower. So reading to her, showering with her, making love to her, and lying next to her for a while afterwards — that became the ritual in our meetings.
She was an attentive listener. Her laugh, her sniffs of contempt, and her angry or enthusiastic remarks left no doubt that she was following the action intently, and that she found both Emilia and Luise to be silly little girls.
Her impatience when she sometimes asked me to go on reading seemed to come from the hope that all this imbecility would eventually play itself out. As the days grew longer, I read longer, so that I could be in bed with her in the twilight. When she had fallen asleep lying on me, and the saw in the yard was quiet, and a blackbird was singing as the colors of things in the kitchen dimmed until nothing remained of them but lighter and darker shades of gray, I was completely happy.
Hanna was working the early shift. She rode her bicycle to the streetcar depot at a quarter past four and was on the streetcar to Schwetzingen at four-thirty. On the way out, she'd told me, the streetcar was often empty. It only filled up on the return journey. The second car was empty; Hanna was standing in the first car close to the driver. I debated whether I should sit in the first or the second car, and decided on the second. It promised privacy, a hug, a kiss. But Hanna didn't come.
She must have seen that I had been waiting at the stop and had got on. That's why the streetcar had stopped. But she stayed up with the driver, talking and joking. I could see them. The streetcar passed one stop after another. No one was waiting to get on. The streets were empty. It was not yet sunrise, and under a colorless sky everything lay pale in the pale light: The streetcar was moving slowly; presumably the schedule was based both on stopping times and on the time between each stop, and so the speed of travel had to be slowed down when there were no actual stops.
I was imprisoned in the slow-moving car. At first I sat, then I went and stood on the front platform and tried to impale Hanna with my stare; I wanted her to feel my eyes in her back. After some time she turned around and glanced at me.
Then she went on talking to the driver. The journey continued. Once we'd passed Eppelheim the rails were no longer in the surface of the road, but laid alongside on a graveled embankment.
The car accelerated, with the regular clackety- clack of a train. I knew that this stretch continued through various places and ended up in Schwetzingen. But I felt rejected, exiled from the real world in which people lived and worked and loved. It was as if I were condemned to ride forever in an empty car to nowhere.
Then I saw another stop, a shelter in the middle of open country. I pulled the cord the conductors used to signal the driver to stop or start.
The streetcar stopped. Neither Hanna nor the driver looked back at me when they heard the bell. As I got off, I thought they were looking at me and laughing. But I wasn't sure. Then the streetcar moved on, and I looked after it until it headed down into a dip and disappeared behind a hill.
I was standing between the embankment and the road, there were fields around me, and fruit trees, and further on a nursery with greenhouses.
The air was cool, and filled with the twittering of birds. Above the mountains the pale sky shone pink. The trip on the streetcar had been like a bad dream. If I didn't remember its epilogue so vividly, I would actually be tempted to think of it as a bad dream.
Standing at the streetcar stop, hearing the birds and watching the sun come up was like an awakening. But waking from a bad dream does not necessarily console you. It can also make you fully aware of the horror you just dreamed, and even of the truth residing in that horror. I set off towards home in tears, and couldn't stop crying until I reached Eppelheim.
I walked all the way back. I tried more than once to hitch a ride. When I was halfway there, the streetcar passed me. It was full. I didn't see Hanna. I was waiting for her on the landing outside her apartment at noon, miserable, anxious, and furious. What was going on this morning? I wanted. Getting into the second car when you could see I was in the first. Just to surprise you, because I thought you'd be happy. I got into the second car. Up at four-thirty, and on your vacation too.
She shook her head. How should I know why you choose not to know me? It's your business, not mine. Would you leave now? You knew, you had to know that I only got in the car to be with you.
How can you believe I didn't want to know you? If I didn't, I would not have got on at all. I already told you, what you do is your business, not mine. I sat down on the sofa.
She had treated me badly and I had wanted to call her on it. But I hadn't got through to her. Instead, she was the one who'd attacked me.
And I became uncertain. Could she be right, not objectively, but subjectively? Could she have, must she have misunderstood me? Had I hurt her, unintentionally, against my will, but hurt her anyway? Everything went wrong. I didn't mean to upset you, but it looks. You think it looks like you upset me? You don't have the power to upset me. And will you please go, finally?
I've been working, I want to take a bath, and I want a little peace. When I didn't get up, she shrugged, turned around, ran water into the tub, and took off her clothes. Then I stood up and left. I thought I was leaving for good. But half an hour later I was back at her door.
She let me in, and I said the whole thing was my fault. I had behaved thoughtlessly, inconsiderately, unlovingly. I understood that she was upset. I understood that she wasn't upset because I couldn't upset her. I understood that I couldn't upset her, but that she simply couldn't allow me to behave that way to her.
In the end, I was happy that she admitted I'd hurt her. So she wasn't as unmoved and uninvolved as she'd been making out, after all. Come, I'll bathe you. If she had taken her clothes off because she knew I wouldn't be able to get that out of my head and that it would bring me back. If she had just wanted to win a power game. After we'd made love and were lying next to each other and I told her why I'd got into the second car and not the first, she teased me.
Kid, kid! But its results had meaning. I had not only lost this fight. I had caved in after a short struggle when she threatened to send me away and withhold herself. In the weeks that followed I didn't fight at all.
If she threatened, I instantly and unconditionally surrendered. I took all the blame. I admitted mistakes I hadn't made, intentions I'd never had. Whenever she turned cold and hard, I begged her to be good to me again, to forgive me and love me. Sometimes I had the feeling that she hurt herself when she turned cold and rigid. As if what she was yearning for was the warmth of my apologies, protestations, and entreaties.
Sometimes I thought she just bullied me. But either way, I had no choice. I couldn't talk to her about it. Talking about our fights only led to more fighting. Once or twice I wrote her letters. But she didn't react, and when I asked her about them, she said, "Are you starting that again?
We were never happier than in those weeks of April. As sham as our first fight and indeed all our fights were, everything that enlarged our ritual of reading, showering, making love, and lying beside each other did us good. Besides which, she had trumped herself with her accusation that I hadn't wanted to know her.
When I wanted to be seen with her, she couldn't raise any fundamental objections. So the week after Easter we set off by bike on a four-day trip to Wimpfen, Amorbach, and Miltenberg. I don't remember what I told my parents. That I was doing the trip with my friend Matthias? With a group? That I was going to visit a former classmate? My mother was probably worried, as usual, and my father probably found, as usual, that she should stop worrying.
Hadn't I just passed the class, when nobody thought I could do it? While I was sick, I hadn't spent any of my pocket money. But that wouldn't be enough if I wanted to pay for Hanna as well.
So I offered to sell my stamp collection to the stamp dealer next to the Church of the Holy Spirit. It was the only shop that said on the door that it downloadd collections. The salesman looked through my album and offered me sixty marks. I made him look at my showpiece, a straight-edged Egyptian stamp with a pyramid that was listed in the catalog for four hundred marks. He shrugged. If I cared that much about my collection, maybe I should hang on to it. Was I even allowed to be selling it?
What did my parents say about it?
I tried to bargain. If the stamp with the pyramid wasn't that valuable, I would just keep it. Then he could only give me thirty marks.
So the stamp with the pyramid was valuable after all? In the end I got seventy marks. I felt cheated, but I didn't care.
I was not the only one with itchy feet. To my amazement, Hanna started getting restless days before we left. She went this way and that over what to take, and packed and repacked the saddlebag and rucksack I had got hold of for her.
When I wanted to show her the route I had worked out on the map, she didn't want to look, or even hear about it. You'll have worked it out right anyway, kid. The sun was shining and went on shining for four days. The mornings were cool and then the days warmed up, not too warm for cycling, but warm enough to have picnics. The woods were carpets of green, with yellow green, bright green, bottle green, blue green, and black green daubs, flecks, and patches.
In the flatlands along the Rhine, the first fruit trees were already in bloom. In Odenwald the first forsythias were out.
Often we could ride side by side. Then we pointed out to each other the things we saw: When we changed directions or roads, I had to ride ahead; she didn't want to have to bother with such things.
Otherwise, when the traffic was too heavy, she sometimes rode behind me and sometimes vice versa. Her bike had covered spokes, pedals, and gears, and she wore a blue dress with a big skirt that fluttered in her wake.
It took me some time to stop worrying that the skirt would get caught in the spokes or the gears and she would fall off. After that, I liked watching her ride ahead of me. How I had looked forward to the nights. I had imagined that we would make love, go to sleep, wake up, make love again, go to sleep again, wake up again and so on, night after night. But the only time I woke up again was the first night. She lay with her back to me, I leaned over her and kissed her, and she turned on her back, took me into her and held me in her arms.
The other nights we slept right through, worn out by the cycling, the sun, and the wind. We made love in the mornings. Hanna didn't just let me be in charge of choosing our direction and the roads to take.
I was the one who picked out the inns where we spent the nights, registered us as mother and son while she just signed her name, and selected our food from the menu for both of us. I had woken up early, dressed quietly, and crept out of the room. I wanted to bring up breakfast and also see if I could find a flower shop open where I could get a rose for Hanna. I had left a note on the night table. Bringing breakfast, be right back," or words to that effect.
When I returned, she was standing in the room, trembling with rage and white-faced. My lip split and I tasted blood. It didn't hurt. I was horrorstruck. She swung again. But she didn't hit me. She let her arm fall, dropped the belt, and burst into tears. I had never seen her cry. Her face lost all its shape. Wide-open eyes, wide-open mouth, eyelids swollen after the first tears, red blotches on her cheeks and neck.
Her mouth was making croaking, throaty sounds like the toneless cry when we made love. She stood there looking at me through her tears. I should have taken her in my arms. But I couldn't. I didn't know what to do. At home none of us cried like that. We didn't hit, not even with our hands, let alone a leather belt.
We talked. But what was I supposed to say now? She took two steps towards me, beat her fists against me, then clung to me. Now I could hold her. Her shoulders trembled, she knocked her forehead against my chest. Then she gave a deep sigh and snuggled into my arms. Why did you get so angry? You can't just leave like that. The note was no longer on the night table where I had left it. I got to my feet, and searched next to the night table, and underneath, and under the bed and in it.
I couldn't find it. I wrote you a note saying I was going to get breakfast and I'd be right back. I don't see any note. But I don't see any note. Had a gust of wind come and taken the note and carried it away to God knows where? Had it all been a misunderstanding, her fury, my split lip, her wounded face, my helplessness? Should I have gone on searching, for the note, for the cause of Hanna's fury, for the source of my helplessness? Again, Hanna followed everything eagerly. She liked the scattering of poems.
She liked the disguises, the mix-ups, the complications and pursuits which the hero gets tangled up in in Italy. At the same time, she held it against him that he's a good-for- nothing who doesn't achieve anything, can't do anything, and doesn't want to besides. She was torn in all directions; hours after I stopped reading, she was still coming up with questions.
The fight made our relationship more intimate. I had seen her crying. The Hanna who could cry was closer to me than the Hanna who was only strong. She began to show a soft side that I had never seen before. She kept looking at my split lip, until it healed, and stroking it gently.
We made love a different way. For a long time I had abandoned myself to her and her power of possession. Then I had also learned to take possession of her.
On this trip and afterwards, we no longer merely took possession of each other. I have a poem that I wrote back them. As poetry, it's worthless. But I can also see how close we were at the time. Here is the poem: I can't recall where my parents and my older brother and sister were going.
The problem was my little sister. She was supposed to go and stay with a friend's family.
But if I was going to be at home, she wanted to be at home as well. My parents didn't want that. So I was supposed to go and stay with a friend too. As I look back, I find it remarkable that my parents were willing to leave me, a fifteen-year- old, at home alone for a week.
Had they noticed the independence that had been growing in me since I met Hanna? Or had they simply registered the fact that I had passed the class despite the months of illness and decided that I was more responsible and trustworthy than I had shown myself to be until then? Nor do I remember being called on to explain the many hours I spent at Hanna' s. My parents apparently believed that, now that I was healthy again, I wanted to be with my friends as much as possible, whether studying or just enjoying our free time.
Besides, when parents have a pack of four children, their attention cannot cover everything, and tends to focus on whichever one is causing the most problems at the moment. I had caused problems for long enough; my parents were relieved that I was healthy and would be moving up into the next class. When I asked my little sister what her price was for going to stay with her friend while I stayed home, she demanded jeans — we called them blue jeans back then, or studded pants — and a Nicki, which was a velour sweater.
That made sense. Jeans were still something special at that time, they were chic, and they promised liberation from herringbone suits and big- flowered dresses. Just as I had to wear my uncle's things, my little sister had to wear her big sister's.
But I had no money. It was astonishingly easy. I tried on various jeans, took a pair her size with me into the fitting room, and carried them out of the store against my stomach under my wide suit pants. The sweater I stole from the big main department store.
My little sister and I went in one day and strolled from stand to stand in the fashion department until we found the right stand and the right sweater. Next day I marched quickly through the department, seized the sweater, hid it under my suit jacket, and was outside again.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink Synopsis: Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.
When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
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