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Illusions of Subtlety: Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser and The Moral Limits of Holocaust Fiction

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Abstract

In presenting the case of SS guard Hanna Schmitz from the perspective of her young lover, Bernhard Schlink’s award-winning Der Vorleser would seem to represent that cutting edge of Holocaust literature interested in depicting per-petrators in a more nuanced fashion. However, this gesture toward complexity – a welcome trend in itself – is not ultimately supported by the text, which insistently obscures Hanna’s role in a series of crimes against humanity. The likeable narrator’s attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust, which is espoused as exemp-lary, proves in the end to rely on a problematic conception of dual victimisation: of Hanna as victim of circumstance, and of himself as victim of Hanna. This essay draws liberally upon reception data in order to discover the manner in which the novel exploits a number of entrenched assumptions on the part of readers. Chief among these are 1) the diffuse sense that confronting the Holocaust presents a demanding burden, rendering present day observers as victims of a sort; and 2) the presupposition that moral sophistication – an attribute with which Der Vorleser has been frequently credited – is tantamount to indecision or undecidability. The real ‘limits’ to Holocaust fiction are thus found to inhere within both the critical climate and the unfulfilled ambitions of the novel.

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