Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Truth Is a Woman": Post-Holocaust Narrative, Postmodernism, and the Gender of Fascism in Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Truth Is a Woman": Post-Holocaust Narrative, Postmodernism, and the Gender of Fascism in Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser1

Article excerpt

Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel Der Vorleser has emerged as one of the most popular recent German Vergangenheitsbewältigung texts: texts that attempt to "come to terms with" or - as the deeply problematic German expression suggests -"master" the Nazi past. It has also become one of the most controversial. Initially praised for its ostensible moral subtlety and its exploration of the varieties and degrees of guilt among Täter- and second-generation Germans, Schlink's novel has drawn increasing criticism for its portrayal of second-generation narrator Michael Berg and former concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz as victims - indeed, for what might be seen as exculpatory gestures in the face of Nazi atrocities (Donahue 75-77).

One reason for the novel's overwhelmingly positive reception in the mainstream media and its later rejection by more "serious" academic criticism might be its style: Der Vorleser is, at least on the surface, an easy read. Indeed, it seems too easy a read: in its smoothly accessible "realist" prose, stereotypical scenarios, and power to seduce readers into passively accepting the values and viewpoints of hypnotic narrator Berg, Der Vorleser appears to constitute a classic example of what Roland Barthes has called "the readerly text."2

Yet there is more here than immediately meets the eye, as might be expected from a novel that so overtly announces its thematics of reading, writing, and illiteracy. And, to employ Barthes's terms again, the text's self-reflexivity challenges us to make what at first appears "readerly" about this consumption- and consumer-friendly work - "writerly." Thus viewed, Schlink's novel reveals itself to be a web of heterogeneous tropes, overdetermined signifying fragments, and contradictory impulses that move in multiple directions, belong to different universes of meaning, and articulate competing structures of fear and desire at once. More specifically, the novel's readerly prose serves as a vehicle for the problematics of repression, trauma, and postmodernism, none of which can be considered here apart from questions of gender.

In the following, I will explore this heretofore unanalyzed, yet crucial aspect of Schlink's text: the intersection of its post-Holocaust problematics with its figurai networks and rhetorical strategies, its postmodern affinities, and its strikingly gendered modes of signification. I shall consider the ways in which the novel functions as a signifying system at a level interwoven with, but also distinct from, the level of its narrator; the marks of trauma in its figurai inventory; the modalities of postmodernism with which it resonates (citationality, self-reflexivity the problematization of truth, the concern with the transparency of representation and with the pervasiveness of mediated images); and the cultural imaginary of gender codes, ideologies, and investments it reproduces at the level of strategy and structure (its "noir " plot and conceit of the feminine as a force of abjection and falseness, among others) .31 will take as my focus, and as the link between the spheres I investigate, the novel's allegorical mapping of Germany's "seduction" by fascism-and of fascism itself - onto the figure of a deceptive, dangerous woman. Here, Michael's seduction by Hanna takes the form of male abjection in the face of overwhelming female sexuality and the "feminine" power to erode the male subject position: perversely, the dangers of fascism are figured as a woman in the same terms that fascist discourse itself employs to figure the dangers posed by women or "the feminine." This gendering of fascist duplicity is striking not only for what it says about male anxieties or the misogynistic conflation of the feminine with falsehood. Rather, in its unfolding across an entire array of stereotypical "citations" and polysemie rhetorical gestures, it has profound implications for the task of writing about the Holocaust (with its compelling need for veracity), for postmodern narration and thought (with their rejection of "absolute" access to truth and awareness of their own mediation), and for the problematic ways in which these constellations come together in Schlink's text. …

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