I’ve spent the last several weeks house-sitting in the Caribbean, and in packing for the trip, I grossly underestimated the amount of reading material I would require. Fortunately, the home was equipped with a small but well-appointed library, in which I discovered several gems. The most carats, however, were undeniably found in The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.
Plenty has already been said about this book, which was a bestseller in the U.S. and in Europe. It won a slew of literary prizes in the mid-90s when it was published. Oprah co-opted it for her Book Club. There was even a film about it. Still, I’d never heard of it. So imagine my pleasure at finding it tucked high on a shelf. Such discoveries feel like uncharted territory, even if they aren’t.
Schlink’s prose is…aerodynamic. By which I mean it is understated, simple, and utterly precise. He doesn’t allow his characters to wallow in existential anguish on the page; their inner turmoil is made evident through their sometimes confounding actions. There are no curlicues. No ormolu. And, normally, I’m a fan of literary ormolu (Nabokov, anyone?). So (I thought) I was more compelled by the mystery at the heart of Schlink’s plot, rather than by the writing. But when I turned the last page, I was astonished by how my guts had slithered out all over the floor.
Here’s how it happened: the sentences are scalpels. But, the language isn’t distilled or truncated in a Hemingway-ish kind of way. Schlink doesn’t exclude words, he selects them. As a result, the prose is spare but elegant, like starlight.
I once watched a documentary about Toni Morrison and she said something that has stuck with me. (Well, the gist of it has stuck with me; the exact words haven’t.) I paraphrase: writing has more impact when it is done in a “quiet way.” By which I understood that when, as a writer, your aim is to grab a fistful of your reader’s guts and tear them right out of his or her abdominal cavity, it must be done in such a way that the reader doesn’t notice — otherwise they’ll resist. Using a lot of flourish and overwrought language is a dead giveaway that you’re trying to get some kind of big emotional reaction.
Schlink understands and employs this same approach. The Reader has a lot of teach me as a writer. And it was pure pleasure to read.