When I first met WG Sebald, we had lunch in the futuristic glass-and-steel Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia.
The German writer, saluted in the seven years since his death in a road accident as one of postwar literature's most original and enduring voices, had set up and led the British Centre for Literary Translation there. Ironic, droll and gently twisted by shades of nuance, Max Sebald's conversation could be as quietly devastating as his prose. We talked for a while, inevitably, about the memory of genocide in Germany, and what could be done about the legacy of Europe's greatest crime.
I asked him whether he would endorse the epoch-making homage of Willy Brandt in December 1970. Then, West Germany's Chancellor fell to his knees in front of the monument to the Jews who fought their Nazi oppressors in the Warsaw Ghetto. Was this act of contrition justified? Max gazed out at the green lawns beyond the glass walls. "If I had been numbered among the victims," he slowly replied, "I should probably have been inclined to accept the gesture." In his second language, the author who surpassed all his non-Jewish peers in the ethical and artistic tact of his evocation of the Holocaust and its aftermath could even turn a conditional tense into a moral act.
Only the victims can grant absolution, or judge attempts to seek it. What role does that leave for the bystanders, onlookers, and above all the inheritors? That question fuels not just Bernhard Schlink's 1995 bestseller The Reader, but the heated debate about its value and virtue that Stephen Daldry's film, released today, has re-ignited. In the German canon of postwar writing, Sebald may well survive as a giant and Schlink as a footnote. The former's The Emigrants and Austerlitz blend fiction, memoir and meditation in exquisitely troubled stories of the afterlife of Holocaust survivors. In such company, Schlink's tale of adolescent love, guilty secrets and actual – and moral – illiteracy can seem a clunking fable that flatters German self-pity more than it sharpens German self-knowledge.
Robert Weninger, professor of German at King's College London, stresses that divisions over The Reader belong in a "larger context of scandalous literary texts" that dates back to the emigré Thomas Mann's quarrel in 1945 with other non-Nazis who opted to shut up and stay in Hitler's Germany. Since then, "the field of literature has been marked by a series of controversies" – from Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, about Pius's XII's inaction over the Holocaust, up to Günter Grass's late-life admission of SS membership. The Reader chose to enter a minefield where explosions frequently occur.
Whatever its limits, Schlink's novel made a big and lasting noise. Taught in German schools, a US sensation after Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club, the Berlin lawyer's story of a 1950s teenager's passion for an ex-Auschwitz guard has for many become the door to discussion of guilt, memory, and the high risks of Holocaust art. Daldry's sober direction, and David Hare's scrupulous screenplay, serve it well. Schlink may, arguably, have betrayed his subject. No one betrayed his book.
Both novel and film turn on the 1960s trial scene in which the revelations and recriminations of women SS guards stand for the painful enlightenment of their nation. The actual Auschwitz trials – in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965, the first time that Germans themselves had judged Nazi crimes – proved a pivotal passage in the disinterment of the past. Many younger authors, such as Grass, attended them. The writer, critic and translator David Constantine argues that "a pretty serious effort was made by writers, if not by politicians, university professors, the judiciary and the unthinking public, to at least acknowledge the enormity of the crimes of 1933-45." Yet "It took until the early 1960s, and the Auschwitz trials, really to make the facts widely known. Peter Weiss's play The Investigation derives from those trials. But Grass, Böll, Lenz, and others... had already begun the long and essentially unfinishable business of dealing with the atrocious past."
As for Max Sebald, the trial's exposures changed his life. The son of a soldier of the Reich, he grew up in rural Bavaria amid uneasy silences. After the Frankfurt hearings he exiled himself, in Manchester and then Norwich. He never lived in Germany again.
What about those who stayed? One persuasive picture of post-1945 German culture presents a 20-year ice age of denial and secrecy slowly thawed by events such as the Frankfurt trials and Brandt's Warsaw visit. In due course, a flood of novels, histories, films and TV series helped forge a younger generation of self-examiners who embrace works such as Schlink's both to learn about the grisly past and discover the reasons behind the years of evasion.
To some critics, though, this awakening to history still feels incomplete. In her book The Language of Silence, the German-born US academic Ernestine Schlant writes off The Reader as yet another chapter in a long chronicle of forgetting. For such sceptics, even the most rebellious of gentile writers avert their eyes from Jewish suffering. To them, the great dissenters – Grass himself, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz and their colleagues in the vanguard Gruppe 47 – mostly managed to sidestep the Holocaust in their critique of Germany's dutiful and authoritarian mindset.
As it turned catastrophe into carnival, Grass's The Tin Drum bewitched readers in Germany and then around the world. Meanwhile, the few more scathing and forensic fictions about the roots and branches of Nazism, such as Wolfgang Koeppen's Death in Rome, went more or less unread. Then, after the culture-shaking rebellions of 1968, rage against the elders let their heirs off the hook of history. "One was not like the parents and was thus released from a heinous past," Schlant writes.
Add the epic left-right battles that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and re-unification in 1990 to the mix, not to mention a renewed attention to German civilian hardship in wartime bombings and postwar expulsions, and the specifics of Nazi genocide risked slipping down the domestic agenda again. Those who share Schlant's perspective felt vindicated when, in 1998, the eminent novelist Martin Walser – one of the radical Gruppe 47 himself – made a notorious speech that seemed to attack Holocaust remembrance as a counter-productive guilt-trip. "Instead of being grateful for the continuous show of our shame," he said, "I start looking away... Auschwitz is not suitable for becoming a routine threat... or a moral club, or just an obligation. What is produced by ritualisation has the quality of lip-service". So acrimonious did the subsequent row become that the President had to step in.
Other analysts see German literature's twisting path towards a full view of the past in a more generous light: as a journey into collective memory that has to pass through home and family before it can ever achieve the big – and terrible – picture. Professor Karen Leeder of Oxford University comments that "One of the things that has happened after 1989, with the need to renegotiate a common German past, is that once political stories were put to one side, family stories have bubbled up to become part of the mainstream critical discussion." Those stories include Grass's novel about the mass death of German refugees at sea in 1945, Crabwalk, as well as books such as Schlink's.
For Leeder, younger writers such as Hans-Ulrich Treichel (author of Lost) or the Anglophone Rachel Seiffert (Booker-shortlisted for The Dark Room) are reaching back through generations for tales that recover shared memory while denying nothing: "They are often making up for, and writing into, the silence of previous generations." Such writers try to find "a usable past that allows these things which have long been true in private memory to exist in the public realm, without becoming part of revisionist tendencies."
David Constantine underlines one side of the – Jewish or gentile – writer's dilemma overlooked in the rush to judge Holocaust writing. Memorably, the philosopher Theodor Adorno decreed: "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric". How can mere words bear such a weight of atrocity? Even the boldest memoirs or novels by survivors – such as Primo Levi's If This Is A Man, or Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness – take an oblique approach, aiming to excavate a small corner of hell. For Constantine, "there are serious writerly, which is to say aesthetic, problems in treating enormities of a vast scale. So much of the discussion, very necessary, was about how to do it. A writer's falling silent in the face of it might be regrettable, but isn't the same as being ignorant of, or not acknowledging, what was done."
The finest Jewish poet to flout Adorno's injunction was Romanian-born Paul Celan, who lost both parents to the genocide and committed suicide in Paris in 1970. As Constantine points out, Celan came to hate his celebrated poem, Todesfuge (with its fatally quotable line, "Death is a master from Germany"), "because its incantatory rhythms give obvious pleasure. That's the problem in a nutshell: art gives pleasure." The Reader does echo this anguished wrangle in its finale. In New York, a camp survivor refuses to bless or forgive Michael and his posthumous bequest from Hanna, seducer and exterminator. In Hare's screenplay, Lena Olin icily spits out the words: "Nothing came out of the camps. Nothing."
But culture abhors a vacuum, even one unspeakable genocide has made. Writers, from Germany and elsewhere, will continue to look for a way into this ultimate nothingness. It may still remain impenetrable – a state hauntingly conjured by Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust memorial at Judenplatz in Vienna. In the centre of the square stands a library of plaster books, their spines – and names – eternally turned to the wall. This story, her sculpture suggests, will forever elude the reader.