Michael Berg is fifteen years old when he suddenly becomes ill with hepatitis. On his way home from school, he is leaning against a building on Bahnhofstrasse vomiting when a woman grabs his arm and runs the nearby tap. He begins to cry, so the woman walks him home. Michael is bedridden for weeks, and when he is well enough to go out, his mother sends him to the woman’s home with flowers to thank her for aiding Michael. He does not know the woman’s name, so a neighbor has to point him to Frau Schmitz’s apartment on the third floor. Her apartment is spare, and inside, she is ironing in a sleeveless smock with her hair tied back in a clip. Michael watches her slow, deliberate movements. When it is time for Michael to leave, Frau Schmitz tells him that she will walk with him, so he waits for her out on the stairs while she changes her clothes. But the door is slightly ajar, and Michael watches her change. Somehow she senses him watching and she glances at him. Michael is embarrassed, so he runs down the stairs into the street. Walking home, Michael is ashamed because he was not able to have more self-control.
Michael is still not well enough to return to school and his days are filled with fantasies. One week later, he finds himself again at Frau Schmitz’s apartment. She is not home, and he waits more than an hour for her to return from her work as a streetcar conductor. She invites him inside and sends him to fetch coal from the cellar. Michael makes a mess of himself with the coal, so Frau Schmitz offers to run him a bath. Michael becomes aroused and while Frau Schmitz is drying him off, she touches him. The two make love in the kitchen and Michael soon falls in love with Frau Schmitz. Meanwhile, he demands to his parents that he be allowed to return to school. His father submits, but Michael looks forward to future rendezvous with Frau Schmitz.
Michael begins cutting classes to meet Frau Schmitz at her apartment where the two shower and make love. Michael eventually learns that her name is Hanna. During their talk, Hanna discerns that Michael has been cutting classes to see her and she becomes irate; she insists that he attend school if he wants to keep seeing her. Michael cannot bear to be without Hanna, so during the next several weeks, he works hard to pass his classes. One evening, Michael tells Hanna that he must catch up on some of his reading and Hanna asks him to read aloud to her, telling him that he has a nice voice and that she would rather hear him read than read the books herself. From then on, Michael happily reads aloud to her.
Easter vacation arrives, and Michael arranges a bicycling trip for the two. She allows Michael to make all the arrangements. One morning, Michael leaves a note for Hanna before he heads out to get breakfast and when he returns, she is in a rage, claiming that she never saw the note. Having witnessed Hanna’s vulnerability, Michael thinks that their relationship has moved into another realm. Michael invites Hanna to his home during the last week of vacation while his parents are away, and in his father’s study, Hanna gently touches all the books that line the shelves.
That summer, Michael and Hanna continue their routine of bathing, making love, reading, and lying next to each other in bed. But at school, Michael meets new friends and starts hanging out with his classmates at the nearby swimming pool. Michael feels he is betraying Hanna by never revealing their relationship to his friends, but he enjoys the mystery that he creates by either leaving early or arriving late at the pool to accommodate Hanna’s schedule. Later in the summer, Hanna is irritable and she sends Michael out to see his friends. She shows up at the pool, but Michael does not approach her. He looks away for a moment, and in that moment, Hanna vanishes.
The next day, Hanna is not home. Michael learns that she has moved out and quit her job. Michael is sick with guilt so he avoids walking past Hanna’s old apartment building. Slowly, he stops thinking of Hanna, and their relationship becomes a static memory. But during his university years, Michael is not much moved by anything: his classes, his friends, his romantic relationships. He exists in a happy, dispassionate blur....
(The entire section is 1736 words.)