Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary
As the most recognized Hitler scholar in the country, Gladney has tried to hide the fact that he does not know the German language: he cannot speak, read, or understand even the simplest words or the most rudimentary sentences in German. Even his most inexperienced colleagues in the department know some German, and many of them are “reasonably conversant.”
Every Hitler studies major at College-on-the-Hill is required to study German for at least one year. Gladney’s failure makes him feel as if he is “living on the edge of a landscape of vast shame.”
Hitler even appeared to struggle with how best to express himself in his autobiography, so Gladney is not surprised that his efforts to learn the “fleshy, warped, spit-spraying, purplish and cruel” language are torturous. He tried to learn it once, but the rules, words, and syntax defeated him. What he knew he had to speak got stuck in the back of his tongue and would not come out of his mouth. Now Gladney is determined to try again to learn German.
He begins in mid-October and he knows his lessons must be kept secret because he is a renowned Hitler scholar and an imposing, recognizable physical presence. Siskind tells him about one of his fellow boarders who might be willing to teach Gladney what he desperately needs to learn.
Howard Dunlop is a bland man in his fifties, a former chiropractor who learned to speak German at some time in his past. Gladney does not ask about either circumstance. The lessons take place in Dunlop’s small, dark room; when Dunlop switches from speaking English to speaking German, it sounds to Gladney as if some kind of cord in the man’s larynx has been twisted or as if the man were somehow possessed.
Gladney takes notes and the hour passes quickly. Dunlop “manages a scant shrug” when Gladney asks him to keep silent about their lessons. On his way out of the decrepit building, he invites Siskind home for dinner.
After donning his corduroy jacket and telling his landlord about his leaky faucet, Siskind asks Gladney why he is so interested in learning German now. Next spring College-on-the-Hill will host an international conference for three days; actual Germans will be attending, so Gladney is motivated.
Siskind is fascinated by the mundane things he sees at the Gladney house. Denise is smashing trash in the compactor; Heinrich is having an inane telephone conversation; Babette, soaked with sweat, has just returned from her exercise; and Steffie insists that all water should be boiled, although Babette is certain that is just the most recent in a long list of things the government thinks might would be safer. Wilder arrives and the family can eat.