Bernhard Schlink Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernhard Schlink 1944-

German novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Schlink's career through 2002.

A respected German jurist, legal scholar, and best-selling crime writer in his native country, Schlink captured international attention with his novel Der Vorleser (1995; The Reader), whose English translation was featured as an Oprah Book Club selection in 1999. A more serious literary work than his popular mysteries, The Reader reflects Schlink's preoccupation with postwar German history and, in particular, the dark legacy of the Holocaust among “second generation” Germans. Schlink's collection of short stories, Liebesfluchten (2001; Flights of Love), similarly explores the complex moral and psychological tensions that shape German self-identity and national consciousness after the horrors of the Nazi era, the betrayals of the Cold War, and the difficult process of reunification.

Biographical Information

Schlink was born on July 6, 1944, in Grossdornberg, Bielefeld, Germany. He earned a law degree at Ruprech Karls University, Heidelberg, in 1975. In 1981 he graduated from Albert Ludwigs University, where he received the privatdozent, the German equivalent of a doctoral degree. Schlink was a professor of law at the University of Bonn from 1982 to 1991, later teaching at the University of Frankfurt am Main from 1991 to 1992. Since January 1992, he has served as a professor of constitutional law at Humboldt University in Berlin. He has also worked as a legal consultant and been a regular visiting professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. A member of the German bar, Schlink was appointed as a justice of the Constitutional Court at Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, in 1988. Travelling regularly, he has conducted student seminars—both in German and English—at several international universities. In 1998 Schlink was awarded the Boston Book Review Fisk Fiction Prize for The Reader.

Major Works

Schlink's first work to be published in English translation, The Reader, revolves around the problematic relationship between a teenager named Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, an enigmatic streetcar conductor more than twice his age. The first third of the novel, which is set in a small German town during the late 1950s, recounts their strange and passionate secret encounters, during which they bathe and make love, while Michael reads to Hanna from the literary masterpieces he is assigned to read at school. Their yearlong affair is abruptly ended when Hanna disappears without explanation, leaving Michael bolstered with newfound self-confidence as well as a sense of guilt over her departure. The second third of the novel takes place seven years later when Michael, now a law student, encounters Hanna in court, where she is among a group of female Nazi guards on trial for committing wartime atrocities against Jewish concentration-camp prisoners. During the trial, Michael realizes that Hanna is illiterate, a fact that she conceals out of pride and shame, but which helps to explain her voluntary enlistment in the Nazi military and, if revealed, could aid her legal defense. However, caught in a moral dilemma that causes him to reflect on Germany's collective guilt and the responsibility of individuals, Michael does nothing with this information and Hanna is sent to prison. In the final third of the novel, Michael resumes his life, but is consumed with an emotional numbness and finds himself unable to sustain any satisfying relationships or to reconcile himself to the relativism of the legal profession. Years later, Michael decides to make tape recordings of himself reading books, which he sends, unaccompanied by letters, to Hanna in prison. Hanna eventually sends him a thankful reply, indicating that she has learned to read and write. In the novel's conclusion, Hanna is granted early release, but, the day before Michael arrives to pick her up, she hangs herself. Michael notices that Hanna has amassed a small library of Holocaust literature in her cell and realizes that, presumably, her newly gained literacy has been used to understand the horrifying implications of her Nazi collaboration.

Schlink followed The Reader with Flights of Love, a volume of seven short stories nominally grouped around the theme of love but mainly concerned with unsavory aspects of obsession, conflicts of conscience, and infidelity. In “Das Mädchen mit der Eidechse” (“Girl with Lizard”), a young law student is preoccupied with a mysterious painting. He soon discovers that the painting was produced by a well-known Jewish artist and was stolen by his father, a former Nazi, during the German invasion of Strasbourg, leaving the son to grapple with issues of guilt and complicity. Another story, “Beschneidung” (“The Circumcision”), revolves around the strained relationship between an American Jewish woman—a descendant of Holocaust survivors—and a German law student who, after facing damning criticism of his German heritage, undergoes circumcision in a futile effort to placate the woman and her disapproving family. “Der Seitensprung” (“A Little Fling”) involves a man from West Germany and his friendship with a couple from the East, which disintegrates after the fall of the Berlin Wall, revealing Cold War political betrayals between the friends. In “Der Andere” (“The Other Man”), a widower learns that his late wife has been unfaithful and, in an effort to understand the relationship, he writes to her former lover in the guise of his deceased wife. In “Zuckererbsen” (“Sugar Peas”), a successful German architect and artist is unfaithful to his wife and two lovers and, after he is accidentally handicapped, must atone for his duplicity by relinquishing his work and fortune to his scornful lovers, who have unified to take their revenge.

Although The Reader and Flights of Love are his only two fictional works to receive English translation, Schlink began his literary career in the 1980s with Selbs Justiz (1987), the first in a trilogy of German-language crime novels that includes Selbs Betrug (1992) and Selbs Mord (2001). Selb, the protagonist of each work in the series, is a former Nazi prosecutor turned private detective whose investigations are set against the historical background of postwar Germany and the moral complexities of the Holocaust and reconstruction. In Selbs Justiz, Selb learns of his unwitting role in the use of Jewish slave labor and several unjust executions during the war. In the tradition of American pulp detective fiction, Selb lives dangerously and exhibits a weakness for cigarettes, alcohol, and female companionship. The punning titles of this series play on the German word “selb,” which means “self,” and each novel draws attention to the German dilemma of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, or coming to terms with the past. In Die gordische Schleife (1988), another of Schlink's crime thrillers, the protagonist, a lawyer named Georg Schlink, discovers his complicity in an industrial espionage scheme and struggles to understand the true identity of those around him and, significantly, his own identity. Schlink has also published several nonfiction works regarding German law including Abwägung im Verfassungsrecht (1976) and Die Amtshilfe: ein Beitrag zu einer Lehre von der Gewaltenteilung in der Verwaltung (1982) as well as co-editing Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis (2000), a collection of constitutional theory from the Weimar period.

Critical Reception

Schlink has earned a wide audience in Germany with his popular mysteries, and the publication of The Reader has brought him international fame and recognition as one of Germany's finest contemporary authors. The German newspaper Der Spiegel has even hailed The Reader as one of the greatest German literary works since Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. The English translation of Schlink's novel, buoyed by the endorsement of American talk show host Oprah Winfrey's popular book club, has garnered enthusiastic reviews in the United States, with critics praising Schlink's scrupulous, earnest prose and his powerful examination of the moral ambiguities facing postwar Germans. Though some reviewers have regarded the novel as an unflinching national allegory, others have found serious flaws in its implicit suggestion that Hanna's illiteracy, a point of readerly sympathy, accounts for her poor life choices and, ultimately, her barbaric wartime deeds. Several commentators have noted that Germany boasted one of the highest literacy rates in Europe and many top Nazi officers were highly educated and eminently cultured, thus debunking any notion that the Holocaust was the work of unsophisticated, uneducated German dupes. In addition, some critics have found the novel's moral center to be so ambiguous and equivocal that no serious conclusions about the culpability, or innocence, of individual Germans can be drawn from the work, thus trivializing Holocaust guilt altogether. Most reviewers, however, have commended Schlink's method of raising difficult questions and allowing his readers to draw their own ethical conclusions. Flights of Love, though treated by many as a companion to The Reader, has received mixed critical assessments. While some critics have approved of Schlink's minimalist style and his investigations into the influence of modern German history on individual lives and relationships, others have found his stories to be emotionally insubstantial, unconvincing, and artlessly didactic.