Bernhard Schlink Essay - Critical Essays

Schlink, Bernhard


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.

Principal Works

Abwägung im Verfassungsrecht (nonfiction) 1976

Die Amtshilfe: ein Beitrag zu einer Lehre von der Gewaltenteilung in der Verwaltung (nonfiction) 1982

Selbs Justiz [with Walter Popp] (novel) 1987

Die gordische Schleife (novel) 1988

Selbs Betrug (novel) 1992

Der Vorleser [The Reader] (novel) 1995

Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis [editor; with Arthur J. Jacobson] (criticism) 2000

Liebesfluchten [Flights of Love] (short stories) 2001

Selbs Mord (novel) 2001


Ulf Zimmerman (review date autumn 1996)

SOURCE: Zimmerman, Ulf. Review of Der Vorleser, by Bernhard Schlink. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 951.

[In the following review, Zimmerman praises Schlink's characterization in Der Vorleser, calling the novel “powerful and poignant.”]

Bernhard Schlink has made a reputation for himself as a master of mysteries grounded in the realities of past and present Germany. In Der Vorleser (The Reader) too there is a pivotal element of mystery, but it is subordinated to the profounder dilemmas of living German history.

The story is that of the fifteen-year-old Michael, who, in the late 1950s, is taken in by...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Carole Angier (review date 25 October 1997)

SOURCE: Angier, Carole. “Finding Room for Understanding.” Spectator 279, no. 8830 (25 October 1997): 54-5.

[In the following review, Angier asserts that The Reader offers an interesting and engaging portrayal of post-World War II “German guilt.”]

At first this seems a simple, intriguing little tale. But be warned. It does to you what history does to its characters: before you know where you are, you are faced with the most extreme, unanswerable questions, which you have to decide.

At 15 the narrator, a boy living in a postwar German town, falls in love with a 36-year-old woman. Their meetings are always the same: they shower, he reads...

(The entire section is 925 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 30 October 1997)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Thoughts about Hanna.” London Review of Books 19, no. 21 (30 October 1997): 22-3.

[In the following review, Annan compliments the moral ambiguousness of the character of Michael in The Reader, noting the work's “virtuoso passages of evocation.”]

Last year in Bonn in the brand-new Museum of Modern History (Haus der Geschichte) I watched a video about concentration camps. A row of female guards captured by the Allies stood in line, middle-aged and grim. Then a younger one spoke straight to camera. She was blonde and dishevelled; she said her name, her age—24—and that she had been at Belsen two months. She looked terrified. I...

(The entire section is 2360 words.)

Bryan Cheyette (review date 28 November 1997)

SOURCE: Cheyette, Bryan. “The Past as Palimpsest.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4939 (28 November 1997): 23.

[In the following review, Cheyette offers a generally positive assessment of The Reader, but asserts that the novel's evocation of Jewish victimhood is inadequate.]

At one point in The Reader, the book's narrator, Michael Berg, fears that he has descended into platitude. Berg, at the age of sixteen, has fallen in love with Hanna Schmitz, a woman twenty years his senior. The sentimental version of boyish sexual awakening (sometimes with an older woman) is a staple of Hollywood cinema, though it also informs much serious nineteenth-century...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Toby Mundy (review date 9 January 1998)

SOURCE: Mundy, Toby. “The Terrible Secret of the Older Woman.” New Statesman 127, no. 4637 (9 January 1998): 44.

[In the following review, Mundy lauds Schlink's depiction of the German consciousness in The Reader, noting that the novel “reminds us of the ghostly immanence of the Nazi past in every aspect of postwar Germany.”]

“If only it were all so simple!”, Solzhenitsyn once wrote. “If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Eva Hoffman (review date 23 March 1998)

SOURCE: Hoffman, Eva. “The Uses of Illiteracy.” New Republic 218, no. 12 (23 March 1998): 33-6.

[In the following review, Hoffman praises Schlink's narrative in The Reader, but cites shortcomings in Schlink's study of Hanna's subjective states and the novel's suggestion that literacy engenders moral cultivation.]

Several years ago I was asked to participate in a public discussion with a German author who had written a memoir about the anguish and the guilt of growing up as a daughter of a minor Nazi functionary. I spent some time wondering whether I could work up the requisite sympathy for her plight; and I came to the conclusion that sympathy was warranted....

(The entire section is 3508 words.)

D. J. Enright (review date 26 March 1998)

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Modern Love.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 5 (26 March 1998): 4-5.

[In the following review, Enright concludes that The Reader is a deeply troubling book in which the agonizing moral dilemmas of the Holocaust are revisited and left unresolved.]

Rarely can a novel of this modest size have made such demands on its readers. The more slowly and carefully you follow the narrative [in The Reader], the more tortuous, unsettled, and uncertain or ambivalent it grows, and the more difficult to epitomize. Such, we suppose, is to be expected of what is concurrently a small, personal attempt at sustained moral accounting and a large,...

(The entire section is 2524 words.)

Millicent Bell (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 66, no. 3 (1999): 417-30.

[In the following excerpt, Bell evaluates the strengths and the weaknesses of The Reader.]

There are the novelists who cannot give us enough of life; they cram down our throats more than we can easily swallow, and we nearly choke on a mass of characters and scenes and intertangled plots, and on the macro-history of social movements, politics, war, revolution and economic change, as well as the micro-history of souls. They demand that we take into ourselves a whole potful of reality because this, they urge, is the only way to understand what happens. And there are novelists who...

(The entire section is 1420 words.)

Michelle Haines Thomas (review date May 1999)

SOURCE: Thomas, Michelle Haines. “Love and Indifference.” Quadrant 43, no. 5 (May 1999): 85-6.

[In the following review, Thomas praises Schlink's examination of German history in The Reader.]

Holocaust literature is an overburdened realm. The moral freight that accompanies even the slightest efforts in this genre can sit heavily with reviewers and readers alike and has resulted in the honouring of some rather lightweight novels purely on the basis of their subject matter. I hate to bring it up again but (gulp) The Hand that Signed the Paper is a case in point. Despite the initial fracas, time and a bit of perspective have shown that the book was a largely...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

Jeremiah P. Conway (essay date October 1999)

SOURCE: Conway, Jeremiah P. “Compassion and Moral Condemnation: An Analysis of The Reader.Philosophy and Literature 23, no. 2 (October 1999): 284-301.

[In the following essay, Conway examines the moral dimensions of compassion in The Reader, drawing upon Martha Nussbaum's definition of compassion as a philosophical model.]

Human relationships are shaped decisively by how we respond to each other's suffering. Nearly all religious traditions emphasize that compassion, defined in a preliminary way as the emotional ability to be moved by the suffering of others, marks the spiritual development of both individuals and communities. But precisely because...

(The entire section is 7307 words.)

Ian Sansom (essay date fall 1999-winter 2000)

SOURCE: Sansom, Ian. “Doubts about The Reader.Salmagundi, nos. 124-125 (fall 1999-winter 2000): 3-16.

[In the following essay, Sansom objects to the overall critical acceptance of The Reader and offers a negative evaluation of the novel, which he finds morally superficial, trite, and mendacious.]

Death by the book is uncommon, but it is not unknown. Printing, for example, was until relatively recently a dangerous trade, and the effects of lead poisoning through the practice known as ‘chewing type’ was said in some cases to have been fatal. Dr Edward Smith, in his report on the Sanitary Conditions of Printers in London for the House of Commons in...

(The entire section is 5136 words.)

Jeffrey Adams (review date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Adams, Jeffrey. Review of Liebesfluchten, by Bernhard Schlink. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 147-48.

[In the following review, Adams lauds Schlink's examination of love and passion in Liebesfluchten.]

After establishing himself as a prize-winning author of popular crime novels, Bernhard Schlink published the best-selling novel Der Vorleser, which in the eyes of many elevated him to a higher level of literary achievement. His latest book, [Liebesfluchten,] a collection of stories about love, indicates that Schlink will continue to set higher literary goals for himself, but without giving up the elements that made his...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Richard Zimler (review date 7 October 2001)

SOURCE: Zimler, Richard. “Sympathy for the Devil.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 October 2001): 8.

[In the following review, Zimler offers a favorable assessment of Flights of Love, but deems several of the volume's stories unsuccessful.]

Has a woman who committed an atrocity in the service of the Third Reich any right to expect understanding from an old lover who hears of the crime's circumstances years later? And if we as readers come to see how a tragic flaw in her character led her to choose evil, can we permit ourselves to feel what was previously unthinkable: sympathy?

These and other questions raised by Bernhard Schlink's...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Ruth Franklin (review date 15 October 2001)

SOURCE: Franklin, Ruth. “Immorality Play.” New Republic (15 October 2001): 54-60.

[In the following review, Franklin offers a negative assessment of The Reader and Flights of Love, arguing that both are disguised “bad books.”]

That bad books are the books most widely read is an entirely mundane phenomenon of contemporary culture. Every week the major book reviews assess a dozen books in a variety of genres, of varying quality but deemed of sufficient significance or originality or beauty to merit a thousand words or so. With only a few exceptions, these books then vanish forever: good books get reviewed, but bad books get bought.


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Louis Begley (review date 17 January 2002)

SOURCE: Begley, Louis. “Lonely in Germany.” New York Review of Books 49, no. 1 (17 January 2002): 16-17.

[In the following review, Begley commends the stories in Flights of Love, which he views as extensions of the thematic concerns in The Reader.]

Flights of Love is the second work of fiction by the German writer Bernhard Schlink to appear in English. Schlink became famous following the publication in 1997, in the United States, of his novel The Reader, published in 1995 in German under the title of Der Vorleser, a German word that denotes one who reads aloud to others. It has no precise equivalent in English. The Reader had the...

(The entire section is 3689 words.)

Martyn Bedford (review date 28 January 2002)

SOURCE: Bedford, Martyn. “A Moral Maze.” New Statesman 131, no. 4572 (28 January 2002): 54.

[In the following review, Bedford provides a favorable assessment of Flights of Love, but finds weaknesses in several of the volume's selections.]

When a Gentile decides to have himself circumcised so that he can adopt the religion of his Jewish girlfriend, he explains the dilemma like this: “Either she has to become like me, or I become like her. You really tolerate only your own kind.” This is the premise of “The Circumcision,” the longest, strangest story in this collection [Flights of Love] from the author of the critically acclaimed international...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Kathleen Bogan (review date 15 February 2002)

SOURCE: Bogan, Kathleen. “Pressures of Peace.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5159 (15 February 2002): 23.

[In the following review, Bogan compliments the sophisticated literary style of Flights of Love, calling the work a “provocative collection of stories on the theme of ethical predicaments.”]

It sometimes happens that writers, like peacemakers, advance the very division they set out to examine and even denounce. For Bernhard Schlink, a professor of public law and legal philosophy, this appears to be increasingly the case. Following the international success of The Reader (1998), a Holocaust coming-of-age novel, Schlink has found himself thrust...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Benjamin Markovits (review date 21 March 2002)

SOURCE: Markovits, Benjamin. “Are Words Pointless?” London Review of Books 24, no. 6 (21 March 2002): 32-3.

[In the following review, Markovits judges Flights of Love to be an inferior follow-up to The Reader, asserting that the collection lacks adequate feeling and depth to support Schlink's larger thematic concerns.]

The generation battle, in its particular post-Third-Reich incarnation, runs through Bernhard Schlink's work, both his bestselling The Reader and Flights of Love, a collection of short stories loosely arranged around various break-ups and infidelities. Reviewers tend to discuss the books together, partly because Flights...

(The entire section is 2689 words.)

Brian Evenson (review date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Evenson, Brian. Review of Flights of Love, by Bernhard Schlink. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 1 (spring 2002): 142-43.

[In the following review, Evenson compliments the range of stories in Flights of Love.]

The author of the best-selling The Reader returns with [Flights of Love,] a collection of seven stories vaguely linked by notions of connection and love. The stories themselves, though largely traditional in feel and in their approach to character, show Schlink to be a careful and consummate stylist, someone genuinely aware of the possibilities of working within established form. The characters develop and reach epiphanies, and...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Further Reading


Angier, Carole. “Approaches and Escapes.” Spectator 288, no. 9055 (23 February 2002): 36-7.

Angier suggests that Flights of Love has been underrated by English critics.

Bernstein, Richard. “Once Loving, Once Cruel, What's Her Secret?” New York Times (20 August 1997): C16.

Bernstein praises Schlink's prose style in The Reader.

Finn, Stephen M. “Truth without Reconciliation?: The Question of Guilt and Forgiveness in Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader.South African Journal of Philosophy 20, nos. 3-4 (2001): 308-19....

(The entire section is 385 words.)