Schlink, Bernhard 1944-
Schlink, Bernhard 1944-
PERSONAL: Born July 6, 1944, in Grossdornberg, Bielefeld, Germany. Education: Ruprecht Karl University, J.D., 1975; Albert-Ludwigs University, Privatdozent, 1981.
ADDRESSES: Office—Humboldt University, Unter den Linden 6, D-10099, Berlin, Germany; fax: 49-30-20 93 34 52. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Judge, legal educator, and novelist. Member of German Bar; Constitutional Court, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, justice, 1988-2006. Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms University, Bonn, Germany, professor, 1982-91; J.W. Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, professor, 1991-92; Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, professor, 1992—. Consultant in legal field.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grinzane Cavour Prize, 1997; Prix Laure Bataillon, 1997; Fisk Fiction Prize, Boston Book Review, 1998; Die Welt, 1999; Heinrich Heine Prize, 2000; Chevalier, Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur, 2001.
(With Walter Popp) Selbs Justiz (novel), Diogenes (Zu-rich, Switzerland), 1987, translated by Rebecca Morrison as Self’s Punishment, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Die gordischeSchleife (novel), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 1988.
Selbs Betrug (novel), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 1992, translated by Peter Constantine as Self’s Deception, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (New York, NY), 2007.
Der Vorleser (novel), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 1995, translated by Carol Brown Janeway as The Reader, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Liebesfluchten: Geschichten (short stories), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 2000, translated by John E. Woods as Flights of Love: Stories, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Selbs mord (novel), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 2001.
Die Heimkehr (novel), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 2006.
Daswochenende (novel), Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 2008, translated by Michael Henry Heim, as Homecoming, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2008.
Abwagung im Verfassungsrecht, Duncker & Humblot (Berlin, Germany), 1976.
Die Amtshilfe: Ein Beitrag zu einer Lehre von der Gewaltenteilung in der Verwaltung, Duncker & Hum-blot (Berlin, Germany), 1982.
(With Bodo Pieroth) Grundrechte, Staatsrecht II, C.F. Mueller (Heidelberg, Germany), 1985, 23rd edition, 2001.
(Editor, with Arthur J. Jacobson) Wiemar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis, translated from the German by Belinda Cooper and others, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2000.
(With Bodo Pieroth and Michael Kniesel) Polizei-und Ordnungsrecht, C.H. Beck (Munich, Germany), 2002, fourth edition, 2007.
Vergangenheitsschuld und gegenwärtiges Recht, Su-hrkampt (Frankfurt on the Main, Germany), 2002.
Vergewisserungen Uber Politik, Recht, Schreiben und Glauben, Diogenes (Zurich, Switzerland), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: Abridged and unabridged versions of The Reader were adapted for audiocassette, read by Campbell Scott, Random House AudioBooks, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Bernhard Schlink is a respected judge and professor of constitutional law in his native Germany, but it is as a writer of mystery novels that he became known to the general public. These novels, according to critic Ulf Zimmermann in World Literature Today, are “grounded in the realities of past and present Germany.” Though he continued to write fiction tying together the past and present of various German characters, with his best-selling 1995 novel Der Vorleser the format of his fiction broadened to include stories written outside of the crime genre. Some reviewers noted this change as Schlink’s shift to create more literary work, rather than staying focused on the more formulaic crime publications he previously published.
Der Vorleser, translated as The Reader, was the first of Schlink’s novels to be published in the United States. The novel was received with enthusiasm by New York Times critic Richard Bernstein, among others. The Reader, which is over 200 pages long and sparely written, narrates the first-person story of Michael Berg, a young German born during World War II. As a teenager Michael has a passionate sexual affair with Hanna, a woman twenty years his senior, who has helped him recover after an attack of hepatitis fells him on the street. Some ten years later, Michael, now a law student, is an official observer at the trial of a group of former concentration camp guards, among whom is Hanna. He discovers that Hanna, although guilty of some of the crimes attributed to her, is being used as a scapegoat by her fellow defendants who want to pin on her the entire blame for a particular atrocity, the burning of a church with hundreds of Jewish women sheltering inside it. For mysterious reasons that Michael comes to understand but not reveal publicly, Hanna does not disclose a crucial fact that could free her; instead, she goes to prison. Eighteen years later, she is freed, to Michael’s discomfort. “What he then learns about Hanna’s strivings, the pains she took during her years in prison to achieve moral absolution, is almost unbearably poignant,” declared Bernstein.
Hinting at a possible autobiographical element in the novel, Bernstein praised Schlink for crafting The Reader with “marvelous directness and simplicity, his writing stripped bare of any of the standard gimmicks of dramatization.” The novel, Bernstein wrote, is “a lesson in the mysteriousness of individual lives and in the impossibility for the moral, reflective individual to live free from the entanglements of history.” The reviewer quoted, as evidence of the novel’s quality, a passage in which Michael, trying both to understand Hanna and to condemn her, finds it impossible to do both at the same time. Remarked Bernstein, “It is a mark of Mr. Schlink’s depth and honesty that he makes no effort to resolve [this dilemma].”
Another appreciative review of The Reader came from Library Journal critic Michael T. O’Pecko, who found the novel “very readable” and the characterization of Hanna “achingly complex.” And Zimmermann felt that “Germans of Michael’s age will find themselves in singular empathy with the narrator and his tale”; moreover, the reviewer predicted, “the utter artlessness Schlink has given its telling will… likewise completely take in other readers and compel them to unprecedented reflection. Not much fiction on ‘mastering the past’ has been more powerful and poignant than this unassuming-looking little volume.”
When comparing The Reader to Schlink’s first collection of stories, 2000’s Liebesfluchten: Geschichten, Jeffrey Adams commented in a World Literature Today review of the latter that both works are evidence of Schlink’s transition from writing popular, entertaining mysteries to more literary works of fiction. Yet, noted Adams, both The Reader and the stories in Lie-besfluchten, which was published in English in 2001 as Flights of Love, maintain “the twisting plots and surprise endings of the crime genre and the undemanding, straightforward style that makes such an easy read.” In addition, described Adams, in both Schlink “plac[es] his characters not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in relation to social reality and the political past.” Among seven stories contained in Flights of Love is “A Little Fling,” which focuses on an East German couple struggling with marital issues that are in part caused by the political actions each has taken: the husband secretly sold intelligence reports to avoid consequences associated with his wife’s earlier political behavior. Later, in anger after learning of her husband’s earlier actions, the wife has a one-night affair with a West German, who is the narrator of the story.
The interplay between past and present, and the continued effect that certain events and psychological issues have on actions and connections to the world, are common elements explored in the Flights of Love. “Girl with Lizard” centers on one man’s long-standing fascination with a painting of a girl and a lizard. The painting is from the man’s less-than-positive childhood, and upon his father’s death, it becomes his most prized inheritance. Through his investigation of the painting and how his father might have acquired it, the man resolves some issues carried from his past. The painting, specifically his fixation on the girl in the painting, also has a significant influence on his real-life relationships with women. New York Times Book Review contributor Jennifer Schuessler named this story as one of the collection’s strongest.
In her review, Schuessler wrote: "Schlink’s tales of botched and betrayed love unfold in a stripped-down prose… that is pleasingly crystalline when viewed from some angles and simply colorless from others.…The strongest stories here—‘Girl with Lizard,’ ‘Sugar Peas,’ ‘The Other Man’—are striking portraits of men waking up belatedly, if incompletely, to the cost of self-deception and the elusive nature of happiness.” “Sugar Peas” was also named by a Kirkus Reviews critic as one of the best stories in an uneven collection. “Sugar Peas” portrays an architect in the midst of a midlife crisis. During the story, the man recalls the political ideals he held before beginning his successful career, he realizes his dream of becoming a painter, and he engages in extramarital affairs. The Kirkus Reviews critic referred to the stories in Flights of Love as “patiently detailed, emotionally complex” and called Schlink “a sober, meticulous craftsman [who offers] plainspoken analyses of the often extraordinary inner dimensions of outwardly ordinary lives.”
Schlink returns to a more explicit examination of history and its implications in Homecoming. The novel focuses on the quest of protagonist Peter Debauer to find out more about his father, whom he does not remember and who reportedly died during World War II. Debauer discovers the fragments of a novel, plotted much like The Odyssey, in which a German soldier makes his way home after being released from a prisoner of war camp. Sensing parallels between this novel’s narrative and his father’s own story, Debauer sets out to learn whether its pseudonymous author could actually be his father. Some reviewers found Homecoming to be less compelling than Schlink’s earlier fiction, particularly The Reader. Booklist reviewer Ian Chip-man, for example, felt that the novel’s ambitious themes create “far too much ballast to support [the book’s] own weight.” A writer for Kirkus Reviews observed that while Homecoming sometimes offers “an absorbing portrayal of a sobering quest for self-knowledge, the novel is redundant, and it drags.” A Publishers Weekly reviewer, on the other hand, considered Homecoming perhaps Schlink’s “most powerful and disquieting” novel to date. Describing the book as “sensitive and disturbing,” New York Times Book Review contributor Liesl Schillinger praised Schlink’s honesty and courage in so unflinchingly exploring the question of his character’s connection with Nazism.
Schlink’s well-received crime novels feature protagonist Gerhard Self, who had served as a public prosecutor during the Nazi era and now, in his late sixties, works as a private investigator in newly unified Germany. He has managed to come to terms with his past enthusiasm for National Socialism, achieving what he calls, in Self’s Punishment, an “elaborate balance” of “guilt and atonement, enthusiasm and blindness, pride and anger, morality and resignation” that he hopes will allow him to live his life quietly. But this balance is shaken when the detective is hired by a childhood friend to nab a computer hacker who is interfering with operations at Rhineland Chemical Works. Self attempts to trap the criminal, but things go awry and the hacker is murdered. In the aftermath, Self must face his demons once again. Frank Sennett, reviewing the novel in Booklist, praised it as a “fascinating exploration of how people often manage to carve out normal lives even after being complicit in terrible acts.”
Self uncovers a massive political cover-up in Self’s Deception. After agreeing to investigate the disappearance of Leonore Salger, daughter of the government undersecretary, Self is told that the young woman had been a psychiatric patient and had died after falling from a window a week earlier. But the story seems phony. Self keeps looking for more information, only to discover that Leonore has gone into hiding after being connected with a terrorist attack on a U.S. military base on German soil. The government does not want information about the attack getting out; nor is the undersecretary really Leonore’s father. A writer for Publishers Weekly felt that Self’s Deception lacks narrative drive, but that Self’s eccentricities are so enjoyable that they compensate for a story line that is often “meandering.” Charles Taylor, writing in the New York Times Book Review, made a similar point. “The novel’s mystery is too pokey and convoluted to sustain much suspense or emotional involvement,” commented Taylor, but even so, “Self makes for pretty good company.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bloomsbury Review, January 1, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 21.
Booklist, August 1, 1999, review of The Reader, p. 2025; September 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Flights of Love: Stories, p. 196; March 15, 2005, Frank Sennett, review of Self’s Punishment, p. 1270; December 15, 2007, Ian Chipman, review of Homecoming, p. 25.
Books, summer, 1998, review of The Reader (audio version), p. R5.
Bookseller, December 7, 2001, “Affairs of the Heart,” p. 34.
Chronicle of Higher Education, December 7, 2001, Julia M. Klein, review of Flights of Love, pp. 18-19.
Economist, June 13, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 16.
Entertainment Weekly, January 18, 2008, Missy Schwartz, review of Homecoming, p. 86.
Globe and Mail, April 17, 1999, review of The Reader, p. D17.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2001, review of Flights of Love, p. 1319; May 1, 2007, review of Self’s Deception; November 15, 2007, review of Homecoming.
Library Journal, June 1, 1997, p. 153; May 1, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 168; September 15, 2001, Barbara Hoffer, review of Flights of Love, p. 115.
New Republic, March 23, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 33; October 15, 2001, Ruth Franklin, “Immorality Play,” p. 54.
New Statesman, January 9, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 44; January 28, 2002, Martyn Bedford, “A Moral Maze,” p. 54; July 30, 2007, Yo Zushi, “Age and Reason,” p. 60.
Newsweek International, November 12, 2001, Andrew Nagorski, “A World in Shades of Gray,” p. 61.
New York Review of Books, March 26, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 4; January 17, 2002, Louis Begley, “Lonely in Germany,” review of Flights of Love, pp. 16-17.
New York Times, August 20, 1997, Richard Bernstein, review of The Reader, p. B7; January 19, 2002, Steven Erlanger, “Postwar German Writer a Bard of a Generation,” p. A4.
New York Times Book Review, July 27, 1997, Suzanne Ruta, “Secrets and Lies,” p. 8; September 30, 2001, Jennifer Schuessler, “Happiness Doesn’t Make Them Happy,” p. 6; October 7, 2001, review of Flights of Love, p. 26; September 9, 2007, Charles Taylor, “A Good German,” p. 13; January 13, 2008, Liesl Schillinger, “Aptitude for Destruction.”
Observer (London, England), August 16, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, June 2, 1997, review of The Reader, p. 51; April 9, 2007, review of Self’s Deception, p. 31; October 15, 2007, review of Homecoming, p. 37.
Quadrant, May, 1999, review of The Reader, p. 85.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2002, Brian Evenson, review of Flights of Love, pp. 142-143.
Salmagundi, fall, 1999, review of The Reader, p. 3.
Spectator, February 23, 2002, Carole Angier, review of Flights of Love, pp. 36-37.
Times Literary Supplement, December 4, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 12; February 15, 2002, Kathleen Bogan, “Pressures of Peace,” p. 23.
Tricycle, summer, 1999, review of The Reader, p. 94.
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1998, review of The Reader, p. 22.
Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2001, Gabriella Stern, review of Flights of Love, p. W13.
Washington Post, October 28, 2001, Rick Whitaker, “Divided Hearts,” review of p. T03.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1996, Ulf Zimmermann, review of The Reader, p. 951; winter, 2001, Jeffrey Adams, review of Liebesfluchten, pp. 147-148.
Tennessean,http://tennessean.com/ (February 18, 2008), Craig Seligman, review of Homecoming.