Schlink, Bernhard

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SCHLINK, Bernhard

Nationality: German. Born: Bielefeld, 1944. Education: Studied law at the University of Berlin; University of Heidelberg, J.D. 1975; Freiberg University, qualified to lecture at universities 1981. Career: Professor, University of Bonn, 1982-91, and University of Frankfurt am Main, 1991-92. Since 1988 justice, Constitutional Law Court, Bonn, and since 1992 professor, Humboldt University, Berlin. Awards: Glauser prize, 1990, for Die Gordische Schleife; German Krimi-Preis, 1993, for Selbs Betrug; Hans Fallada prize, 1995, for Der Vorleser.



Selbs Justiz, with Walter Popp. 1987.

Die Gordische Schleife. 1988.

Selbs Betrug. 1992.

Der Vorleser. 1995; as The Reader, 1997.

Selbs Mord. 2001.

Short Stories

Liebesfluchten: Geschichten. 2000; as Flights of Love: Stories, 2001.

Other (studies on law and society)

Abwägung im Verfassungsrecht. 1976.

Die Amtshilfe: Ein Beitrag zu einer Lehre von der Gewaltenteilung in der Verwaltung. 1981.

Grundrechte, Staatsrecht II, with Bodo Pieroth. 1985.

Streik und Aussperrung als Verfassungsproblem: Untersuchung anhand der neueren Rechtsprechung von Bundesarbeitsgericht und Bundesverfassungsgericht, with Walter Pauly. 1988.

Heimat als Utopie. 2000.

Der Verfassungskompromiß zum Religionsunterricht: Art. 7 Abs. 3 und Art. 141 GG im Kampf des Parlamentarischen Rates um die "Lebensordnungen." 2000.

Editor, with Arthur J. Jacobson, Weimar: A Jurisprudence of Crisis. 2000.


Critical Studies:

"Bernhard Schlink: The Reader and Grete Weil: Last Trolley from Beethovenstraat by T. Lewis, in The New Criterion, 16(4), 1997, p. 74; "The Language of the Past: Recent Prose Works by Bernhard Schlink, Marcel Beyer, and Friedrich Christian Delius" by Stuart Parkes, in 'Whose Story?': Continuities in Contemporary German-Language Literature, edited by Parkes, Arthur Williams, and Julian Preece, 1998; "The Uses of Illiteracy: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, Translated by Carol Brown Janeway" by Eva Hoffman, in The New Republic, 23 March 1998, p. 33-34; "The Caesura of the Holocaust in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader " by Ann Parry, in Journal of European Studies, 29(3), 115, September 1999, pp. 249-67; "Compassion and Moral Condemnation: An Analysis of The Reader " by Jeremiah P. Conway, in Philosophy and Literature, 23(2), October 1999, pp. 284-301; "Doubts about The Reader " by Ian Sansom, in Salmagundi, 124-125, Fall 1999/Winter 2000, pp. 3-16; "Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser and Binjamin Wilkomirski's Bruchstucke: Best-Selling Responses to the Holocaust" by J.J. Long, in German-Language Literature Today: International and Popular, edited by Arthur Williams, Stuart Parkes, and Julian Preece, 2000; "The Return of the Past: Post-Unification Representations of National Socialism: Bernhard Schlink's Der Vorleser and Ulla Berkewicz's Engel sind schwarz und weiss " by Helmut Schmitz, in Cultural Perspectives on Division and Unity in East and West, edited by Clare Flanagan and Stuart Taberner, 2000.

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Bernhard Schlink, born in 1944 outside Bielefeld, Germany, published Der Vorleser (The Reader) in 1995. This novel has been translated into at least 27 languages and has sold more than 2.5 million copies. First published as a novelist in 1987, Schlink has consistently displayed an interest in investigating the repercussions of the Nazi era on contemporary German society and elucidating the moral questions surrounding guilt, punishment, and responsibility.

A law professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, Schlink began his career as a novelist with a series of detective novels, which, except for Die Gordische Schleife (1988), far exceeded the typical conventions of the genre. Selbs Justiz (1987) and Selbs Betrug (1992) manage to introduce into the plot of a whodunit the element of a private detective protagonist whose past is less than salutary: Gerhard Selb, age 68, was a public prosecutor in the Nazi era. This twist on the questions of crime and punishment typical of the genre allows Schlink to examine larger historical questions, such as the culpability of individuals under the Nazis and the fallout of guilt that permeates postwar German society.

Schlink's oeuvre takes a turn toward a more complex and involved examination of the effects of the Holocaust on German society with The Reader. The novel can be interpreted in a variety of contexts: éducation sentimentale; love story; analysis of guilt, both personal and societal; representation of the indelible influence of Nazism on German society after the war; the commensurability of abstract, objective legal principles with a subjective awareness of justice; and critical evaluation of what Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms/overcoming the past).

Critically acclaimed, The Reader was also a tremendous commercial success across the world: It was the first German novel to occupy the top of the New York Times best-seller list and also became a choice for Oprah Winfrey's book club. This success primarily stems from Schlink's courage to address taboos and break silences. Significantly, his novel appeared nearly contemporaneously with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), after whose publication Germany intensified an internal dialogue, still ongoing, about ordinary Germans and the Nazi past. Similarly, the novel's success in the United States is in part indicative of a cultural moment in which the Holocaust has become the paradigmatic example of genocide.

The Reader is also successful because it manages to encapsulate morally complex questions in pellucid and accessible prose. The following passage may serve to illustrate this point: "What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose? … That some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame, and guilt—was that all there was to it now?"

Evident in this passage as well is Schlink's strategy of posing more questions than providing answers. One critic has termed The Reader "[a] counterpointing of two stories, or a story and a history, of victim and victimizer, culpability and disavowal, indictment and extenuation"; thus the novel unfolds moral complexities without providing ready-made answers for the reader.

Liebesfluchten (2000; Flights of Love , 2001) is a collection of seven short stories, some of which continue Schlink's interest in the second and third post-Nazi generation of Germans and in the relationship between Germans and Jews. One story focuses on a German living in New York City who, tired of what he perceives as being defined by the Nazi past, submits to a circumcision to please his Jewish girlfriend, who ironically had no plans to ask him to submit to the procedure. In a sense this ritual fails in its intent to create a space of putative commonality between the two lovers and can be seen as a plea, on the part of the author, for tolerating and engaging cultural and religious difference. Another story from this collection, "Girl with Lizard," published in the United States in the New Yorker, addresses once more the response of the generation following the Nazi perpetrators to their parents' past. The mystique surrounding the painting identified in the title (the protagonist's father, a Nazi judge, stole it from its painter, a Jew) dominates the boy's life and functions as a metaphor for the secrets kept by the perpetrators that influence following generations to this day.

Schlink's work concerns itself centrally with puncturing the silence that has surrounded the Nazi years in Germany. It asks questions about the culpability of the perpetrators and about how collective memory is to be transmitted responsibly; in that sense it is a perfect reflection of questions that have come to the fore in Germany in recent years.

—Stefan Gunther

See the essay on The Reader.

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Schlink, Bernhard

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