March 30, 2000
Word of mouth has made Bernhard Schlink's 'The Reader' something of an international phenomenon
Bernhard Schlink is not what you would expect in a German judge and professor of constitutional law. He is a tall, sparse man of 55, dressed in an open-necked shirt and devoid of the traditional Teutonic self-importance bestowed by rank and title.
He enjoyed his guest stint on "Oprah Winfrey," considers the talk show queen a very smart and well-read lady, and didn't mind at all that she called him by -- and mispronounced -- his first name, instead of a more formal address.
Schlink also defies stereotypes in his novel "The Reader," a slim pocketbook of some 200 pages, written in simple, sparse prose, without the convoluted, seemingly endless sentences characteristic of much German literature.
"The Reader" is something of an international phenomenon. Since its original publication in Germany in 1995, the book has been translated into 27 languages, including Hebrew, and has climbed on bestseller lists around the world.
Although the book has received excellent reviews, its success is markedly due to word-of-mouth reports. Each new reader seems to feel a sense of personal discovery, which he or she must share with others.
Despite its brevity and unadorned style, the book is "one of the most morally complex novels I have read," declared USC sociologist Barry Glassner, who recently interviewed Schlink before an audience of some 400 people at a Writers Bloc forum.
Listeners paid a $15 admission fee apiece, nearly all had read the book, and most plied the author with questions after the opening dialogue.
"The Reader" is set in a small German university town in the late 1950s. The first half chronicles the sexual initiation and passionate affair of 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old trolley car conductor. Hanna is uneducated and doesn't like to talk about her past, but she loves having the studious Michael read to her from classical literature, sometimes delaying sexual romps to finish a chapter.
(The book's more telling German title is "Der Vorleser," which means someone who reads aloud to another person.)
One day, Hanna disappears without a trace. A few years later Michael has become a law student and as a class assignment attends one of the trials of lesser war criminals, mostly concentration camp guards, that were an eye-opener to young Germans of the early 1960s.
Hanna is a defendant among a group of female SS guards accused of letting Jewish women and children burn to death in a locked church during a World War II bombing raid.
Schmitz not only does not deny her complicity, but is manipulated by the other SS women into the role of ringleader. Although this is untrue, she does not deny this charge either, because to do so would force her to reveal a lifelong secret she considers even more shameful than her wartime deeds.
During the trial and Hanna's lengthy prison sentence, Michael agonizes about his attitude toward his former lover.
"I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it," Schlink writes. "But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding."
During a lunchtime conversation, Schlink was asked to account for the success of "The Reader" in Germany and abroad.
"Not much has been written on what it meant for my generation, the immediate postwar generation, to grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust and be entangled in the guilt of our parents' generation," he said.
The book's more universal appeal, Schlink surmises, is that the novel deals with profound moral issues. "I think that readers like to be confronted with such problems. Too often, readers are underchallenged."
In "The Reader," Hanna is finally released from prison, retreats to a convent, takes her own life and leaves her meager savings to a Jewish woman, one of the few to survive the church burning.
Do these actions atone for her wartime crimes? Never, says Schlink, there can be no absolution for Hanna, nor for Hitler's generation of Germans.
Schlink is preoccupied with the divide between his and the Nazi generation. "We were never really able to talk to our parents," he said. He sees a curious parallel to the attitudes of many Holocaust survivors, who, for vastly different reasons, also were unwilling to unburden themselves to their children.
Schlink was more fortunate with his own parents. His father was a pastor in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church and was therefore removed from his university chair in theology.
"My mother told me that in 1943, my father went to Berlin, where he found out what was happening in Auschwitz. When he came home, he was still ashen-faced," said Schlink.
Between his regular jobs as judge in the Westphalian constitutional court and law professor at Humboldt University in East Berlin, it took Schlink three years of weekends and vacations to write "The Reader."
"I lived with the story in my own mind for a long time, before I sat down to write it," he said. Earlier he had written two mystery novels with political overtones, and is now working on a third one.
Not surprisingly, given its dramatic theme and contrasts, "The Reader" will be made into a movie. Miramax has the rights and Anthony Minghella ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The English Patient") will be the director.
Minghella has just embarked on a new project and since it takes him three years to complete a film, Schlink does not expect to see "The Reader" on the screen for another six years.