Bernhard Schlink led a successful career as an academic and judge for many years before becoming a writer of fiction. Born 6 July 1944 in Bethal, Germany, he read law at the Free University in West Berlin. He went on to hold teaching positions at the Universities of Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Bielfeld and Humboldt, and in 1987 was appointed a judge at the North Rhein-Westphalia Constitutional Court.
His first works of fiction were a series of detective novels featuring a private investigator named ‘Self’. In an interesting precursor to later themes, Self is a former Nazi prosecutor who realises the wickedness of his previous career. The Reader, published in 1995 (1997 in the UK), quickly became an international bestseller, still a rare thing for a German novel. Translated into 39 languages, it raised the profile of its author enormously. Along with great praise, Schlink attracted criticism for portraying the character of Hanna in too sympathetic a light. He has given an interesting insight into this, saying that in “Israel and New York the older generation liked the book, but among my generation I was more than once told it shouldn’t have been a problem for Michael, or me, to condemn. I’ve heard that criticism several times but never from the older generation, people who have lived through it.”
While Schlink’s father was a victim of Nazi persecution rather than a perpetrator (he was forced to leave his academic post due to his membership of a dissident church), the author has discussed other authority figures from his youth whose actions during the Nazi regime were less commendable. He had a teacher who inspired in him a great love of English language and literature, but later discovered that this man had been an informer for the Gestapo; his actions led to the death of at least one individual. He has also described how, during his student days, the younger generation were not permitted access to the literature their professors had written between 1933 and 1945; it was all locked away. Schlink has reflected that “it entangles you into their guilt, if you keep loving them.”
In 2000, Schlink published a collection of Short Stories, called Flights of Love. This was followed by two more novels: Homecoming in 2006 and The Weekend in 2008. Another volume of short stories, Summer Lies, was published in Germany in 2010. He also released a book of essays in 2009 called Guilt About the Past, a truly fascinating collection which expands upon the themes he explores in his fiction work.
Schlink regularly tours the world attending literary festivals and book signings, but otherwise divides his time between Berlin and New York. He has said that the main benefit of his success as a writer is the freedom to manage his own time.
The film adaptation of The Reader was released to general acclaim in 2008. Directed by Stephen Daldry and skillfully adapted by David Hare, it is a beautiful telling of the story. The main performances all received highly positive reviews; Kate Winslet won a much deserved Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Hanna. David Kross' performance as the young Michael is equally powerful.
Carol Brown Janeway - Translator
Alongside The Reader, Carol Brown Janeway has translated Fragments by Benjamin Wilkormirski, Intimate Death by Marie de Hennezel, Perfume by Patrick Süskind and Embers by Sándor Márai.