Bernhard Schlink: Negotiating with the dead

Bernhard Schlink, the author of the international bestseller The Reader, has turned to crime. He talks to Christina Patterson about morality and middle age
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The Independent Culture

The British are not known for their love of German literature. Ask even the most avid readers to name a favourite German writer and eyes will glaze over as their minds go blank. "Herman Hesse" they might eventually mumble, recalling vague memories of The Glass Bead Game in a student bedsit. Or perhaps, if they've seen the film of The Tin Drum, "Gunter Grass". But, in 1997, a book came along that shot a German writer into an international super-league. Bernhard Schlink's The Reader was an instant bestseller. Only Patrick Suskind, whose novel Perfume was published nearly 20 years ago, had a success to match it.

The British are not known for their love of German literature. Ask even the most avid readers to name a favourite German writer and eyes will glaze over as their minds go blank. "Herman Hesse" they might eventually mumble, recalling vague memories of The Glass Bead Game in a student bedsit. Or perhaps, if they've seen the film of The Tin Drum, "Gunter Grass". But, in 1997, a book came along that shot a German writer into an international super-league. Bernhard Schlink's The Reader was an instant bestseller. Only Patrick Suskind, whose novel Perfume was published nearly 20 years ago, had a success to match it.

" The Reader," declared Sir Peter Hall in a Sunday newspaper, "is the German novel I have been waiting for." Among the cohorts of critics rushing to shower it with praise, Ruth Rendell proclaimed it "sensitive, daring, deeply moving" and "as far above a Holocaust genre as Crime and Punishment is above the average thriller." Even George Steiner, not known for his sycophantic reviews, declared that "the reviewer's sole and privileged function" was "to say as loudly as he is able 'Read this' and 'read it again'." Here, at long last, was a novel that engaged with Germany's recent history in a way that was both readable and profound. It was meaty yet slim, sexy yet thoughtful. It was, in fact, a publisher's dream.

Its author was a quiet professor of law at the University of Berlin. Born a year before the war's end Schlink had, he tells me in his Berlin office, spent his professional life pondering the questions of history and morality that he so vividly dramatised. "I don't intend to give moral answers," he says, "but I think it's still important how you pose a problem."

The novel starts off with the love affair between a teenage boy, Michael, and an older woman, Hanna, and later switches to a courtroom where the woman is on trial. Michael, now a law student observing the trial, discovers that Hanna was once a concentration camp guard. As she refuses to engage with any of the details of her case, or its documentation, it dawns on him that she is illiterate. The resulting narrative is a stunning exploration of love and betrayal, history and memory. "How could it be a comfort," asks Michael, "that the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation?"

How, you might ask in turn, do you follow a book about the Holocaust? Well, perhaps with a book about love. Flights of Love, a collection of short stories published two years ago, continues to explore the complexities of love and its demons in the moral maze of postwar Germany. It ranges from pre-unification Berlin to contemporary New York and depicts men - largely middle-aged men - in various states of yearning and crisis. It's all shot through with the anxiety and scrupulous self-questioning that pervades The Reader, together with a continuing sense of the irrelevance of either happiness or sadness in the face of truth.

Schlink has also written detective fiction. Self's Punishment (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) introduces the private detective Gerhard Self: 56, balding and single. Like Morse, he is keen on the finer things in life: Sweet Aftons, Aviateur cocktails, his charismatic cat, Turbo, and the tight skirts of Frau Buchendorff. Normally called upon to solve insurance scams, he is summoned by a long-time friend and rival to investigate computer hacking at a chemical plant. He soon stumbles across some sinister secrets, which trigger painful memories of his past.

Self's Punishment was first published in Germany in 1987. Written with Schlink's former colleague Walter Popp, it's the first of three award-winning novels featuring the memorable Herr Self. A bestseller in Germany, it has now been translated into English (by Rebecca Morrison). Schlink has agreed to give a rare interview - only his third ever for the British press - to talk about it.

We meet in his office at the Humboldt University in Unter den Linden, Berlin's main street and the site of most of its museums. Formerly in the East, it has been undergoing refurbishment. The whole block is literally veiled, in a huge curtain painted to look like the exterior that conceals the real building underneath. It throws much of the interior into darkness and inspires thoughts of masks, metaphors and the shadow of history.

Schlink himself is extremely tall and extremely polite. It suddenly seems a little rude to ask him about the Holocaust, or about the vagaries of middle-aged male desire. I ask, instead, about the not-so-new novel. Why did he write it? And can he even remember it?

"Well," he replies in impressively perfect English, "I hadn't read the book since I'd written it, but I went over the translation intensively. It was like meeting an old friend whom you haven't talked to for a while." He wrote it when he began to realise that academic work wasn't necessarily going to be enough. "As a student I always wrote," he says, "but hadn't published anything. When I became a research assistant and professor, for a long time I thought that the joy of writing would fulfil itself in the joy of scholarly writing. But then, after a while, I realised that something was missing."

In partnership with Popp, a colleague on a computer programme on legal thinking and artificial intelligence, it was a gap he set about trying to fill. Schlink set the ball rolling and then Popp joined him on a sabbatical in southern France. "One sat down at the typewriter," he explains, "and the other stood by the window... Sometimes we acted it out. One was Judith Buchendorff and the other was Gerhard Self. It was fun! I think," he continues, "that mysteries can help you take the step from scholarly writing to fiction because in mysteries, as in scholarship, you write a problem and solve it."

It sounds a bit like chess, I say, which features prominently in this novel, as well as in Flights of Love. Are there parallels with crime fiction? Schlink nods energetically. "In the first years of artificial intelligence, chess was the constant parallel. I enjoyed playing, studying it and I also enjoyed thinking about the chess player's mind. What is he doing when he plays chess? What does a lawyer do when he solves a case? Once we know what we do, we can write a programme."

It's an unusual way to approach the writing of fiction. It sounds almost mathematical. "Well," says Schlink, "I think that my writing may reflect a passion for precision, for clarity, for the beauty that comes out of precision. That may have to do with this joy of working with the computer and finding out how the mind works. Much," he adds, "is pattern recognition. But then intuition comes into play in a way that is wonderful. I think all creative processes are similar."

What drives the plot is the mystery that unravels. What drives Self is more complicated. As he faces up to his youthful past as a Nazi prosecutor, he suffers a mini-breakdown and is forced to confront some painful demons. It raises some enormous moral issues, naturally, but there are plenty of smaller ones, too. Schlink plays with the possibilities of cause and effect and touches on many questions that feature so prominently in his later work. "I have always been interested in moral problems," he declares. "Maybe it has to do with my mother and my childhood. She is obsessed with moral problems. I think I owe some of that to her."

If Self worries about the complexities of retroactive justice, he also worries about baldness and hitting the wrong note in his flirtation with Frau Buchendorff. Schlink was in his early forties when he created the 56-year old, balding detective. "In a way, I now know how to be old," he confesses with a shy smile. In fact, Self bears a striking resemblance to characters in Flights of Love: men who have achieved a certain career success and material comfort, but whose attempts to forge long-term, loving relationships appear to be doomed. In their failure to accept the past and their anxiety about the future, they're locked in a state of semi-permanent mid-life crisis. Is this a metaphor for Germany history, too?

"It's a beautiful parallel!" says Schlink kindly, but "I didn't have that in mind. I think it's pretty much the human condition. I mean," he asks me, "how many close, happy, lasting relationships do you know? In a way," he adds, "I think it's also a challenge or a task not to see this just as failure, but to accept it and live it with decency and dignity."

In the end, this is the central challenge of Schlink's work. How do you live "with decency and dignity" in a country, and a world, where the dignity of others has been so catastrophically ignored? How do you live in the shadow of that history? And can you still be proud to be German?

Schlink pauses before replying. "I'm not proud to be a man," he says, "I'm not proud to be a Schlink, or to be a lawyer... To be German is an integral part of my identity. It would," says this decent, dignified man, "as little occur to me to be proud to be German, as it would to be proud to be male."

Biography: Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink was born in Bethel, Germany in 1944. He grew up in Heidelberg and read law at the Free University, West Berlin before going on to do further study and teaching at the universities of Heidelberg, Darmstadt and Bielefeld. He has been professor of constitutional and administration law at Bonn, at the Wolfgang-Goethe University, Frankfurt and, since 1992, at the Humboldt University, Berlin. Schlink was appointed to North Rhein-Westphalia constitutional court in 1987 and is still a practising judge. His first novel, Selbs Justiz (written with Walter Popp, writing as 'Thomas Richter'), was published in Germany in 1987 and comes out in the UK this month as Self's Punishment (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). It was followed by two others in the series: Selbs Betrug (Deception) and Selbs Mord (Murder). His other books are The Reader (1997), which is due to be made into a film by Anthony Minghella, and Flights of Love (2002).

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