The Beatrice Interview

Bernhard Schlink

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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The Reader, the first novel from German author Bernhard Schlink to be translated into English for American readers, is the story of Michael, a German teenager who has a curious romantic affair with an older woman named Hannah. She disappears from his life suddenly, only to reappear years later when, as a law student observing trials, he finds himself watching her on trial for her role as a guard in a concentration camp. The difficult moral and ethical questions raised in Michael's mind struck a chord with German readers, as well as those in the many countries where Schlink's novel has been translated. I spoke with Schlink during his tour of America, where critics' reactions have been strongly positive. (Note: A year later, The Reader was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.)

RH: Because you're primarily known in Germany as a writer of popular crime fiction, did The Reader catch your readers off guard?

BS: Not really. My mysteries are not entirely orthodox insofar as they don't just tell the story of a crime, they also deal with recent German history. So this wasn't too far out for [readers]. But the audience I've reached with this book is much bigger than the audience I'd reached with my mysteries.

RH: Michael's narration of the story, which is very interior in its focus, creates a very contemplative and introspective mood.

BS: You can't remember things that really played a major role in your life without contemplation and reflection. I think there's no such thing as a pure memory.

RH: And that contemplation seems crucial to the way modern Germans approach the problem of their past and their immediate ancestors.

BS: It's been one of the big subjects for my generation. For many families it's a personal issue, because it pits fathers against their children. One of my favorite teachers, the one who taught me English, taught me to love the English language, also taught us gymnastics and we could see his SS tattoo. One way or the other, we all had to confront it not as a theoretical abstract, but as a very real and personal problem.

RH: Has it been dealt with in German literature prior to your novel? Part of the problem for American readers is that, even if this was extensively discussed in Germany, we would know almost next to nothing about that because our exposure to European literature is so selective.

BS: There were many books right after the war, and then we didn't have very many books in the '50s and early '60s. The literature from the '60s to the '80s is mainly about the Holocaust itself. The Reader is one of the first books, I think, that addresses how the generation that came after deals with what the previous generation did. And that's why I think the book has found the interest it's found. My generation, and also the generation after mine, wanted something that deals with the question of how we cope with the Holocaust and the participation of our role models in it.

RH: Perhaps these questions gain a certain prominence in German culture today as an effect of reunification, as Germans are forced to ask themselves what it is to be one Germany again.

BS: I think that's right, but reunification also raises questions about Germany from abroad. There are new concerns, new interests, and new questions about how the rest of Europe and America will live with a unified Germany. And in what used to be the GDR, the question of how one deals with the past is again a very real, up-to- date question with the aftermath of the collapse of Communism, and comparisons -- valid or not -- are inevitable. But we all have to recognize that Germany is a nation with a particular past, and we all have to cope with that past.

RH: What's next for you?

BS: My two mystery novels were always meant to be parts one and two of a trilogy, so I will write one last mystery that deals with Germany's post-war history. The first one was about how the past of the Third Reich still reaches into our present time; the second one was about '68 and the terrorism of the '70s. And the third will be about what came after reunification.


Suggested further reading
Joseph Kanon | John Banville

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan