National Public Radio
Law & Justice In Everyday Life---
For 'The Reader,' Guilt Travels From Page To Screen
Weekend Edition Saturday,
January 3, 2009
First published in Germany in 1995 and recently adapted to film, Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader wrestles with guilt and complicity across generations.
The novel tells the story of a 15-year-old German boy's love affair with an older woman who, he later learns, worked for the Nazis during World War II.
Schlink tells Ari Shapiro that although the book is set in Germany and centers on Nazi war crimes, it isn't about the Holocaust per se. Rather, he says, it's about "the problem of what does it mean to us [and] how do we cope with the fact that someone we love, admire [and] respect turns out to have committed an awful crime?"
The Judge Who Could Not Rule
Law & Justice In Everyday Life, 2nd edition, 2002
"I think there is something in it, not to study where your heart really is."
-- Bernard Schlink, Dublin Writers Festival, 2001
Chapter 9, Interesting People I Have Met
For Bernhard Schlink, a justice on Germany's Constitutional Law Court, being a lawyer is not enough.
Faced with a dilemma he could not resolve, Schlink constructed an allegory without resolution. His novel, "The Reader," is about a case that will never end. It is a case involving condemnation and understanding.
"I wanted to pose myself both tasks ... But it was impossible to do both."
These are the words of Schlink's narrator, Michael Berg, a 15-year-old boy who comes of age after World War II and goes on to law school.
I met Schlink last month at the Dublin Writers Festival where he read from his work and took questions. Born in 1944, Schlink carries with him the burden of the Holocaust. It was an issue his parents' generation did not talk about.
Young Michael Berg has no choice. The sickly teenager, helped by an older woman after he vomits in the street, is drawn to his benefactor. He seeks her out to thank her. Then, "The Reader" brings together eros and philosophy in a way that has attracted scholars, the masses and Oprah Winfrey. It has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Hebrew.
The relationship between Michael Berg and railway conductor Hanna Schmitz involves long bouts of reading, him to her. It ends abruptly. She disappears.
Years later, law student Michael Berg observes a trial of concentration camp guards.
"We students in the camps seminar considered ourselves radical explorers. We tore open the windows and let in the air, the wind that finally whirled away the dust that society had permitted to settle over the horrors of the past."
Among the defendants is Hanna Schmitz. Michael confronts the horror of whether he had loved evil. He cannot shake off the effects of the trial. Nor can Schlink.
Law school graduate Michael Berg must choose a career: "I didn't see myself in any of the roles I had seen lawyers play at Hanna's trial. Prosecution seemed to me as grotesque a simplification as defense, and judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all." Or, as Schlink put it in an interview with a British publication: "When a judge's hand does not tremble a little as he condemns someone, that's pretty frightening."
Like Michael Berg, Schlink stuck to legal research. Today, the judge as novelist is also Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law and Philosophy of Law at Humboldt University in Berlin. He was a consultant on the draft of the Constitution for the German Democratic Republic in 1990 and the Lithuanian Constitution in 1992.
While serving the past year at the New York Public Library as a Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers, he commuted once a month to Germany for sessions of the Constitutional Court. "I thought I needed my Constitution, my court, but I did not," Schlink said. "Now I will devote more time to writing."
He said he was glad he studied law as opposed to writing: "I think there is something in it, not to study where your heart really is."
Readers of Schlink in English can also look forward to a detective trilogy now in the final stages of translation and publication. The trilogy uses a private investigator to explore Germany's postwar history including student unrest, terrorism and reunification.
Law & Justice In Everyday Life by Andy Thibault at Amazon.com
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