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DW interviews the internationally famous author about relationships, guilt and saying farewell. And his new book, "Abschiedsfarben," won't be his last.
Few living writers in Germany have garnered as much attention worldwide as Bernard Schlink . His 1995 book The Reader, which tells of a romance between a young boy and a concentration camp guard, has been translated into over 50 languages and become a world-wide bestseller. Recommended by US talk show host Oprah Winfrey, it found its way into a movie with Titanic star Kate Winslet in 2008.
A trained lawyer, Schlink taught law and philosophy of law for decades before trying his hand at writing books professionally. As he tells DW, he began to write as a hobby, simply because he has always liked to do so. After publishing several short stories and novels, Schlink quickly saw success. His first fiction work was published in 1987 and was followed by many more.
At 76 and now retired from his law career, Schlink has a new work out in German, a collection of short stories called Abschiedsfarben (Farewell Colors). The pieces touch on the topic of saying goodbye, relationships between men and women, between couples, and also between younger and older characters. DW's Jochen Kürten spoke with Schlink about his latest book and the success of The Reader.
Deutsche Welle: May I call your new collection of stories "Abschiedsfarben" a "late work?"
Bernhard Schlink: (laughs) I don't know what a "late work" is...
I'm thinking of the themes in the book: memories and how to deal with them, conscience, questions like 'Is life dealt with properly?'
These things can also occupy you in middle age or in youth. I once heard Edward Said (Ed: US literary theorist of Palestinian origin) give a lecture on 'late works.' The concept of a 'late work' done late in life is something that sums up everything you have worked on, thought and written about during the course of your life. It is, so to speak, the summation of your own work and life. These are certainly not the stories in Abschiedsfarben.
If you look at some of the themes that run through the stories, the topic of guilt comes up several times. Is that something that especially interests you?
I was interested in the topic of farewells. But with goodbyes there can be injuries, pain and sadness, and guilt also plays a role. So, in some stories the subject of farewell has also become the subject of guilt.
It's not about saying goodbye to life, but about saying goodbye in life. Farewells from people, farewells from stages of life, farewells from hopes, from expectations, from fears, from painful and liberating farewells. It is about the farewells that take place again and again in life that we deal with over and over.
What makes the relationships in your book so difficult?
It is about relationships between men and women, relationships between friends, between siblings, between parents and children. All these relationships, not only love relationships between man and woman, are central to us. And what is central for us is difficult. It's great and joyful in success and great and destructive in failure.
It is also about the relationship between older men and younger persons. In one story, the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is quoted. What interested you in this topic?
The story in which Lolita appears is about a mother and son. They go on a summer holiday together. She reads the book and he finds it on the beach chair and reads it too. For both, it is a summer of eroticism, but there is no erotic relationship between the mother, the older woman, and the young son.
"The Reader" was also about a relationship where the couple had a large age difference. Pictured is a scene from the 2008 film with Kate Winslet and David Kross
Melancholy and nostalgia waft through the stories, especially when it comes to relationships between men and woman. To put it bluntly: Are man and woman not meant to be together in the long run?
(laughs) I have no doubt that man and woman are made for each other, and that they can also succeed with each other in the long run. In the past, people used to die younger, and marriages were often shorter. Today's relationships are sometimes difficult simply because we live longer. But even today, relationships can last a lifetime.
You are one of the most successful German-speaking authors, and you live in New York. What is your experience there? Are you often asked about the international success of "The Reader"?
Whenever I'm asked about my writing, The Reader is always mentioned.
Do you feel comfortable with that? Some say 'Oh, I've written so many other things, it's not just about this one book.'
That doesn't bother me. To have such success once in a lifetime is wonderful. You can't and don't have to expect that again with the next book and the one after that. It is enough for me that I write the next book with the same joy.
Schlink shares his opinions during a discussion on identity, values and everyday culture in Schloss Neuhardenburg in 2018
As a lawyer one must work with precision and accuracy. But as a writer, you have greater freedom. Did this contrast appeal to you?
Even a good lawyer needs imagination. A lawyer who only reproduces what jurisprudence and literature have thought up and decided for him, who does not seek and find new answers to questions of law and justice, is a pitiful lawyer.
Could one say it the other way around: A pitiful writer would then be someone who writes superficially?
Accuracy and credibility are good for both lawyers and writers. I can't imagine my life without writing. But I couldn't and didn't want to give up law either; it's just as important to me. In the end, all creative processes are similar, whether you're writing a story or solving a legal problem or organizing a particularly nice birthday party for your daughter. All of these things make one happy.
"Abschiedsfarben" won't be your last book?
I hope not. I'm writing something new.
Bernhard Schlink's "Abschiedsfarben" was published by Swiss publishing house Diogenes, 232 pages, ISBN 978 3 257 07137.