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'The Reader' author turns 75

Dagmar Breitenbach
July 5, 2019

Bernhard Schlink tends to focus on Germany's painful legacies, including the Nazi past and the 1970s leftist RAF terror group. On Saturday, the bestselling author turns 75.

Bernhard Schlink
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/C. Hardt

Novelist, judge, professor — for decades, Bernhard Schlink has been successful in two worlds and two professions that have one thing in common: Both writers and lawyers rely heavily on language, and especially the right choice of word.

It was his fourth book, the 1995 novel The Reader, that catapulted the German state constitutional court judge to international literary fame. The story of a love affair between a young high school student and an older woman who turns out to to be an illiterate former concentration camp guard, it became a bestseller in Germany soon after publication.

Global bestseller

The Reader has been translated into at least 50 languages and, a first for a German novel, made it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The novel has become standard reading material in German schools and book clubs, and in 2008 was adapted by Hollywood into an Oscar-winning film starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes — its five nominations included best film, with Winslet winning best actress.

Few books by German authors have enjoyed such international success. But it didn't come without controversy. The film adaptation was heavily criticized by the likes of Explaining Hitler author Ron Rosenbaum who, writing in Slate, said it asked "us to empathize with an unrepentant mass murderer and intimates that 'ordinary Germans' were ignorant of the extermination until after the war."  

'The Reader' by Bernhard Schlink

Before hitting on the top-seller, Schlink had already published a trilogy — also successful — about a German private eye by the name of Gerhard Selb (Selb is German for "self").

Despite his literary prowess and accomplishments, however, Schlink's main profession was not novelist but law professor and judge. He might have also become a priest.

Born on July 6, 1944 in the German city of Bielefeld, the youngest of four children, Schlink was the son of a German theology professor and a Swiss mother and moved to Heidelberg at a young age after his father became a pastor. In interviews, he has recalled the nightly family ritual of reading the bible out loud after dinner.

Legal career

Schlink studied law in Heidelberg and Berlin, where he graduated from the Free University in 1968. He taught constitutional and administration law in Bonn and was a judge at the North Rhine-Westphalia constitutional court from 1987 to 2006. Co-author of a tome on constitutional law that is a standard read for law students in Germany, he moved on to teach at Frankfurt's Wolfgang Goethe University in 1991, and to Humboldt University in Berlin a year later.

Film still  The Reader, a young man lies on a bed and reads to a woman lying on her stomach next to him
A scene from film adaptation of "The Reader" that was not without controversyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Senator Film

The young professor had a law degree and a doctorate but was restless and felt something was missing, he told the Frankfurter Rundschau in an interview in 2013. He signed up for a goldsmith workshop to try his hand at making jewelry and enrolled at the California Massage Institute — only to realize that neither were what he was looking for.

'Perceptive narrator'

Eventually Schlink found his second calling — "I always enjoyed writing as a student, and in a way, I returned to it" — and launched what was to become a successful writing career with the Selb books in 1987. Thirty-one years and many books and essays later, he published Olga, his most recent novel, in 2018.

Time and again, Schlink explores Germany's historical legacies, from the Nazi era to the far left Red Army Faction terrorist group of the 1970s that is the focus of 2008's, The Weekend.

"Bernhard Schlink is one of the biggest talents in contemporary German literature," commentator Michael Kluger once wrote in the Frankfurter Neue Presse daily. "He is a perceptive and highly intelligent narrator. His prose is clear, precise and nicely elegant."

Today, Bernhard Schlink lives in New York and Berlin.