Postwar odyssey

Bernhard Schlink on German guilt, legal scholarship and 'Homecoming.'

Bernhard Schlink 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bernhard Schlink 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Homecoming By Bernhard Schlink Pantheon 272 pages; $24 As a law student in 1960s Germany, Bernhard Schlink was taught by professors who served in the Third Reich. One Gestapo informer awakened him to the beauty of English; another one-time collaborator introduced him to the philosophical richness of the law. The conundrum of how to relate to parents and mentors who committed atrocities defined Schlink's generation of Germans. It was also the fulcrum of his best-selling 1995 novel The Reader - translated into 37 languages and, despite its avoidance of sentimentality, selected for Oprah's Book Club. The Reader told of 15-year-old Michael Berg's love affair with Hanna Schmitz, a streetcar conductor more than twice his age, whom he reencounters years later in a courtroom where she is being tried for war crimes. It is then that Michael discovers Hanna's secret - she is illiterate, and so ashamed of the fact that she falsely pleads guilty to writing an incriminating report. The novel drew criticism for its representation of an illiterate SS officer, with Cynthia Ozick arguing in Commentary that "Schlink's novel is the product, conscious or not, of a desire to divert from the culpability of a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur." Speaking by phone from Berlin, Schlink, 63, responds to Ozick's charge by saying that he doesn't see why the topic of the Holocaust obliges authors to only write about typical Nazis. "The Reader is about how one enters someone's guilt by loving that person - and then the conflict between whether you just break with that person or try to understand them," says Schlink, a law academic and recently retired constitutional judge, who splits his time between Berlin and New York. "I don't see why some like Ozick didn't see that." Despite sharing Michael's profession and age, Schlink always parries questions about whether he too had an affair with an older woman as an adolescent. But in Homecoming, his latest novel translated into English, Schlink explores an issue obviously close to him - the collaboration of intellectuals in Nazi Germany. The novel's narrator, Peter Debauer, is a legal scholar who was raised in postwar Germany always believing that his father was killed in the war. He becomes obsessed with discovering the author of a pulp novel he read as a child about a German soldier who returns home to find his wife with another man - in the exact locale of Peter's childhood. Peter's quest leads him to New York, where he intends to confront a septuagenarian legal theorist, John de Baur, about his wartime activities. Schlink says that the most common justification used by lawyers who participated in Nazism was that they were scrupulous professionals who followed the letter of the law. But some, like the fictional de Baur, created more intricate justifications. De Baur reinvented himself as a founder of "deconstructionist" legal theory. His book, The Odyssey of Law, argues that the law is merely an arbitrary system, with the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, in a state of constant flux. "If one has to justify collaboration, it's a pretty smart approach," Schlink says. In his covert strategy for expiating his past, de Baur recalls the American literary scholar, Paul de Man, who devoted his career to demonstrating the contingency of morality and meaning in texts. After his death, it was discovered that de Man had been a pro-fascist journalist in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Schlink also had in mind the case of Hans Schwerte - a prominent German literature scholar, finally revealed to be a Nazi fugitive. After 1945, Schwerte changed his name, remarried his wife, adopted his own children and wrote a new PhD. It is typical of Schlink's complex fiction that de Baur's nihilistic philosophy isn't simply demonized. Peter abandoned a dissertation in which he tried unsuccessfully to show that the justice should be understood in terms of absolute moral principles. "This is one of those things that we can't solve one way or another," Schlink says. "We have to live with the tension." Like Peter, Schlink taught constitutional law in East Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Visiting East Berlin for the first time felt like a strange kind of homecoming. "East Berlin didn't have painted houses and the streets were much darker with more potholes. It reminded me of my childhood because in the '50s the world was so gray." GROWING UP in a heavily Protestant family meant that Schlink had a strong sense of West Germany being only half a country. "Much of the Protestant tradition had its origin in what was then East Germany. Luther and Bach lived there." Schlink's religious upbringing fostered his fascination with moral questions. "My mother was pretty much only interested in situations, people and stories for their moral implications. That's certainly something she passed onto my siblings and myself." His two sisters both married theologians, while Schlink and his brother became academics - "devoted to our scholarship like Christians to their faith." His father, a Lutheran pastor, lost his teaching position at the theological seminary in Bethel for his membership in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. After his death, Schlink discovered a collection of sermons that he delivered immediately after the war, which preached the need for Germany to reconcile itself with the Nazi perpetrators. Punishment and expulsion played no role. "He didn't have any reason to whitewash anything, so I found it difficult to understand. I think the divide after 1945 between the Nazis and others in Germany was much deeper than he wanted it to be." Schlink and his father "weren't the closest," he says with characteristic understatement. "He didn't invite personal communication. He was brave in the Third Reich because he really feared God more than men. He was an extremely disciplined man." Schlink obviously inherited his father's discipline, which shows in his measured academic's speech and his spare, clinical prose. "The beauty of legal scholarship is its clarity and precision. I can only start a book once I know how it's going to end - maybe because I'm a pedantic lawyer." Schlink's disciplined approach to plot is particularly evident in his detective novels - Self's Punishment (2005) and Self's Deception (2007) - featuring the public prosecutor turned private eye Gerhard Self. "The most beautiful mysteries have their own precise and sober style. Self is older than I am, and I practice old age by writing about him." But Schlink's love of order doesn't extend to the ethical dilemmas presented in his fiction, which remain slippery and intractable. "In law I have to solve problems and decide cases. Fiction isn't there to solve problems but make us aware of intricacies." After writing short stories as a student, his academic career took over. "I thought that the joy of writing would fulfill itself in the joy of scholarship. For a while it even did." But Schlink returned to fiction in the 1980s, when he realized that something was missing. His newest novel, The Weekend, will be published in German later this month and is about a terrorist involved in the '68 riots. "Why did those who often started their political radicalization under the premise that they wanted to be better than their parents become murderers who killed drivers, police officers, bystanders and anyone who stood in their way?" His relationship with his father became particularly strained in 1968 when Schlink advocated reform - though not revolution - of the University of Heidelberg, where he was a student and his father had taught since 1946. "This was the university which he loved so much and he thought the next generation was destroying it." SCHLINK IS working on a screenplay for a German film of Homecoming, but he decided against writing the adaptation of The Reader - currently being made into a film by Stephen Daldry, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. "In the case of Homecoming, I thought the movie could not tell the story the way the novel does but only play with the novel in a new way to create something different. I found that interesting." He's pleased that Winslet will be playing Hanna Schmitz, after a pregnant Nicole Kidman withdrew from the project in January. "Although I'm a great admirer of Nicole Kidman's work, I think Kate Winslet has a womanly earthiness that Hanna had too. Like Hanna, she's a beautiful woman, but it's not a conventional beauty." Schlink was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastically younger Germans responded to Homecoming. He sees the theme of collective guilt as being less pertinent to the generation of his 35-year-old son, Jan, a dentist. "The second generation, by embracing the parents, teachers, pastors and figures of authority, became entangled into their guilt. The other option would have been to expel them, and some of us tried very hard in the years following '68 to break with the parents' generation. But that's not easily done. "The third generation are in a much different situation because they are much further away from their grandparents. Once we talk about great-grandparents, this option of expelling, and this entanglement, disappears."