Bernhard Schlink is arguably Germany’s most successful literary export to the Anglophone world. His covers will always bear the tagline ‘from the author of The Reader’. But there is more to his work than the novel which made his name.
Schlink began his writing career with a series of crime novels and still draws on his other life, as a professor of law and practising judge. His books range from the overtly political – for example The Weekend, which focuses on the legacy of the Red Army Faction, Germany’s homegrown terrorists of the 1970s – to the very intimate: Flights of Love and The Woman on the Stairs brim with the melancholy of loves lost and lives unlived.
Schlink is perceived by many as a spokesman for Germany’s past, specifically for Germany’s attempts to ‘master’ that past, but he prefers ambiguity to didacticism. Just as Hanna in The Reader is allowed her humanity, the protagonists of The Woman on the Stairs and The Weekend are given space to explain their actions, without overt judgement or the glamorising clichés usually attached to the Baader Meinhof gang.
An urbane and measured presence in German letters, Schlink has refused to let the international hype surrounding The Reader dictate the course of his career. His immediate follow-up was a short story collection, Flights of Love. And while the 2008 film of The Reader – directed by Stephen Daldry and featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Kate Winslet – cemented his international fanbase, he doesn’t seem to write with an international audience in mind. Reading his novels, you get more of a sense that he is writing for himself, perhaps even writing himself, probing his past, allowing the parallels between collective history and personal history to speak for themselves.
And now he has published Olga, the story of a rebellious woman whose life spans the key events in twentieth-century German history. The basic scenario is similar to that of The Reader: an older woman falls in love with a younger man.
But Olga marks a departure for Schlink. Told in three parts, the structure is less conventional than that of his previous novels. The first section sketches Olga’s early life and her courtship with Herbert, whose parents disapprove of her, a Slavic woman of low birth. The second tells Olga’s story from the point of view of a boy she adopted as a grown woman, who had fought the prejudices of the time to become a schoolteacher. And the third consists of the love letters she sends to Herbert, who has disappeared on an Artic expedition, never to be found.
Schlink has never shied away from writing strong and complicated female protagonists and, in the revolving-door narration of Olga, a portrait emerges of a woman at odds not only with her times but also with the realities of her life-long love. And so, while there are certainly parallels with The Reader, Schlink is more concerned with psychology than with the history of textbooks – history here is contingent, often shuffling off the page at key moments.
Born in 1944, Schlink would have been easily placed to become a poster boy for a new, thoughtful Germany, coming to terms with its past. But the career he has carved out is more multi-faceted than that, and in many ways his truest equivalent in English-language literature would be Julian Barnes. Success came to Schlink relatively late – The Reader was published when he was fifty-one – and his novels speak mostly of the autumn of life, with all the reflection and regret that entails. And perhaps that is the key to his success in the Anglophone world. By eschewing the heady experimentalism which characterised much post-war German literature, and training his precise, lawyerly eye on clear, straightforward prose, he could speak to an audience which responds better to ambiguity in content than in form.