Dr Bernhard Scheller studied English and German at Karl-Marx Universität Leipzig in the 1960s and then taught English and some Australian literature until his retirement in 1993. His 1986 professorial thesis (Habilitationsschrift) on Australian drama is one of three substantial theses of research on Australian literature to emerge from the GDR, alongside Erich Gronke's dissertation on Henry Handel Richardson (Humboldt Universität Berlin, 1952) and Helmut Findeisen's on James Aldridge (Karl-Marx Universität Leipzig, ca. 1958). In his bibliography Scheller lists a number of smaller theses (Diplomarbeiten) on Australian literature produced by Leipzig undergraduates under his supervision in the 1970s and 1980s.
Scheller agreed to meet me in his favourite café in Windmühlenstraße, Leipzig, just a couple of tram stops from the city centre, to talk about his experiences researching and teaching Australian literature in the GDR as well as his involvement in editing work.
He arrives, under his arm one of the slim, light-brown editions of Reclam Leipzig's Voss, to which he wrote the afterword. He quickly spots me: next to my coffee lies Hans Petersen's bright orange Erkundungen: 31 australische Erzähler. The café is alive with students who are chatting, reading, typing on their laptops, and Scheller clearly feels at home in this vibrant atmosphere, although he is also a little bemused that these young men and women should be just a few clicks away from the rest of the world. (The café has wireless Internet.) A few minutes into our conversation, he relaxes and orders a beer. What follows is a transcript of my recording, translated and slightly edited for readability and augmented by details Scheller has since provided over the phone.
You studied English in the German Democratic Republic?
Yes, and that came a bit out of the blue, really. I completed my Abitur in Altenburg, a small town in Thuringia in 1962. At that time we all had to learn a trade before going on to university, to gain an appreciation for the world of work. So I went to a printer's and trained to become a typesetter, with good old metal type. That doesn't even exist anymore. But at the same time, I applied to go to university to become a teacher of English and German.