the man who broke the silence
Truth-teller, controversialist, affectionate friend – above all, ingenious and inspirational novelist … Orhan Pamuk, John Irving and other writers salute Günter Grass, who died this week
Saturday 18 April 2015 09.36 BST
|Günter Grass in 1989|
Photo by Udo Hesse
Poster by T.A.
Don’t mourn for Günter Grass! Eat and drink for him, pork belly and black lentils and golden Westphalian beer. And then remember somebody else who can never die, and who seems now to stand for so much of Grass’s lust for real, bad-smelling, defiant life.
I mean his character Tulla Pokriefke, first met in Cat and Mouse and last seen in Crabwalk, his final novel. She starts as a scabby, dirty-minded teenager in wartime Danzig, who gets conscripted as a tram conductor. She ends up as an insufferable old matriarch in East Germany, suspect to everyone for speaking her mind, for blubbing over Stalin’s death and yet loudly defending the Nazi “Strength Through Joy” cruises for working-class families. Somebody in Crabwalk says: “That’s always been Tulla’s way. She says things other people don’t wish to hear. Of course she sometimes exaggerates just a bit.”
Foreigners – not Germans – came to call him “the conscience of the nation”. Grass was never that. He never missed a chance to upbraid his fellow countrymen for complacency, cowardice or inattention to the past. But in reality he was a connoisseur of compromise. His Danzig family background was the Kaszub (Slavic) minority, one of those communities that answers “Who are you?” with “Who’s asking?”. As a boy, Grass was an unthinking true believer in Hitler’s Reich. It was only after the war that he began to feel that getting by and letting be might be more noble than flaming faith.
When I first saw him, an un-German figure with his black whiskers and sharp black eyes, he was leading a march to demand the overthrow of the Springer Press empire. Then I came across him in his “Bus Party” – his attempt to smash open the nervous smugness of a West German election campaign by taking a coach-load of urban intellectuals round the small towns to preach disrespect and ask people what they really wanted. (Many years later we took Grass’s idea to Scotland, with touring bus parties of writers and singers stirring up the referendum campaigns.) In those days, he was a non-party Social Democrat (SPD). His friend Willy Brandt privately loved his attacks on the inhibitions and repressions of the Bonn republic, but wouldn’t say so openly. When the SPD made yet another shaming mistake, people would say: Scheisse! Trotzdem – SPD! (“Oh shit! But in spite of that, SPD …”)
|Günter Grass (centre) with then German chancellor Willy Brandt (right) and his colleague Heinrich Böll (left) during the first congress of the German Writers’ Association in Stuttgart, January 1970. Photograph: Dick/EPA|
That was Grass’s motto too. In From the Diary of a Snail, he argued fiercely for the SPD’s step-by-painful-step progress, as opposed to instant revolution. Dürer’sMelencolia, sulking over yet another failed plan, was his pin-up girl.
That brought him up against the white-hot certainties of the 1960s student revolution. In 1968, I watched him being shouted down by a young audience as he tried – rather pompously – to tell them to be less dogmatic. “Grass, you toad – stop pretending to be Goethe!” By now the most celebrated critic of the establishment, Grass was utterly taken aback by this.
As years passed, the world admired him more and his own people less. Conservative nationalists, still smarting fromThe Tin Drum, took the chance to savage him when in 1990 he declared that the reunification of Germany was a fatal mistake – a hubristic Anschluss that would end badly. The king of critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, murdered his later novels. Then, in 2006, he revealed that he had served briefly in the Waffen-SS, and his enemies pounced. The uproar was absurd. He had been a 17-year-old schoolboy conscripted into the unit, like thousands of others. Had he admitted this 40 years earlier, nobody would have cared. But by hiding it, while reproving others for concealing their pasts, he brought a storm of synthetic outrage on his own head.
His creativity – fiction, poetry, marvellous graphic art and sculpture – was vast. His gift for earthy, shameless cookery was related to his taste for gut-heaving scenes in his novels (the eels in the dead horse’s head in The Tin Drum provided the yuck of the decade). Vast, too, was his capacity to drink all night and still be funny and affectionate at dawn. Because of him, people are more ready to hear what they don’t want to hear. But whose voice will say it now? As Grass used to tell crowds: “The citizen’s first duty is not to keep quiet.”
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Günter Grass was a name I knew long before I read him. His volumes lived on my parents’ bookshelves, the somewhat po-faced flounder on the dust jacket of Der Butt (The Flounder) an unsettling but nonetheless compelling call to open the covers. Grass was an artist as well as a writer, and famously designed his own book jackets. The image he created for Der Butt – a dark line-drawing, a fish depicted whispering into a listening ear – is redolent of secrets, of unease.
He established himself from the first as an exposer of Third Reich shame and secrets, The Tin Drum dismantling the failures of his parents’ generation with a shrewd and deft storyteller’s irony. Bold and very funny, often grotesquely so, the following two volumes of his Danzig trilogy confirmed him as the moral compass for a generation of postwar German leftwingers. Over his career he became a thorn in the side not just of conservatives, but ideologues of all kinds.
By the 1970s, his books were publishing events, with enormous first print runs, advance copies in the thousands and reading tours that pulled in significant audiences. His modus operandi, like Oskar, his drumming protagonist, was to make a big noise. He sought to do this, increasingly, through controversy, enraging feminists with the amoral philandering anti-hero of Der Butt, for example. More recently, in 2012, he got himself banned from Israel over a poem about Iran.
The Tin Drum remains a model of excellence: a book to find solace in for its wit and sharp-eyed characterisation. Anna Bronski, the drumming Oskar’s grandmother, is one of world literature’s great supporting characters, and I frequently use extracts of her depiction when running seminars on the writer’s craft. He also spoke out against the reunification process. In that brief and turbulent time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but before the two Germanys were joined again, many in the east debated the idea of remaining a separate state, even of having another go at socialism, without the Wall and the Stasi. However unrealistic this seems with hindsight, or when seen from the outside, for countless East Germans, the pace and presumption of reunification were an affront. Grass’s approach to this was typically intemperate: he compared the process to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. By then, he seemed always to have half an eye on his reputation.
But his books mattered; in his heyday, there was a sense that literary fiction should and did matter. He wasn’t alone: Heinrich Böll, his fellow German Nobel laureate, also took Third Reich guilt and postwar silences as his themes, and Walter Kempowski, whose Echolot and final novel are now available in English translation, used dry wit to underscore his countrymen’s hypocrisies. Grass, however, was arguably the key public literary figure of that generation; his work essential reading for the German book-buying public, whether they approved of him or not. My Hamburg grandmother fell into the latter category, but she insisted my cultural education – one of those stiffly German notions, which Grass so delighted in thumbing his nose at – would be incomplete without his stories.
|Günter Grass is awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1999. |
Photograph: Anders Jahrner/Rex Features
With his revelation, late in life, of his teenage Waffen-SS membership, Grass became the story; the secret he kept back, almost to the last, making his life’s narrative seem more tightly – and more conventionally – plotted than any of his fiction. It was distasteful, given the moral status he’d so long enjoyed and exploited, and perhaps especially given that it came out as part of the advance publicity for his memoirs. For many, this was the last straw: who could take him seriously any more?
The revelation has figured prominently in every obituary and article I’ve read this week, and rightly so but for the pall it casts over the brilliance of Grass’s early work. This does the writing, if not the man, an injustice; it might even be missing the point. Grass was a phenomenon: a man of so many parts. Artist, sculptor, journalist, speechwriter. Acid-penned novelist, derider of silences, pricker of postwar consciences and complacent West German bubbles. Attention-seeker, celebrity author and political animal. It was salutary, and bitingly ironic, to discover him to be also (as the Germans say) stinknormal, stinkingly normal. His wartime record reads like that of any number of other German teenage boys at the time. Tarred, in the end, with the same brush he wielded, and with the same historical brush as his nation, Grass led an exemplary – in both senses – 20th-century German life.
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Günter Grass had one great flaw: his self-righteous moralism. He spent much of his career attacking his compatriots for their self-serving forgetfulness about the murderous past. Not that he was always wrong to do this. On the contrary, he was often right. But there was something about his tone that came across as hectoring, like the denunciations that were so much part of the very past he abhorred.
When Grass revealed in his memoir that he had covered up his own past as a soldier in the Waffen-SS for 62 years, he could be accused of hypocrisy, too. Not that serving in the military arm of the SS as a 17-year-old boy was such a terrible offence. But Grass should have been the last person to hide it.
And yet, what is a flaw in real life can be a strength in art. For the same zealousness that marked Grass’s denunciations of his wartime peers inspired some of the greatest novels of the 20th century. He became a serious writer when most Germans suffered from a collective amnesia. Forgetting the recent past, they could concentrate on fattening up on the Economic Miracle.
Grass’s great novels of the late 1950s and early 1960s, collectively known as the Danzig trilogy, blew a great hole into that early postwar amnesia. Stung by his wild, earthy, cutting prose, Grass’s critics called his novels obscene. In fact, what was truly obscene was the suffocating air of prissy evasions, euphemisms and willed forgetfulness. As George Steiner once pointed out in a famous essay about Grass, the Third Reich had contaminated the German language itself with sentimental cant and bureaucratic weasel words for mass murder. Grass managed to cleanse the tainted language by dragging it through the sometimes dirty but always fertile soil of his imagination. This was a huge achievement, compared with which his personal flaws, however irritating they were at times, should fade into insignificance.
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The Tin Drum was, along with Howards End, the big novel of my adolescence – I must have read it four or five times. In June 1972, I was at Oxford, doing quite a lot on the student magazine the Isis, when I heard that Günter Grass was in town, giving a talk. I went to it and asked a minder if he would give an interview. Yes, came the eventual reply, but it would have to be on the late-night train back to London. We duly met on the 11.15, and were the only two people in our second-class carriage. Nervous and inhibited, I found myself virtually unable to mention his fiction, so we talked instead about politics and history – fascinating, of course, and he generously engaged, but not quite the conversation of my dreams. At Paddington he was met by the writer Eva Figes, and after he had introduced me to her we went our separate ways. More than 30 years later I had the chance to remind Figes of that moment. “You were that boy,” she disarmingly said, before explaining how her view of Grass as a writer had somewhat diminished, because she had come to the conclusion that he lacked an introspective dimension. That struck me, and still does, as an insightful and important criticism (relevant not only to Grass). Yet thinking this week about the totality of his life and work, I remain more grateful than I can say for that hour in his company, courtesy of British Rail.
Grass learned a lot from Rabelais and Céline and was influential in the development of “magical realism”and Márquez. When The Tin Drum was translated into Turkish in the early 70s, the old-fashioned Turkish social-realist writers were surprised to see that a political novel could be both experimental and popular. He taught us to base the story on the inventiveness of the writer no matter how cruel, harsh and political the story is. When I was pressured and sent to trial by the government in 2005, it was good to know that he cared and was active in defending me. In April 2010, when there was a volcanic ash cloud over Europe, he was in Istanbul and stayed longer than he planned. So each night we went to restaurants and drank and drank and talked and talked. I used to ask him about German literature in the 1950s and he would ask me about details about the political situation in Turkey. Since he was a painter and illustrater who had a studio, sharing one’s time between painting and writing was another subject that I enjoyed talking about. He was a generous, curious and a very warm friend, who continued to smoke his pipe and write when he was more than 80 years old.
One strange phenomenon of the 20th century was the sudden expansion of a certain magical mode of storytelling. Another strange phenomenon was the century’s obsessive interest in total war. There was, let’s say, a general mania for rearranging apparently stable facts, such as the way so many cities changed their name, according to the latest sketches of political cartographers. This was what happened to the Free City of Danzig, which lasted 19 years before it was abolished by the Nazi regime, and finally came to rest as the Polish city of Gdańsk, and it was in this city that the German novelist Günter Grass was born, and where he set the three works that made him famous. In the stacked series that began with The Tin Drum in 1959, followed by the novella Cat and Mouse in 1961 and then Dog Years in 1963, Grass invented a fantastical, deadpan style to match the fantastical, deadpan horrors of recent history.
Magical realism! It seems so sweet – when really it represents an absolute disillusionment, a mode that, in this era of automatic autofiction, is retrospectively acquiring a surprising analytic weight. When, in 1949, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier invented his neon catchphrase, lo real maravilloso, he meant it as a description of the colonised everyday, the world experienced as a defeat. And it was Grass’s trickster genius to notice that postwar Europe was a ruin, too, ravaged by invading ideologies. It’s why I love Salman Rushdie’s definition of Grass as a “migrant writer”, displaced from his birthplace, his language, and his past. It’s also why no one should be distracted by Grass’s public image: those photos that are all grouchy gravitas.
|Günter Grass, right, and Salman Rushdie wave to the crowd in front of a portrait of Grass, |
during his 70th birthday party in Hamburg’s Thalia theatre, October 1997.
Photograph: Christof Stache/AP
The essence of his fiction is its teeming, anarchic, comic, obscene detail, a sort of bourgeois phantasmagoria – a version of the real so sticky and amorphous that, naturally, it can also undergo changes of scale, and other impossible effects. But the reason to keep rereading him is that this imaginative delight is also a form of ethical thinking. The apparent innocence of his narrative voices encases a deeper slyness. He’s the novelist of moral absence. His dislike of the abstract art produced after the war, he once argued, was that it was really a form of convenient repression. And Grass was the connoisseur of the era’s moral dilapidation – he knew that state corruption dresses up as the apparently innocent domestic world, with its ornate photo frames and commemorative medals. It looks like plenitude, in other words, but it’s really a vacuum, a void.
And of course, you can find this bleakly punitive, just as you can triumphantly point to the fact that, as he finally admitted, he’d been part of the Waffen-SS, but I think that’s to ignore the way his art was always a form of self-inculpation. His play about Brecht rehearsing Coriolanus during the 1953 workers’ uprising ends with the Boss, alone on stage, uttering the apparent oxymoron: “Bowed down with guilt, I accuse you!” Forget the pipe and the moustache. That tragic, comical, defiant sentence is the true image of Günter Grass.
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I don’t suppose I’d read a novel by Grass for almost 30 years. It was embarrassing to start talking to cool literary Germans in Berlin in the early 1990s and to get a contemptuous once-over when you admitted to an enthusiasm in that direction. To them, he seemed utterly irrelevant. His books were written for the export market. Move on. I moved on.
Perhaps we are too susceptible to fashion when thinking about novels. The Flounder and Dog Years were compulsory reading for the mid-80s English student. Now, probably not so much. But to pick Grass up again – to start again where everyone starts, with The Tin Drum …
Most German novelists look southwards, like Thomas Mann, gazing towards Bavaria, Italy and the biblical lands. Grass looks eastwards, and it’s a cold wind he braces himself against. I’d forgotten the torrential quality of this furious book. Great piles of local detail swamp the reader, borne on the unstoppable rhythms of Oskar’s incantatory drumming. Thirty years on, an astonishing amount of the book had made its way permanently into the brain – the girl pissing in the soup, the terrible scenes in the cellar as Germany collapses and the famous image of the eels devouring the horse’s head. Sometimes I remembered a scene, though I’d forgotten which book it was from. And clearest of all was Oskar’s appalling voice, with its monstrous-cute way of talking about itself in the third person and the first person, as adorable children learn to do. That doesn’t leave you.
It has the rhythms and energy of a comic novel, like a gruesome travesty of Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull. It transformed the ambitions of the novel. Reading it just now was an odd experience, like rereading Tom Jones – so much in it was shadowed by recollections of other novels. Foreshadowed, rather: thoughThe Tin Drum is not at all a generous novel, it patiently explained to generations of novelists to come that great novels of the excesses of history could be filtered through small lives and grating, ugly voices. Midnight’s Children and Illywhacker, and Cloudstreet and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are rooted there, and even One Hundred Years of Solitude. Grass has been reviled, and much of the comments on him this week were concerned with his views and his acts. In the end, those matter about as much as Spenser’s do. It does no harm to read what matters: his novels. He was a great novelist.
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Where would West Germany have been without Günter Grass? He is a perfect example of how great writers can so profoundly overhaul how their societies are seen. Just as his almost exact contemporary García Márquez gave an entire generation a quite misleadingly vivid and brilliant sense of Latin America, so Grass wrestled into existence a new way of thinking about Germany.
Admittedly Grass’s vision was not one enjoyed universally by Germans themselves. Without him, West Germany might have been more clearly viewed as a plodding, evasive, workaday place – but thanks to the great convulsion of effort behind Grass’s first novels it became peopled with erupting, disgusting juxtapositions – eels and horses; gull shit, semen and rust. Violent recoil was not a bad response to a country frantically patching over its past. His later books did not have the same impact, but even a comparative failure such as The Meeting at Telgte was fascinating if the reader was in the right mood – and in Crabwalk he in many ways managed to reconnect brilliantly to the earlier world of the great Cat and Mouse – he always seemed particularly on his toes when thinking about the Baltic.
Just before Christmas I was wandering around the marvellous little museum in Lübeck devoted to his work (the Günter-Grass Haus) – this rightly emphasised his brilliance as a draughtsman and occasional sculptor, both in creating his own cover illustrations (I regret reading The Flounder but still feel the cover made it almost worthwhile) and in posters and prints of exemplary charisma. I remember feeling grateful that such a phenomenal figure should still be with us.
From behind the thicket of those eyebrows and the frames of those glasses, Günter Grass took on all-comers. Brandishing his pipe, he railed against the over-hasty union of East and West Germany, or Israeli aggression, or electronic books. No event or issue was so large or small that it might not provoke the great man’s rage. His public image veered from cultural gadfly to political protester; a man who loved nothing better than the sound of his shoe hitting the top of his opponent’s carefully polished desk.
Now that shoe is silenced. Grass died on Monday, aged 87, at his home in Lübeck. But the sound of its impacts was only ever half the truth.
In person he was generous and self‑deprecating. What was the biggest change he would make after winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1999? “Better hotel rooms.” What made him a writer? “As a child I was a great liar.” Speaking from New York on Monday night, the young German writer Daniel Kehlmann recalled a kindly, encouraging man who was known to dip his hand in his pocket for struggling writers. But the real counterweight to Grass’s lop-sided public image is his work.
It is hard to conceive a subject more essentially unfunny than the history of Germany in the first half of the 20th century. But that is the arena in which Grass chose to write his fiction. That is the material with which he chose to entertain. The decision alone constitutes a promise of deepest black comedy, and Grass delivered fearlessly. Whether orchestrating Oskar Matzerath’s escapades in The Tin Drum, or indeed his mother’s conception (achieved while Oskar’s grandfather evades pursuers by hiding under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field), or ventriloquising Hitler’s dog Prinz in Dog Years, Grass shrank from nothing.
He used material no one else had used and asked questions no one else had asked. He challenged bourgeois European values just as he exposed bourgeois lies, in particular the lie that Germans were somehow fated to behave as they did under the Nazis. Hitler was democratically elected, Grass reminded his readers. He was popular. You had choices, he told his fellow Germans.
So did Grass. Notoriously, he chose to remain silent over the fact that, in the final months of the war, he had been a member of the Waffen SS. The admission came in his 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion in which, among much else, he describes being conscripted into a Panzer division as a teenager before being wounded and captured by American forces a year later.
The issue is not Grass’s war record but his silence, which many ascribed to a wish to win the Nobel prize. Certainly no one’s moral stature is raised by keeping quiet for 52 years over one’s SS membership. At the same time, one might ask his critics (of whom there were and are no shortage) exactly what point they hope to make by pointing the finger at a teenager half a century later? That the Germans did not have choices? That Grass’s criticisms were wrong?
Through all this noise, the work remains. Salman Rushdie has acknowledged the general truth that it was Grass with his swirling comedic and fantastic narratives, his reworked fairytales and hilarious invective, who prefigured magical realism and showed how it could be used to tell European stories. For myself, beginning my novel The Pope’s Rhinoceros with a history of the Baltic Sea as narrated by a shoal of herring felt entirely natural as I wrote it. Without Grass’s example, I wonder if it would have even been possible. He has written much. I believe he has enabled much more.
Almost everything that could happen to a European writer in the 20th century, happened to Grass. The child of a Polish Catholic mother and a German Protestant father, he straddled contradictory positions all his life. His work is where that tension sings, in the profusion of characters, good, bad, ugly and indifferent who jabber, argue and joke their way through his extraordinary novels. He probably wrote too much and perhaps he lived too much as well. The books continue anyway, riotous and excessive. As a writer, I salute him. As a reader, I relish him. I’m about to reread The Tin Drum.
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Reading The Tin Drum nowadays, what comes to mind are the South American novelists, and the complex narrative structures of Rushdie and Pynchon. Only when remembering that Grass’s novel was published before all these works does it becomes clear how radical it was. It hit Germany’s literary scene, then characterised by a gentle realism, like a comet. The Nazi era seen through the eyes of a diabolic child who decided not to grow up – a demon figure with a sharp, wild, comical voice. The model for Grass was Simplicius Simplicissimus, Grimmelshausen’s great novel from the thirty years’ war: magical realism was born of the spirit of German baroque.
Grass has perhaps influenced the image of the political author more than any writer in Germany since Goethe. He vehemently rejected the concept of a poet living in seclusion a la Beckett or Nabokov – but also that of a radical critic of his times such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Noam Chomsky. Ever since Grass started to campaign for his friend Willy Brandt as a young writer, he was almost a wing of the Social Democrat party on his own – an institution, whose changing relationship to the party leadership was constantly covered by the newspapers. It is easy to scoff at this but something remarkable is behind it – his acceptance of realpolitik. From the beginning he put his trust in the unspectacular game of daily politics with its tiring discussions and tough compromises; in other words, in democracy. It was no easy thing. A friend of mine was in the audience when Grass was forced to leave a theatre premiere in Berlin in the 1970s because the actors refused to perform in the presence of “this fascist” (that is, the Social Democrat). In politics, he did not look for the glamorous things or the radical chic – what was important to him was to solve problems and improve the life of the people.
It is often said that writers are misanthropes, but keeping his distance was not Grass’s thing. Many colleagues told me that he assisted them with money; he simply did not see the Gruppe 47 as a literary friendship of convenience but as the centre of his work, just because the idea that writers have to gather and support each other was so important to him; and that is why his novella The Meeting at Telgte – in which German authors of that time gather at the end of the thirty years’ war in order to reflect together on the course of time – may be the most beautiful celebration of literary solidarity in world literature.
He bore the burden of his fame with grace and humour all his life. “Writing has been harder ever since”, he once laconically noted in an essay on The Tin Drumbut otherwise he did not say a word of complaint about all the criticism that followed each of his remarks. “Now comes the time when everybody knows more about you than you do yourself,” he once told me ironically when one of my novels turned into a success. A few months later, he reported in his autobiography that he had been a member of the SS and there followed a storm of indignation. Those who only knew his public statements were probably more surprised than the readers of his books, one theme of which is that young people are capable of the worst things and that innocence does not exist in this messy world. “Jesus Christ not pure,” he wrote in Dog Years, “Marx Engels not pure. Ashes not pure. And the host not pure. No idea stays pure. Even the flowering of art isn’t pure. And the sun has spots.”
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On my desk in Toronto is an unanswered letter from Günter Grass, mailed from Lübeck on 23 March. I’m sorry I didn’t answer him before he died. He wrote that his age was giving him a hard time, but he wasn’t complaining; he said his heart and lungs were “paying him back” for what he did to them – “smoking with assiduity”. He was grateful his brain was still working properly – immer noch klar im Kopf – was how he put it, adding, besser als umgekehrt. (My German isn’t great, but, roughly translated, “better than the other way around”.)
There was a sombre sentence in the last paragraph: Die Welt ist wieder einmal aus den Fugen und mir, dem kriegsgebrannten Kind, kommen böse Erinnerungen. That’s a hard one, literally, but what he means is: “The world is out of kilter once again, which brings dark memories to me, the child burned by war.”
I was 19 or 20 when I read The Tin Drum; I hadn’t known it was possible to be a contemporary novelist and a 19th-century storyteller. Oskar Matzerath refuses to grow; by remaining small and childlike, he is spared in the Nazi years – he survives the war but doesn’t escape the guilt.
When I was a student in Vienna, I volunteered to be a model for the life-drawing classes at an academy of the arts off the Ringstrasse. I said I had “experience”, but I wanted to be a model because Oskar Matzerath was one.
I reviewed Grass’s controversial autobiography, Peeling the Onion, for the New York Times Book Review in July 2007. Grass’s revelation – namely, that he had been drafted into the Waffen-SS when he was 17 – incensed his critics. One called the revelation “tortured”; others complained about the lateness of the admission. In the review, I called these criticisms “sanctimonious dismantling”. The Waffen-SS revelation was Grass’s story; he wrote about it with “a recurrent sense of shame”. Was he supposed to blab about his guilt to journalists? Then the journalists would have written his story, in their herd-instinct way. No one could have written about Grass’s shame better than he did. His autobiography is dedicated “to everyone from whom I have learned”.
I learned from my favourite 19th-century writers that I wanted to be a certain kind of novelist – like Dickens and Hardy, like Hawthorne and Melville. I learned from Grass how to do it.
One night at his house in Behlendorf – this was October 1995, my son Everett was only a four-year-old – Günter’s wife, Ute, had roasted a lamb, and Günter sang an English song to Everett, whose German was limited to a couple of colours and the numbers up to five. “One man and his dog went to mow a meadow” – that song. It goes on, up to 10 men and dogs. It was such a simple song, but Everett paid very close attention; he loved it. Later, my wife and I realised that Everett had not understood what a “meadow” was – or what “mow” meant. (Everett had been trying to figure out what those men and their dogs were doing, and to whom.)
That was a wonderful evening, but when I think of Günter now – 20 years after the meadow-mowing song – I think of him as the boy he was writing about when he wrote Peeling the Onion. He called himself “the war child badly burned and therefore inexorably attuned to contradiction”. (Perhaps more to the point, as Günter also described himself, “I found anything with a whiff of the national repugnant.”)
As a writer, Grass was one of the great ones. As a man, he held himself and his nation – meaning every nation, any nation and each individual – accountable. This is what I would write to him, if I could answer his letter.