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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Seeing ourselves in Günter Grass

From Timothy Garton Ash's essay on Günter Grass in the currrent NY Review of Books:

How should we judge the Grass affair? Judge it not in the "kangaroo court" of immediate press reaction, but calmly, considering all the available evidence, as in the slow court of history. The first and obvious point to make is that his achievement as a novelist is unaffected. Auden said it better than anyone:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

[Wikipedia tells me that Paul Claudel was a French conservative who praised Vichy's Marshal Petain in poetry, though his reputation as an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer was undeserved. -BW]

And time will pardon Günter Grass. For the German language lives through him, as it does, in different ways, through Christa Wolf, and through the poet he befriended in Paris while he was writing The Tin Drum, Paul Celan.

His staunchest defenders claim that his standing as a political and moral authority is also unaffected. That seems to me implausible, to put it mildly; but not all his activism is equally affected. Probably his most distinctive political contribution has been to German–Polish reconciliation. A small token of his exemplary attitude is that he refers in his memoir to present-day Gdańsk, formerly Danzig, by its Polish name—something unusual among German writers. Poles were, of course, as shocked as anyone by the initial revelation, and Lech Wałęsa spontaneously said that Grass should be stripped of his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk.

But then Grass wrote a pained, dignified, apologetic letter to the mayor of Gdańsk. For me, the most moving text in the entire documentary record is the mayor's account of how he and his colleagues waited nervously for the novelist's letter (would he say what was needed? would he find the right tone?); received and read it with relief and appreciation; hurried to have it translated into Polish; then asked an actor to read it out loud to a large gathering in the City Hall. There was a moment's silence when the actor finished. Then the audience broke into a storm of applause. The mayor concludes his account, in the German version printed here, Danzig versteht seinen Sohn. Or, as he must have written in the original Polish, Gdańsk understands its son.

Ash also provides a fascinating footnote:
It seems worth adding that at a remarkable event with Günter Grass and Norman Mailer, ... Mailer... gave a strikingly acute and sympathetic "guess as a novelist" about Grass's behavior:
I think probably he felt he couldn't get into it before this. Because, one, he wasn't ready to write about it [i.e., hadn't found the appropriate literary form], and, two, there was so much to lose. There was so much to lose as the years went by. There was more and more to lose in terms of what he believed in.... And so now he's paying the dues. But I must say, that I'm happy to be here tonight with him, and I honor the man.

Mailer, who indicated that this might be one of his last public appearances, also told the audience that the Grass story had prompted him to start "searching my own life," asking

what have I held on to for a long, long time and never written about, and indeed...may never write about? And it seems to me that stabbing my wife, Adele, is probably what I will never write about.
Each writer has these unnavigable waters or unexplorable caverns or any number of other treacherous metaphors. Novelists at least have the ability to excavate by proxy; the subconscious mind may even play out repressed dramas through fiction without the writer's knowing it. But journalists and nonfiction writers, bloggers included, explore our own dark secrets at a greater peril. When any acquaintance may quickly find an extensive digital record of my thoughts, I must be careful not to think out loud too freely. I might refuse this hobble, and trade uninhibited expression for the likelihood that coworkers and old flames will know my every shameful thought and bedroom confidence. I could do like several friends and blog anonymously. Or I could keep trying to expose just enough to make sense of what I wish to say, while never going so far as to shock any aunts or in-laws.

Ash thinks Grass's lasting effect will be as a warning to others who, like Mailer, have failed to square their internal accounts:
What will be the effect of Grass's belated revelation? As he approaches the end of his life... Grass suddenly demolishes his own statue— not as a writer of fiction, but as a moral authority on frank and timely facing up to the Nazi past—and leaves its ruins lying, like Shelley's Ozymandias, as a warning beside the roadside. Nothing he could say or write on this subject would be half so effective as the personal example that he has now left us. For sixty years even Günter Grass could not come clean about being a member of the Waffen-SS! Look, stranger, and tremble.
But along with Grass's mistake as a builder of moral capital is a different kind of missed opportunity: the chance to help others also mired in shame.

If Gunter Grass, the great moral voice against compicity with Naziism, could have acknowledged his SS participation as part of his reckoning, surely he would have inspired others to speak of their past. My father co-translated a German book, The Collective Silence, which described psychotherapy with children of Nazis and other war participants; the common experience was that their fathers retreated behind an impenetrable wall of shame, and that the children never got a chance to hear their stories, struggle with them, or forgive them.

My half-sister's grandfather was a soldier for the Germans, and similarly refused to ever discuss those years. He confessed only to his wife, and swore her to secrecy; after he died, she refused her children's pleas and kept his story to the grave. Maybe he, or she, could have been moved by knowing the complete Grass in the 60s.

I am thinking about these things because of the recent suicide of a friend of many college friends, whom I remember disagreeing passionately with my politics as often as he inspired a manic sense of camaraderie with me and everyone around him. I have no idea what his inner world was like in the years before he died, but I wonder if his pain might have been eased by knowing better how much I and other friends struggle with our own demons. Ours are hardly as demonic as the Waffen-SS, but in the petri dish of the isolated mind, they can loom as large.