Daniel Kehlmann: Guenter Grass .. A Prisoner of the Nobel

Roundup: Talking About History

[Daniel Kehlmann is the author of the forthcoming novel “Measuring the World.” This article was translated from the German by Ross Benjamin.]

A DIDACTIC play attempts to explain what man must do to make the world better and life more rational; a tragedy shows that life will never be rational and the world will never be good. Long before Bertolt Brecht, German culture was enamored with parables about the triumph of reason. Yet man is a tragic being, irrational and divided within himself, and so it is an enthralling spectacle when a life charted as a didactic play unexpectedly reveals a tragic aspect.

When Günter Grass confessed that he was in the Waffen SS as a young man, the cheap suspicions poured forth: “Oh, he’s publishing a new book,” said the people interviewed on the street. “He’s doing it for the marketing.”

Famous people fall under such permanent suspicion that even their failures are no longer perceived as authentic. Mr. Grass is supposed to have engineered the very destruction of his career so as to promote it. But this is not about book sales for Mr. Grass, so much as it is about rescuing his life’s work and the persona that he took such pains to shape.

The postwar German milieu made political demands on a writer above all else. Reading interviews in the German press from the 1950’s to the late 70’s, it is amazing to see that writers were seldom asked about their books, but rather asked insistently about Richard Nixon and rearmament, about Willy Brandt and Leonid Brezhnev, about everything in the headlines of the day.

In this climate, authors like Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luís Borges remained practically unknown, and even Samuel Beckett was revered only because it was suggested that his plays warned against nuclear war. Yet Günter Grass, the irreverent storyteller whose erotically coarse passages shocked the public and who, according to his own accounts, was at first not at all interested in politics, suddenly strove to assume Thomas Mann’s recently vacated position as the iconic German epic novelist — even at the price of becoming a different writer.

What kind of writer would Mr. Grass have become in another land? The question is fascinating but unanswerable. He wrote electoral addresses and poems praising the Social Democratic Party, intervened almost weekly in political quarrels, had a decent opinion about everything, and became the opposite of the anarchistic demon Oskar Matzerath in his novel “The Tin Drum.”...

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