Editorial from PN Review 171
It is fifty years since the death of Bertolt Brecht, a writer whose political complexity baffled and defined an age, and whose evasions continue to fascinate biographers. He is much in the news, with new editions of his books and a heightened dialogue in progress between his works and contemporary German-language writers. There is something about his engagement, and the quality of his seriousness, that continue to recommend him, and his poetry is weathering rather better than his plays. His legacy to German writers is celebrated in Karen Leeder’s anthology of poems to and about Brecht, by over fifty contemporaries. He is an antidote to the ‘hurricane of forgetting’ that ‘sweeps through the age’ in Heinz Czechowski’s poem to him. Forgetting and remembering have been much in the literary news in recent weeks. So much so, that they have spilled over into the main news as well. Michael Hamburger included the little poem Family Matters by Günter Grass in the 1969 Selected Poems, published by Penguin.
In our museum – we always go there on Sundays –
they have opened a new department.
our aborted children, pale, serious embryos,
sit there in plain glass jars
and worry about their parents’ future.
Now Grass has published his memoirs, Beim Haüten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) which at the time PN Review 171 went to press had sold over a quarter of a million copies. With it he opened a new department in his biography. Press interviews, notably one with Frank Schirrmacher and Hubert Spiegel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (12 August, widely syndicated), drew attention to the fact that as a boy of seventeen, towards the end of World War II, he was drafted by the Waffen-SS and served in Dresden. Though he never made a secret of his activity during and after the war, when he was detained by the Americans, he has never before provided full details. A pale, serious embryo has been staring at him for over fifty years, and now he has put it on display.
From this distance in time, and from this language and culture, it is easy to pass summary judgement on the author, but inadvisable to do so. The press and other media here and abroad have not felt inhibited, however. Immediately in his native Poland Lech Walesa called for Grass to be stripped of his Nobel Prize for Literature and to surrender his honorary citizenship of Gdansk (a.k.a. Danzig, the city where Grass grew up). Adam Michnik, editor of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, commented, ‘literature has never been Lech Walesa’s strong card’, but opinions he delivers abundantly, not least affirming as fact that Grass included the confession to cause a furore and sell his book. Jacek Kurski, a deputy for the ruling Law and Justice Party, was as outspoken as Walesa, and as ignorant. According to polls taken in recent days, only 25% of Poles want Grass to be stripped of his honours, while 58% are ‘on his side’ and 17% frankly couldn’t care one way or the other. Those who came to Grass’s defence, including the mayor of Gdansk and Archbishop Jozef Michalik, president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, were concerned with the immediate issue of his confession. Of course, it only matters because he is a great writer; and yet what he has written weighs lightly in the scales against this belatedly revealed biographical fact.
Asked why he had decided to tell the whole truth now, in his 79th year, Grass said, ‘Because it tormented me.’ In an exchange of open letters with Kenzaburo Oe written in 1995, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of World War II, Grass writes of how he experienced ‘the collapse of a pyramid of beliefs supported to the very end by propaganda whose promise was that of final victory. My emptiness was commensurate with that’ – a huge emptiness, almost unimaginable – ‘I had nothing to hold on to, felt consigned to mute ignorance. The only thing that was strong and somehow untroubled was my will to survive.’ A year later he told The New York Times in an interview, ‘I belonged to the Hitler Youth, and I believed in its aims up to the end of the war.’
There is a kind of anger in the memories as recorded through metaphor, in that sense of betrayal at the deepest level, which may have contributed to Grass’s reluctance to acknowledge in so many words, even to himself, this adolescent complicity, a sense of unspeakable degradation which the retrospect gave him. Because he is a writer who lays so much emphasis on the importance of forcing a culture to remember its deeds, however, it is natural for his critics to demand from him individually the kind of thorough turning out of his pockets that he has required of his culture at large. It is the very silence that he attacked in others and that he himself has practised that caused the huge sense of betrayal among his admirers and of delighted outrage among his detractors. He was a moral persona in the German-speaking world in ways we find it hard to know and feel, since our culture tends to ironise Jeremiahs.
Yet we, and I dare say most of his German readers as well, do not know the processes of his imagination: factual confession can displace the creativity which sublimation fertilises. Circumstantial candour does not necessarily lead to truth-telling, though figurative candour can. Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and elsewhere writes vividly about the ways in which articulating specific memories actually closes the full complexity of past experience down.
‘There are times,’ said Miguel de Unamuno when the Fascists had occupied the university of which he was rector, ‘when to be silent is to lie.’ There may be times, in the life of a writer with a strong sense of history and a heavy burden of guilt, when to foreground the facts of his own life, to lay bare the profound paradox and confusion from which his creative work has flowed, would be to trash his gift. Had Grass ‘come out’, as he has put it, in 1950, or 1959 when The Tin Drum was published, his work would have been read differently, certainly; it would also have been written differently. Could he have written it at all if he had made a personal confession and foregrounded his own deeds when in fact what matters, in terms of the writing, is not what he did as an adolescent but what he made as an adult? That making had behind it both the experience of the War and the experience of its aftermath.
Which is not to exonerate the author, whose silence is clearly a kind of hypocrisy (it may be other things as well) and whose sudden candour can, in certain noses, reek of opportunism. His statements have been analysed in almost every major newspaper in the world, even in those with no interest in literature, where the verdicts have been most perfunctory. The patterns of response can generally be correlated to the papers’ political agendas. There is a disheartening predictability about it. ‘Günter Grass has been making moral demands on politicians all his life,’ Wolfgang Börsen, a Christian Democratic Union spokesman, told Bild. ‘Now he should make these demands on himself and honourably give back all the honours he received, including the Nobel Prize.’
Grass is criticised especially from the right. One commentator tried to give a positive spin to the news. ‘He might just as well stand accused of embodying, far more fully than his readers could ever have guessed, the unbearable historical and ethical tragedy implicit in his work. Memory should always speak, no matter how painful. That it has done so for Grass, only at last, means that he will forever be constrained by his own lie.’ Salman Rushdie was shocked, but more forthright in his defence of the writer. ‘I feel the outrage is a little bit manufactured,’ he said. He properly referred readers back to Grass’s books. They stand even if the author’s ‘moral authority’ is now damaged and his long silence adds layers irony to our reading of The Tin Drum and other works. Rushdie sees Grass with Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the towering figure of modern fiction. Marquez, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit reminds us, has not been stigmatised for his endorsements of Castro, or his instrumentalist declaration when he won the Nobel Prize that ‘we must expropriate the word as we once did the oil industry’.
In a measured Leader, The New York Times came up with a formulation which gives, it seems to me, proper weight to the action, and inaction, of the imaginative writer: ‘To us, his novels have dramatized the problem of the conscience in history […] better than the work of almost any other writer. Everything he has written will now be reread with an ironic eye, but the weight of the work will stand unchanged. With this revelation, Günter Grass has become, in a sense, his own final chapter.’ This is an elegant, Borgesian kind of formulation, perhaps; yet, put inelegantly, Grass has revealed a political hook off which he will never be able to get.