Grass’ Nobel Interview (1999)

A customary procedure in the rewarding of the Nobel Prize is a short interview regarding the work and life of the recipient.  Such is the case of this entry.  Grass’ short interview with the Nobel commission in 1999 is short, but endearing to the editor.  (Primarily because, like one of the interviewers in this article, the editor is a graduate student studying Günter Grass’ work.)  Nevertheless, Grass fields a number of questions regarding his work.

Grass primarily discusses his love of Camus, particularly The Myth of Sisyphus; discusses his childhood in the Free City of Danzig (now modern-day Gdansk); as well as his then-most recent novel, Too Far Afield, an exploration of the issues of modern Germany (including reuinification) from the framework of the novels of the 19th century German writer, Theodore Fontane, author of  Effi Briest, among other works.  Grass, in other interviews, would consider Too Far Afield to be one of his favorite novels of his own.

Interestingly, the country Grass is representing in his victory is not his hostland of Germany, but “The Free City of Danzig,” Grass’ hometown which no longer exists as an independent state.  Further, the award signifies that Grass’ work is rewarded for revealing “the forgotten face of history.”  His move by the Nobel committee is important as far as Grass studies is concerned inasmuch as it reminds scholars, fans, and critics that Grass adopts Germany as a response to his dispersal at the end of World War II.  Grass is not ethnically German, but Kashubian, an ethnic group whose homeland was situated in northern Poland, near Germany and Russia.  Grass’ work, particularly The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) and Crabwalk (Ims Krebgang) deal extensively with Grass’ relationship to his Kashubian heritage.

 

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Günter Grass and Norman Mailer Interview

This 2007 roundtable discussion, featured on C-Span, is quite unusual as far as Grass interviews go.  This two-hour video discussion features Grass and the American novelist, New Journalist and author of The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer engaged in discussion on the question of Grass’ membership in the Waffen-SS as a teenagers, both their writings, and Grass’ experience with Nazism in his childhood and adolescence.

The occasion for this discussion is the publication of Grass’ 2007 memoir, Peeling the Onion, wherein Grass disclosed his involvement with the SS as a teenager.  Meanwhile, Mailer discusses his first novel since 1997, The Castle in the Forrest, a fictionalized account of Adolf Hitler’s childhood.  Such a discussion is fascinating for Grass scholarship, primarily because Mailer’s work is not explicitly political, unlike Grass’; and Grass’ work being discussed here is a rare work of non-fiction in Grass’ oeuvre.

Furthermore, Grass’ experience with Nazism as a child is one that he does not wish to diminish.  He considers it here and in other public appearances and writings to be of considerable personal  and public import. Indeed, Grass’ writings, particularly his early writings (The Danzig Trilogy), are widely considered to be semi-autobiographical in nature.

Yet, the elephant in the room, as it were, is why did Grass wait so late into his career to reveal his involvement in the notorious Nazi organization?  In this interview, as well as a few others,  Grass refuses to give a clear answer.  In the interview linked, Grass claims that he told a number of fellow students and writers about his involvement, which  was met with indifference.  In other interviews (his appearance on Charlie Rose, for instance) , Grass describes the reluctance of his disclosure as a pragmatic political decision – after dedicating part of his career and life to purging the German government of Nazis, Grass seemingly felt the end of his life was an opportune time to get rid of one more.

Despite Grass’ unwillingness to disclose a consistent reason for his reticence on the issue of his involvement in the SS, the enormity of the confession cannot be understated and this interview is a rare and candid engagement with a famous American author on the issue of his youthful Nazism.

Günter Grass: The Art of Fiction no. 124

“The Art of Fiction” is a recurring feature of the prestigious literature journal, The Paris Review.  In “The Art of Fiction,” an individual author will discuss their work and the context which it was created, their personal life, and occasionally, will discuss politics.  In Grass’ “Art of Fiction” interview (which is, consequently, one of the lengthiest and richest interviews with Grass in English), he discusses his work; adaptations of his work, including the film adaptation of The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), directed by Volker Schlöndorf; his relationship with Chancellor Willy Brandt (whom Grass was a speechwriter for in the late 1960s, an experience Grass captures in his work, From the Diary of the Snail (Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke)); his thoughts on German reuinfication; popular conceptions of his work; and his thoughts on Germany’s attempt to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust.

As a result, this interview is one of the most important conducted with Grass due to the sheer volume of topics addressed, some of which do not appear elsewhere.  For instance, Grass responds in some ways to allegations that his 1977 novel, The Flounder (Die Butt) perpetuates negative gender stereotypes.  Grass dismisses these criticisms by stating that many feminists critics have not read the book in toto.  In the estimation of the editor of this archive, this answer is evasive and entails that Grass, at least when it comes to The Flounder, did not take criticism from the perspective of gender seriously.

In terms of the contemporary landscape this interview was conducted in, Grass is responding to calls to reunify Germany – an act which he controversially opposed.  Publications regarding Grass tend to condemn him for his anti-unification stance.  For instance, an obituary published by The Economist writes, “Rather than unification, Mr Grass advocated a confederation of the two Germanies, to avert the geopolitical danger of an overly powerful fatherland. East Germans begged to differ.” Grass explains his aversion to reunification as one guided more than caution, but by an acknowledgment that politics regarding the East, as practiced in East Germany were one of resentment, anger, and trauma, making an allegiance unlikely.  Whether Grass is vindicated or defeated by history on this topic aside,  to consider Grass’ opposition to reunification as an old man’s paranoia, misses the point entirely and derails the conversation regarding the justice of the arrangement.

Günter Grass: Man Muss ins Herz Treffen

This interview with Grass, conducted by German newspaper, Die Zeit, is entitled “Man Muss ins Herz Treffen.”  Roughly translated, this means “One Must meet the Heart.”  Consequently, this interview is deeply personal and involves, among other things, the writing of Grass’ first full novel, The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel).  Further, Grass speaks on the topic of theater, a topic that Grass seldom is asked.  Among Grass’ most overlooked works are his plays, many of which were composed after The Tin Drum.

Günter Grass: Writing Against the Wall

Find here a lengthy (38 minute) video interview with Grass, conducted by Louisiana Channel.  Louisiana Channel is a Danish multimedia museum and archive whose literary mission is to document the thoughts of writers on the topic of writing.  In addition to Grass, they have interviewed Umberto Eco, Joyce Carol Oates, Patti Smith, and many others.

In this interview with Grass, Louisiana Channel probes deep: speaking to Grass on a large manner of things, including his involvement in the SS, Grass’ personal life, German reunification, the Holocaust, Grass’ feelings on his own works, and his writing process.  Grass also discusses his adoration of Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Alfred Döblin.

The editor of this archive, Alex D. Cole, has transcribed this interview and his transcription can be found here.

A Political Introduction to Günter Grass

**Disclaimer: this post also appears on Discourses on Liberty**

-Alex Donovan Cole

The problems of modernity are indeed disconcerting, but they have always been with us.   Chiefly, modernity’s major problem is its lack of a readily apparent vital center for politics, whether in the form of a common identity or a common moral outlook.  This most often appears in the conflict between what Taylor calls “moral sources.”  According to Charles Taylor, “the drive to original vision will be hampered, will ultimately be lost in inner confusion, unless it can be placed in some way in relation to the language and vision of others.”[1]  The primary actor modernity concerns itself with, however, is the individual subject, making the possibility of this relation to “the vision of others” more difficult.

 

Taylor writes, “selfhood and the good” to the moderns “turn out to be inextricably intertwined themes.”[2]  Indeed, subjectivity allows an individual human being to evaluate claims regarding politics and personal ethics and pursue a lifestyle based upon their subjective understanding insofar as this lifestyle does not present a danger to others.  Despite the differences in moral outlooks, Taylor argues that the common claim of modernism is: “We…feel particularly strongly the demand for universal justice and beneficence, are peculiarly sensitive to claims of equality, feel the demands to freedom and self-rule as axiomatically justified, and put a very high priority on the avoidance of death and suffering.”[3] 

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