Monday, July 09, 2007

When the Grass was greener...

For those interested in things Teutonic, you can read an interesting defense of Günter Grass in a recent article by John Irving for the International Herald Tribune: "'Peeling the Onion': Grass's shocking surprise? Not really" (July 6, 2007).

Having spent 6 long years living and studying in Germany, where I met Sun-Ae, I have a personal interest in that at times benighted land.

But my interest goes further back than that. German was the first foreign language that I studied, starting in the first semester of my sophomore year, and in that first class, I discovered that I have no talent for foreign languages. My passing grades bespoke more of the professors' generosity than of my achievements. I remain grateful for the "C" that Professor Martin gave me in German grammar and the "C" that Professor Crow gave me in German conversation.

Thanks, guys, for protecting my grade point average.

Only in my fourth semester did I actually earn a decent grade, and that grade was, astonishingly, an "A."

How did that happen?

Partly, I was helped by using the book and notes that my friend Margaret Robinson had used, for she had organized her studies in ways beyond my own organizational skills.

Thank you, Grace Margaret.

Mostly, however, I was helped by the fact that I was dealing with German literature -- and that I was allowed to write about it in English.

Ironically, the easiest German text for me to read was selections from Grass's 1961 novel Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse), which I was reading merely 15 years after its publication. I haven't looked at those excerpts since my 1977 class, but I still recall how 'English' they seemed. I remember thinking, "If this is modern German, maybe I can handle this language after all." It turned out to be Grass's idiosyncratic literary style rather than any largescale trend toward simplification of the language, but it gave me hope and encouraged me not to give up on German.

I was so encouraged that I even took Professor Martin's class on Goethe's Faust, which I enjoyed despite being overwhelmed by the non-Grassian, complex style.

After that, I turned more toward contemporary American authors ... like John Irving. I'd never previously heard of Irving, but on the advice of an English professor, I read The World According to Garp not long after its publication. I sort of liked it and went on to read one or two other books by Irving.

Now, I discover that Irving is a fan of Grass, so much a fan that he's willing to step forward and defend the man after Grass's 'confession' last year (2006) that he had served in the Waffen-SS, an admission that has occasioned great controversy in Germany and beyond because Grass had been seen as a moral authority for postwar Germans. He even received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

The confession is thus a great big deal.

I guess that I can understand how a green youth of merely 17 might not have the breadth of vision to understand what the Waffen-SS really meant, but I continue to wonder -- as does Joachim Fest -- why Grass waited about 60 years to own up:
"After 60 years, this confession comes a bit too late," Joachim Fest, a prominent historian, was quoted as saying in the magazine Der Spiegel. "I can't understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off." ("Nobel Laureate admits serving in elite Nazi unit," IHT, August 13, 2006, Reuters)
How, then, does Irving defend his hero Grass for waiting so long? In Irving's words:
Why had he waited so long to tell? his critics asked. (As if there had ever been a time when he wouldn't have been criticized for it!) A historian, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wondered why the revelation had come out "in such a tortured way." (As if there wasn't ample evidence of what was "tortured" about Grass in all the books leading up to this one!) Another writer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine conjectured that the last, unfulfilled mission of Grass's Frundsberg tank division was to get Hitler out of Berlin. ("In other words, Grass could have freed Hitler.") A writer in Die Tageszeitung accused Grass of "calculating"; shouldn't he have written to the Swedish Academy and offered a premature refusal? ("A former Waffen SS man would never have been considered for this prize.") A piece in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung said of Grass: "Posing as a self-assured moralist?" and so on. Both the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Frankfurter Rundschau complained about the lateness of the admission. But good writers write about the important stuff before they blab about it; good writers don't tell stories before they've written them!
More concisely put, Irving is saying that Grass was waiting until he could express his confession in the right words as part of a story.

And Irving is trying to put his defense of Grass in the right words -- words that will gain our sympathy. How? By claiming that Grass would have been criticized no matter when he might have revealed his role and by noting the at times perhaps unfairly excessive attacks on Grass in five major newspapers.

But these two points are irrelevant to the question of why Grass waited so long before his admission. After all, he is one of those postwar Germans who "had for decades demanded that Germans come to terms with their Nazi past by acknowledging history" ("Nobel Laureate"), a struggle expressed by the composite German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, so why should he be let off easy? Weightier Germans wonder, too:
"If I were cynical, I would say he did not reveal it sooner at the risk of not winning a Nobel Prize," Hellmuth Karasek, a leading literary critic, told German radio. "Don't misunderstand me: Grass deserved the Nobel prize more than any other German writer. But everything now has to be seen in a new light." ("Nobel Laureate")
Perhaps this is too cynical, for the younger, greener Grass would surely have had no inkling of a Nobel Prize to come. I would suspect that this reasons shifted as the years passed. In the end, as the final end approaches for Grass -- and realizing that truth will eventually out -- the novelist decides to author that history as his story. All critical commentary will then be mere footnotes to his authoritative version...

But why has Irving waited nearly a year to post this particular defense of Grass? He has a good excuse. The English translation of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel has just appeared:
Günter Grass, Peeling the Onion; translated by Michael Henry Heim (Harcourt, June 25, 2007)
Irving has, perhaps, been waiting to touch the green, green Grass of Heim.

Sorry ... couldn't resist.

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At 3:37 AM, Blogger Gina said...

Hello from the Bay Area and a tip o' the hat to a fellow Fulbright Germany alumnus (1993-94 for me). I've enjoyed reading through your reflections on Sir Gawain etc.

At 4:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Our time in Germany overlapped -- though I was a Naumann Fellow by the time you arrived. I did my research in Tuebingen. Where were you? Were you doing Medieval things?

Recent photos on your blog suggest an interest in the kingdom of plants. Tuebingen had excellent botanical gardens, which I often visited.

And you live in the Bay Area. I really miss that part of the world even though I do enjoy living in Seoul.

And you're a Copt ... sort of. Coptic was my best ancient language (and I'm reminded that I need to review it again).

How did you find my site? Via Unlocked Wordhoard?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:45 AM, Blogger Gina said...

Hi there. I was actually a Fulbright teaching assistant (the Half-Brights ;) ), because by the time I was aware of the competition, I didn't have time to put together a project. I actually applied on a whim- I was much more focused on grad school at the time. Looking back, I sort of wish I had passed up the Fulbright in favor of a grad fellowship I was also awarded. I wanted to travel, though, and youth is short-sighted. I was in a small town in the East, near Leipzig.

I believe I found your site while doing a search for an icon of St. Basil of Caesarea. You had a post on him a year or two ago, no?

At 2:51 AM, Blogger Gina said...

I forgot to add... the Germans are great gardeners. I've never been to Tübingen's gardens, nor the city itself. Near where I did my teaching assistantship was a large rosarium, however. They claimed it was the largest in the world, but that may have been leftover DDR hubris. :)

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gina, thanks for the extra information.

I also visited Leipzig during my time in Germany -- probably with my wife-to-be.

Yes, Germans are great gardeners.

I think that you're also correct about my having posted an entry on St. Basil.

As for regrets, there are always those, but a Fulbright year is ever something to treasure.

Jeffery Hodges

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