Grass: ian buruma enters the fray


How much does it really matter what Grass said to Bellow, or what his critics say about Grass, or what Grass says about the “white West”? In the long run, not a great deal. Grass’s intemperate pronouncements in the past few decades have scarcely driven German public opinion or foreign policy, and his best works—such as “The Tin Drum,” “Cat and Mouse,” “Dog Years,” and probably his memoir, too—will be read long after the political polemics, not to mention the current storm over his belated confession, have been forgotten. But there’s a connection between his polemical and literary work. Günter Grass is one of the last examples of a German tradition that puts poets and thinkers on a high pedestal, from which they deliver, like prophets, their verdicts on the world. There are times, certainly, when the writer can use his moral authority to good effect: Thomas Mann during the war, Grass after the war. At other times, the very things that make a man such as Grass a great novelist—the capacity to turn experience into myth, for example—can be obstacles to cogent political analysis. Grass’s role as a moralist and a scold came from the same imagination that created the fictions. But there are certain aspects of the past that should be precisely remembered, as Grass was always the first to point out, in anger, and now, one should hope, in sorrow.

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