SPIEGEL Interview with Günter Grass: 'The Nobel Prize Doesn't Inhibit Me in My Writing'
Part 2: 'I Would Like to Put a Stop to this Movement Toward Reading on Computers'
SPIEGEL: In "Grimms' Words," you even write that you have no objection to modifications of your name.
Grass: I take the liberty of writing Grass with either a double "s" or an "ß" (editor's note: a German letter equivalent to a double "s"). Before the German spelling reform, the word Hass (hate) was also written with an "ß." Personally, I like to use the "ß" when signing my name. I like these games, just as I get excited about different fonts or the quality of book paper. Luckily with Gerhard Steidl I have found a publisher who is a bookmaking fanatic and who treats his paper and printing machine with great affection.
SPIEGEL: You are one of the few authors who take charge of designing their own books. You have designed all of the book covers yourself. Why is this so important to you?
Grass: It's the final touch. It's just as much a part of it as the first sentence. And it requires the same care that's needed in writing.
SPIEGEL: What are the characteristics of a good cover?
Grass: It should summarize and simplify the content of the book like an emblem. On the cover of "Dog Years," this is achieved with the dog's head, which looks like a finger puppet from a shadow play. For "Local Anesthetic," I chose a lighter with a finger above it. This time it's letters. It wouldn't have made any sense to work with a double portrait of the Brothers Grimm, because it would have conveyed only part of the message. I held the finished book in my hands for the first time a few days ago. It's a wonderful experience every time.
SPIEGEL: Then you must be filled with dismay over developments in the book market. Sales of electronic books are growing rapidly in the United States.
Grass: I don't believe that this spells the end of the book. It will assume a different value. Mass production will be reduced, and the book will once again take on the appearance of an object worth keeping and passing on to our children.
SPIEGEL: Can you imagine "Grimms' Words" on an iPad?
Grass: Hardly. But I've also reached an agreement with my publisher that none of my books will be made available for that until a law protecting authors becomes effective. I can only advise every author to develop just as much self-confidence in this relationship.
SPIEGEL: Are you calling for a protest?
Grass: I would like to put a stop to this movement toward reading on computers, but it seems that nobody can do this. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the electronic process are already apparent during the writing of the manuscript. Most young authors write directly on their computers, and then edit and work in their files. In my case, on the other hand, there are many preliminary steps: a handwritten version, two that I've typed myself on my Olivetti typewriter and, finally, several copies of versions that my secretary has input into the computer and printed out, and into which I've incorporated many handwritten corrections. These steps are lost when you write directly on the computer.
SPIEGEL: Don't you feel old-fashioned with your Olivetti?
Grass: No. On the computer, a text always looks somehow finished, even if it's far from it. That's tempting. I usually write the first, handwritten version all at once, and when there's something I don't like I leave a blank space. I fill these gaps in the Olivetti version, and because of that thoroughness, the text also acquires a certain long-windedness. In the ensuing versions, I try to combine the originality of the first version with the accuracy of the second one. With this slow approach, there's less of a risk of slickness and arbitrariness creeping in.
SPIEGEL: Has your language changed over the decades nevertheless?
Grass: At first, I tried to pull out all the stops. When I wrote "The Tin Drum," "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years," it was a time when many older authors felt that the German language should never be allowed to be used to excess again.
SPIEGEL: You mean the representatives of the so-called Kahlschlagliteratur ("clear-cutting literature") of the postwar period, who were known for their simple and direct language?
Grass: Yes, and those authors had every reason to be cautious. The German language had been damaged in the Nazi period. But we young authors, including Martin Walser and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, didn't want to feel shackled and refused to condemn the language as a whole. As a result, my writing stemmed from a feeling of wanting to display everything that the language has to offer. Now, in my old age, experience is also part of it. As is writing more consciously.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Grass: To a large degree, the political experiences of my life, which I describe in "Grimms' Words." In 1961, for example, I traveled as part of Willy Brandt's campaign entourage for the first time. (Editor's note: Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, ran for the office of German chancellor in 1961. He later became chancellor in 1969.) The building of the Berlin Wall was also one of those experiences, as was German reunification in 1989/90 and my many visits to East Germany before that.
- Part 1: 'The Nobel Prize Doesn't Inhibit Me in My Writing'
- Part 2: 'I Would Like to Put a Stop to this Movement Toward Reading on Computers'
- Part 3: 'I Didn't Volunteer for the Waffen-SS'
- Part 4: 'The US Shouldn't Have Been Given the Commanding Role in Afghanistan'
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Günter Grass, 82, was born in Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk, in 1927. After his military service and a period as a prisoner-of-war, he worked as a farm laborer and miner. He studied art in Düsseldorf and Berlin before dedicating himself to writing, although he continued working as a graphic artist, designing his own books covers. His breakthrough novel, "The Tin Drum," came in 1959. Together with "Cat and Mouse" (1961) and "Dog Years" (1965), the book is part of his Danzig Trilogy. He won the 1999 Nobel Prize for literature. He shocked Germany in 2006 when he revealed, in the first volume of his autobiography, "Peeling the Onion," that he had been a member of Hitler's Waffen-SS. His new book "Grimms Wörter" ("Grimms' Words") is published by Steidl Verlag and is a self-described "declaration of love" to the German linguists and fairy-tale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.