SPIEGEL Interview with Günter Grass: 'The Nobel Prize Doesn't Inhibit Me in My Writing'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Nobel Prize-winning German author Günter Grass talks about why he doesn't fear death, the missed opportunities of German reunification and why he thinks the Brothers Grimm had "oral sex with vowels."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Grass, your new book is titled "Grimms Wörter. Eine Liebeserklärung" ("Grimms' Words. A Declaration of Love"). How did this love for the Brothers Grimm, the German linguists who famously collected fairy tales in the 19th century, begin?
Günter Grass: My relationship with Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm reaches far back into my childhood. I grew up with Grimm's fairy tales. I even saw a theater production of "Tom Thumb" during Advent at the State Theater in Danzig (editor's note: present day Gdansk ), which my mother took me to see. Then, later in my life, the brothers influenced my creative work.
SPIEGEL: In what way?
Grass: Well, Tom Thumb lives on in Oskar Matzerath from "The Tin Drum." Jacob and Wilhelm themselves play a role in many of my manuscripts. In "The Rat," for example, they are portrayed as a minister and a deputy minister who try to stop forests dying (from acid rain).
SPIEGEL: What do you find appealing about the brothers?
Grass: Their uncompromising nature, most of all. In 1837, they protested in Göttingen against the abolition of the constitution (of the Kingdom of Hanover) and thus against the power of the state. Like the other rebellious professors in the group known as the Göttingen Seven, they lost their positions. And the task they embarked on after that was basically impossible: a German dictionary filled with quotations and example sentences. And they only made it to the sixth letter of the alphabet. Others completed the dictionary.
SPIEGEL: More than 120 years later.
Grass: That lengthy period of time also fascinates me. German studies specialists from both parts of Germany worked on it over the last 15 years. In the middle of the Cold War, they sat quietly at their desks in East Berlin and Göttingen and collected footnotes for a pan-German dictionary. It's a reflection of the same German history I talk about in "Grimms' Words."
SPIEGEL: Just as your own personal history with this country also plays a role in your book.
Grass: I focused on my younger years in the book "Peeling the Onion," then in "Die Box" ("The Box") I wrote about my family entanglements and ties. This book is about the political and social side. The life of the Grimms, who lived through a period marked by radical change, just as I did, lends itself to this.
SPIEGEL: You describe the two brothers as "word sleuths," who are concerned about every single letter. You also write: "On the one hand, words make sense. On the other hand, they're well suited to creating nonsense. Words can be beneficial or hurtful." How have the various facets of words shaped your own life?
Grass: I have found that words that are loaded with pathos and create a seductive euphoria are apt to promote nonsense. Adolf Hitler's "Do you want total war?" is one such example. But the same thing applies to the sentence: "Our freedom is also being defended in the Hindu Kush." (Editor's note: The sentence was famously uttered by former German Defense Minister Peter Struck to justify Germany 's military mission in Afghanistan .) Such sentences carry a strong meaning, and they are able to exert this meaning because they are not sufficiently questioned. I have heard my fill of hurtful words. I think it's especially egregious when citizens like me, who point out abuses in their country, are referred to as "do-gooders." This is how a phrase that can be used to stop an argument dead becomes part of common usage.
SPIEGEL: Which beneficial words do you remember?
Grass: The truly wonderful ones are linked to my childhood. Adebar, another word for stork, reawakens an entire cosmos of memories for me. Another one is Labsal (refreshment), which has been almost completely forgotten. I love the sound of the repeated long "a." The Brothers Grimm also found it fascinating. They practically had oral sex with vowels in any case. Labsal sounds so comforting. It makes you think of returning home safely after a terrifying experience.
SPIEGEL: It sounds as if language signified a feeling of security and home to you.
Grass: That's certainly true. I wrote my novel "The Tin Drum" in Paris, where I also began working on "Dog Years." But after four years I noticed how lost I felt, surrounded by a foreign language. I had to go back, back to a German-speaking place. My experience was similar to that of many authors who emigrated to the United States during the Nazi era. Some of them could hardly bear it, even though a brutal dictator was in control at home. They lacked the language they needed to make themselves understood and to understand others.
SPIEGEL: This same experience, though not nearly as severe, can be felt in one's own country. The youth culture has its own distinctive linguistic style. Do you always understand what your grandchildren are saying?
Grass: Of course. For me, it's a wonderful gain that I, with the help of my grandchildren, can keep up with the current jargon. In return, expressions like the old Berlin word knorke ("swell") are no longer in use.
SPIEGEL: Do you regret the loss?
Grass: Fortunately, a word like knorke is preserved in literature. In general, I agree with Jacob Grimm and feel that we ought to permit changes and uncontrolled growth in language. Even though that also allows potentially threatening new words to develop, language needs the chance to constantly renew itself. In France, where the Académie française practically polices the language, we can see that language can become formal and rigid when it's protected too much.
- 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.