News Digest "And this is what I drum..."
By David Hudson
Günter Grass is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Perhaps no other single figure embodies the complex relationship between Germany and its eastern neighbors as robustly as the author of The Tin Drum.
On Thursday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder stood on the balcony of the German consulate in Prague and spoke to the modest crowd: "Ten years ago today, words were spoken from this balcony that were to dramatically influence the course of events in Europe."
It was indeed on September 30, 1989, that then-Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, just back from New York and in poor health, announced to an anxious crowd of 4,000 refugees from East Germany: "I have come to inform you that today your visas..." The rest of that sentence was never heard. The crowd broke into ferocious cheers and tears, drowning out Genscher's remaining words: "...to the Federal Republic of Germany are forthcoming."
"We were granted solidarity," said Schröder ten years later. "Now it is our obligation to give it back." To that end, the chancellor has been traveling to the capitals of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, thanking each for its role in German unification and promising in return Germany's support for their campaigns to enter the European Union as soon as possible. 2003 is the date he'd like to see The Czech Republic granted membership. Same goes for Hungary which cut the barbed wire fence lining its border with Austria in 1989.
And Poland, which Schröder visited on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Hitler's Blitzkrieg invasion of that country, sparking World War II (see also the September 1 Digest ").
The rumblings that eventually led to the velvet revolutions of 1989 were first heard in the shipyards of Gdansk, led by Lech Walesa, who would become Poland's first post-communist president in June 1989. Gdansk was the Baltic port city first bombed from the sea by Hitler and before that, the birthplace, in 1927, when it was still called by its German name, Danzig, of the winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, Günter Grass.
On Thursday, the Swedish Academy singled out Grass's debut novel of 1959, The Tin Drum, as the centerpiece of the oeuvre for which Grass was being honored. The novel, shot through with a startlingly grotesque magic realism before such writing became a genre unto itself, tells the story of Oskar Matzerath who at the age of three decides to stop growing up. Few deny that this breakthrough work, the first of Grass's Danzig Trilogy, put German literature back on the map after decades of Nazi-enforced infertility.
Grass becomes the first German writer to win the Nobel since Heinrich Böll in 1972, who in turn, was the first since Thomas Mann in 1929. Grass didn't bother covering up his elation on Thursday: "I feel joyful and proud."
Never one for false modesty, Grass has long played more than a literary role in German affairs. Perhaps former Chancellor Willy Brandt's biggest fan, he has retained his outspoken leftish political views even after he left Brandt's (and Schröder's) Social Democratic Party. He was, in fact, an opponent of German unification, comparing it to Hitler's Anschluss of Austria and arguing that a confederation of the two states would have served both far better.
His massive literary output since The Tin Drum has been controversial as well, but even his most severe critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, praised the Academy's decision, remarking that it should have come ten or even twenty years ago. Hearing the news in Prague, Chancellor Schröder's first reaction, before calling Grass a "competent social critic," was: "Ach, das ist ja toll" - "Hey, that's just great."
Germany and Europe on the Web today:
It must have been just hours after "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief Roger Cohen filed his report from Warsaw, "Poland's Glossy Capitalism Displays a Darker Underside", that the Swedish Academy made its announcement. Cohen barely had to shift gears: "He was indelibly influenced by his youth, which was shaped by war, the loss of a home in Danzig that became part of Communist Poland after World War II, and involvement with a Nazi convulsion for which he was too young to bear any responsibility but whose guilt he could not escape. He was just too old for what Helmut Kohl, born in 1930, later called 'the blessing of late birth.'" Then, the reverberation in Cohen's choice quote from The Tin Drum: "One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland's lost, but not forever, all is lost, but not forever, Poland's not lost forever."
The "NYT" has also gathered past reviews of Grass's works and two especially are to be recommended. Reviewing The Meeting at Telgte in May 1981, Theodore Ziolkowski offers an excellent and brief introduction to Group 47, an informal yet enormously important band of writers who held sway over the shape of German literature for decades.
Just as an example of the group's significance, a brief note not mentioned in this review. In 1966, the 23-year-old Peter Handke was surely aware that if he were to make his mark, he'd have to storm a Group 47 meeting. By then, Grass was a key figure in the Group. Just seven years after the The Tin Drum had sent a jolt of shock therapy through the moribund German literary scene, Handke slammed Group 47 as a whole for its "completely trivial and idiotic literature," for prose that was "terribly conventional." Handke should find himself "better enemies," Grass snapped back, but the Austrian playwright and novelist, who knows all too well how to work the media spotlight, couldn't possibly have chosen a more effective stage on which to make his entrance.
Another notable highlight of the "NYT" collection is John Leonard's parenthetical aside in his review of Headbirths in March 1982: "(The bad boy of German letters has more structural problems with his short books than with his long ones, as if he felt that such baggy monsters as The Tin Drum, Dog Years and The Flounder needed elaborate skeletons, whereas Cat and Mouse and The Meeting at Telgte, so skinny, could be spineless.)" Oh, and this: "When the gnomes of Stockholm get around to giving him his Nobel Prize, they should give one as well to his admirable translator, Ralph Manheim." Free registration required
Former "Guardian" literary editor W. L. Webb: "From the moment The Tin Drum rapped out its new and disturbing tunes, his prodigious inventiveness and creative energy, his vivid (and very German) sense of picaresque and parody, and his engagement with history and politics tempered by a very modern scepticism helped to restore to the novel some of the ambition and largeness of the great 19th-century practitioners. Salman Rushdie acknowledges his debt enthusiastically: 'This is what Grass's great novel said to me in its drumbeats. Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets.'" Also: Tony Paterson reviews the day of the announcement and bullet-points Grass's career. Free registration required
In the "Washington Post", Marc Fisher, author of a book on post-Wall Germany, and Linton Weeks quote another big Grass fan, US novelist John Irving: "In recent years, the Nobel has not always been a prize for literature; too often it has seemed a reward for obscurity. Giving the prize to Grass is not only long overdue and richly deserved; it does much to restore one's faith in the Nobel Prize itself."
Roger Boyes works up a nice quote himself in the London "Times": "The big question for Germans - is Grass the literary voice of the nation? - remains unanswered. Indeed, the question is so big that it is unanswerable and therefore quintessentially German."
In the "Los Angeles Times", Carol J. Williams notes that the Prize won't keep Grass from speaking out: "The author called on fellow Germans to always remain mindful of the crimes of their forebears in the Nazi era and urged Schröder's government to finally settle outstanding slave-labor compensation claims if it truly wants to move Germany out of the dark shadows of its past."
In other news, William Drozdiak reports in the "Washington Post" on the latest episode in the ongoing tensions between the US and Germany caused by CIA activities in Germany.
The tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is coming up in November, and to celebrate, Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen plans to "rebuild a huge section of it complete with death strips, minefields, watchtowers, barbed wire, tank traps and searchlights." Allan Hall reports on the inevitable controversy in the London "Times".
In mid-September, DER SPIEGEL flagged on its cover a devastating story on Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation entitled "Indiana Jones in Auschwitz". How dare the magazine, you may ask. Friday's "Guardian" includes a fine introduction to the issue in a stand-off between Anne Karpf, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and Tom Lantos, one of the survivor's featured in Spielberg's documentary "The Last Days". Free registration required
"Artnet Magazine" editor Walter Robinson is in Germany for the fourth Art Forum Berlin which opened Thursday and closes Monday. It's trade fair, basically, with 161 galleries from 22 countries displaying their wares. The official slogan says it all: "Buy more art!" Robinson has brought his camer a, too. And Rosanne Altstatt has good news: "The art scene in Düsseldorf, long overshadowed by neighboring Cologne, has recently been looking up."
Finally, on the occasion of a slew of festivals celebrating the 100th birthday of Kurt Weill, Jessica Duchen reviews the composer's life and works in the "Guardian". Free registration required