My Century, My Ass
Back in 1990, a few months after the fall of the Wall, I was in Berlin and wanted to interview one of my heroes, Günter Grass. His publisher gave me his secretary’s number, but when I called, the great man himself answered. He said he’d be happy to meet me, but, alas, he was going out of town. Naturally, I assumed he was gently blowing me off, but later that afternoon, I was passing the Zoo railway station and who should be rushing toward it, suitcase in hand, but Grass — he of the unmistakable mustache — followed by his panting wife. I was quietly pleased: He’d been telling me the truth.
So you can imagine that I felt like Floyd Landis’ mom when, after decades of drumming his insistence that Germans confront their history, Grass came out with the flabbergasting news that, as a 17-year-old, he’d served as a conscript in the famously brutal Waffen SS. Predictably, his 60-year silence was excoriated by political conservatives, who often bore the brunt of his scorn for their attempts to bury the past, and younger writers who’ve spent years wishing he’d just die, or at least stop bogarting the literary fame. I still can’t decide what’s the biggest example of bad faith: hiding the truth for so long; revealing it as part of the prelaunch publicity for his autobiography, Peeling the Onion; or (sneakily?) laying the groundwork for these revelations with his 2003 book Crabwalk, his first to explore German suffering during the war. It’s baffling. If Grass had simply admitted everything when he published The Tin Drum back in 1959, this would have actually increased his moral stature; after all, he hadn’t committed any war crimes. In a way, such self-serving silence is less astonishing than the fact that his real war record had never before come to light — he’d admitted his SS role to the Americans when they arrested him in 1945. Had the teenage Gore Vidal been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, I’m betting somebody would have spilled the beans during the last half-century. Which only goes to show how gingerly postwar West Germany tiptoed around awkward questions of individual guilt and innocence.
Mercifully, books take on lives of their own, so Grass’ slipperiness in no way diminishes the quality of his best work; even now, I’d love to have written Dog Years or From the Diary of a Snail. Still, the Grass affair reminds us that an authorial persona is itself a fiction — the style is not necessarily the man — and it underscores the literary dangers of writers flaunting themselves as cultural monuments.
“Poets don’t give prescriptions,” says a character in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. “They give headaches.”
The same is true of novelists. In promoting his image as the moral conscience of his nation — Grass has always loved giving prescriptions — he gave his own reputation a whopping migraine that won’t soon go away.
I smiled when Mel Gibson showed up in that mug shot beaming like a dissolute Soupy Sales. I laughed when I heard what he’d said to the cops — it’s always nice to see a man come out of the closet. But I could only snort when the media spent the entire next week moralizing at him for being a misogynist, Jew-hating jerk. He is one, of course. But it’s typical that networks would devote far more airtime to Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants than to the sober ones of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Granted, the Hezbollah leader will never be declared The Sexiest Man Alive, even by Lebanese People, but if you really want to go after somebody who hates Jews (and women’s rights), here’s your guy. And he has the lethal weapons to prove it: He’ll even blow up Israeli Muslims on the off chance of killing somebody Jewish.
Now, I appreciate that (especially for many on the left) it’s far more comfortable to go after Mad Mel. Disdaining him has no implications beyond the pleasure of boycotting his movies. But to confront Nasrallah’s Jew hatred — in fact, the whole theocratic ideology of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers — has the same unsettling effect as grasping the hideous values of the Iraqi insurgents or the roaming death squads of the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis. I don’t care if they’re fighting against Bush and Israeli right wingers. Along with al Qaeda and the Taliban, these are some of the most objectively reactionary groups on the planet. No good can come of their success. Indeed, Nasrallah makes me think of Joe Louis’ great reply when asked, during World War II, why he would fight for a country that treated African-Americans so abominably: “There ain’t nothing wrong with the country Hitler can fix.” I don’t care if Hezbollah provides social services — and funnels Iranian rials to the Lebanese homeless after the cease-fire — there ain’t nothing wrong with Lebanon, Palestine or Israel that this sheikh is going to make better.