‘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.”

Grass talks to SPIEGEL editors Volker Hage and Katja Thimm: “At my age, one is surprised if one experiences the next spring,” he says.

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.

‘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.

‘I Didn’t Volunteer for the Waffen-SS’

SPIEGEL: What prompted you to go there?

Grass: I was a firm believer in the concept of a united cultural nation. As part of it, we authors from the West and the East met in private apartments in East Berlin and read from our manuscripts. I doubt that the informers working for the Stasi (editor’s note: the East German secret police) even understood what I was after. They couldn’t comprehend that someone could be critical toward two different sides. Or at least that was the impression I got when I read my Stasi file.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel when you were reading it?

Grass: Bored, mostly. For a long time I refused to read the stuff at all, and I never filed a request. There are more than 2,000 pages. In the end, Ms. Birthler (editor’s note: Marianne Birthler, the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives) handed them over to me, but I had asked that all the passages where informers are named be blacked out. I didn’t want to know who had spied on me. It’s no longer important today, 20 years after reunification.

SPIEGEL: You argued vehemently against reunification. What’s your verdict today?

Grass: I still believe, as I did in the past, that we shouldn’t have annexed East Germany in that overhasty way. It’s absurd that we missed such a huge opportunity. We should not have stifled that moment, in which, after two dictatorships, democratic self-awareness blossomed in those four famous words: “We are the people!” (Editor’s note: “Wir sind das Volk!” — “we are the people!” — was a slogan chanted by pro-democracy protesters in East Germany in the months before the Berlin Wall fell.) Before long, the country and its industry were liquidated, while the Treuhand (editor’s note: the agency that privatized East Germany’s state-owned enterprises) sold off its assets for next to nothing. During the long postwar period, those 17 million people (in East Germany) had to bear alone the main burden of a war that was waged and lost by all Germans.

SPIEGEL: What would you have done?

Grass: I would have sharply increased taxes and would not have pursued reunification with borrowed funds. There is quite a bit of self-deception in the notion that now, in the year of the 20th anniversary of reunification, we are congratulating ourselves on how wonderfully everything has turned out. The facts say otherwise: the high unemployment, the depopulated areas. And the phenomenon that people call “the Wall in our minds” still exists. The way the Party of Democratic Socialism was handled contributed to this mindset. It was downright showered with praise and made popular, because, despite being the successor party to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (editor’s note: the East German communist party), it was not held accountable (for the actions of the East German state). In fact, it was given a free pass, and this approach harmed the Social Democratic Party.

SPIEGEL: Does the loss of significance of the SPD trouble you? The traditionally left-wing German party has a long and respectable history, but it lost popularity when it moved toward the center in recent years, during the Gerhard Schröder era.

Grass: Well, the Social Democratic Party signifies an element of continuity. That’s the reason I cling to it. We have little continuity in Germany, and the SPD is about to turn 150. It’s made many mistakes and has gone through a lot. But its social principles, which are rooted in the European labor movement of the 19th century, were and still are of fundamental importance to our country. Although many younger Social Democrats are far removed from the history of their party, that’s something the SPD will also outlive.

SPIEGEL: In “Grimms’ Words,” you make no mention of possible mistakes in your political opinions. Haven’t you ever been wrong?

Grass: After reunification, I was afraid that a sort of Greater Germany with a centralized power in Berlin could develop. But fortunately German federalism has been strong enough to offset any such tendencies. As inconvenient as it often is, I believe that the counterbalance through the states is the best option for Germany, after all.

SPIEGEL: Can you think of any other mistakes you have made during your life?

Grass: In my case, as everyone knows, I was seduced by the Hitler Youth in my younger years. I make this abundantly clear in my book “Peeling the Onion.” I suppose I derived a certain immunity to any ideological posturing from that mistake.

SPIEGEL: In “Grimms’ Words,” you address your time with the Waffen-SS once again, and you describe your swearing-in on a clear, cold winter’s night. You were 17 at the time. Do you also count that moment among the mistakes in your life?

Grass: It was not a misdeed on my part. I was drafted, as many thousands of others were. I didn’t volunteer for the Waffen-SS. The end of the war liberated me from the pledge of blind obedience. After that, I knew that I would never take an oath again.

‘The US Shouldn’t Have Been Given the Commanding Role in Afghanistan’

SPIEGEL: You are rooted in German history, but you have always objected to the cult of nationalism in any form. How do you feel about the new patriotic enthusiasm, as we saw during the football World Cup, for example?

Grass: I have always believed that one cannot leave the discussion about nationalism entirely to the right wing. We can only play a responsible role in Europe if we can effectively justify our own sense of national identity — beyond nationalism. But there were also playful aspects to the little German flags that people were waving during the World Cup. I saw women putting black, red and gold pacifiers in their babies’ mouths. That sort of thing offsets any perceived sense of pathos.

SPIEGEL: You aren’t the only writer of your generation who has made political statements again and again. Do you perceive a lack of similar vigor among your young fellow writers?

Grass: I would find it regrettable if they didn’t draw a lesson from this relatively brief tradition. They shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the Weimar Republic and withdraw into their private worlds. Intellectuals contributed greatly to the development of our fledgling democracy in West Germany into a grown-up democracy. Unfortunately, there are signs that this contribution is waning. The financial crisis, child poverty, deportation (of illegal immigrants), the growing gap between rich and poor: These are all issues where younger authors should develop and express an opinion.

SPIEGEL: You yourself are less politically involved than you once were. In an open letter to the chancellor, the author Martin Walser, who is one of your contemporaries, called for Germany’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Don’t you have a position on this war?

Grass: Of course I do. But the Afghanistan war, of all wars, can’t be oversimplified. Unlike the war against Iraq, there is a UN mandate. Our involvement there has proved to be a huge mistake, but it’s difficult to find a responsible way of withdrawing from that responsibility. The United States certainly shouldn’t have been given the commanding role. The Americans are incapable of waging this type of war. They are failing once again, just as they did in Vietnam, and we’re failing with them.

SPIEGEL: If there is no patent remedy, your voice as a Nobel laureate carries more weight today than it would have in the past. Why are you holding back?

Grass: I don’t have the impression that that’s what I’m doing. And besides, I don’t spend the whole day thinking about the fact that I’m a Nobel laureate. I’m reminded of it sometimes, usually when I put my two cents in. It certainly doesn’t help me when I write, although it doesn’t hurt either.

SPIEGEL: Doesn’t it put you under pressure?

Grass: The prize doesn’t inhibit me in my writing at all. That’s probably because I received it at an advanced age. Actually, the prize that the Group 47 (editor’s note: a prestigious postwar association of German writers) gave me in 1958 was more important for me, because I was as poor as a church mouse at the time. And it was awarded by fellow writers, which gave it a completely different meaning. I’m not saying this to belittle the Nobel Prize, but it didn’t have such an influential impact on my life.

SPIEGEL: Now be honest: Hadn’t you been hoping to receive it for a long time?

Grass: Not any more, at least at the end. It went on the same way for 20 years: Every fall, journalists called me to tell me that I was one of the contenders, and wanted to book the first interview with me. And then things would quiet down again for a year.

SPIEGEL: Weren’t you irritated when German author Heinrich Böll received the prize in 1972?

Grass: No, I wasn’t, even if you don’t believe me. I was in the middle of the SPD’s election campaign, sitting in a VW bus on a market square somewhere in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. We were doing these spontaneous events that involved driving to small cities. I was just speaking into the microphone, giving a short speech, when someone handed me a note that said: Böll won the Nobel Prize. I incorporated it into the campaign. We also happened to be supporters of the same political idea.

SPIEGEL: You draw a conclusion in your new book. You write that “working through” things in life never ends, and that “even traditional stories are meant to be retold. And after each ending, I realized that I had more work to do.” What sort of work do you intend to do next?

Grass: After a period of writing that’s lasted many years, I have to change tools and devote myself to printmaking again. I want to create new etchings and drypoint for my novel “Dog Years,” for the 50th anniversary of its first publication. “Grimms’ Words” will certainly mark the end of my autobiographical writings. At my age, one is surprised if one experiences the next spring, and I know how long it can take to complete a book with an epic concept.

SPIEGEL: Do you fear the end of your life?

Grass: No. I’ve realized that, on the one hand, one is ready for it. I also realize that I’ve retained a certain amount of curiosity. What will happen to my grandchildren? What will the weekend football results look like? Of course, there are also some banalities I still want to experience. Jacob Grimm wrote a wonderful piece on aging, and I also found the following sentence in another one of his works: “The last harvest is on the stalk.” It touched me, and of course it immediately prompted me to reflect on my own age. In doing so, I didn’t discover any predominant fear of death.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Grass, thank you for this interview.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,712715,00.html