A Prisoner of the Nobel

By Daniel Kehlmann, the author of the forthcoming novel “Measuring the World.” This article was translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 20/08/06):

A DIDACTIC play attempts to explain what man must do to make the world better and life more rational; a tragedy shows that life will never be rational and the world will never be good. Long before Bertolt Brecht, German culture was enamored with parables about the triumph of reason. Yet man is a tragic being, irrational and divided within himself, and so it is an enthralling spectacle when a life charted as a didactic play unexpectedly reveals a tragic aspect.

When Günter Grass confessed that he was in the Waffen SS as a young man, the cheap suspicions poured forth: “Oh, he’s publishing a new book,” said the people interviewed on the street. “He’s doing it for the marketing.”

Famous people fall under such permanent suspicion that even their failures are no longer perceived as authentic. Mr. Grass is supposed to have engineered the very destruction of his career so as to promote it. But this is not about book sales for Mr. Grass, so much as it is about rescuing his life’s work and the persona that he took such pains to shape.

The postwar German milieu made political demands on a writer above all else. Reading interviews in the German press from the 1950’s to the late 70’s, it is amazing to see that writers were seldom asked about their books, but rather asked insistently about Richard Nixon and rearmament, about Willy Brandt and Leonid Brezhnev, about everything in the headlines of the day.

In this climate, authors like Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luís Borges remained practically unknown, and even Samuel Beckett was revered only because it was suggested that his plays warned against nuclear war. Yet Günter Grass, the irreverent storyteller whose erotically coarse passages shocked the public and who, according to his own accounts, was at first not at all interested in politics, suddenly strove to assume Thomas Mann’s recently vacated position as the iconic German epic novelist — even at the price of becoming a different writer.

What kind of writer would Mr. Grass have become in another land? The question is fascinating but unanswerable. He wrote electoral addresses and poems praising the Social Democratic Party, intervened almost weekly in political quarrels, had a decent opinion about everything, and became the opposite of the anarchistic demon Oskar Matzerath in his novel “The Tin Drum.”

The creator of a child who refused to grow up took on a grandfatherly disposition with dismaying rapidity, in his public appearances as much as in his prose. His early “Danzig Trilogy” ranks among the masterpieces of 20th-century literature. “The Rat,” however, his novel-treatise on feminism and environmental protection, and his respectable panorama of stories, “My Century,” are works that even his greatest admirers find difficult to defend.

Ambitious like most good writers, Mr. Grass must have had his eye on the Nobel Prize from early on. He knew he deserved it. The question of why he remained silent for so long about his past is in fact easy to answer: one visit with the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was sufficient for Borges never to receive the prize. Would someone who had served in the SS stand a chance?

And then came the prize in actuality. His achievement attained, Mr. Grass was faced with the problem of his posthumous reputation. It must have been clear to him that after his death, journalists, some with the most malign intent, would set themselves to work, and that sooner or later one of them would find out. And what would his life’s work look like in hindsight then?

An author, world-famous, yet in possession of a secret that he knows will come to light one day and cast a shadow over everything he has accomplished — what material for a novel! Were he a literary character, Mr. Grass would only now really become interesting; but no longer as the protagonist of the Brechtian fable that he would have gladly seen as the story of his life. This new story sounds more like Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Graham Greene — above all, like Henrik Ibsen, the dramatist of living a lie.

Mr. Grass did the only thing he could to pre-empt the loss of his reputation. He went public, choosing not to leave the destruction of his moral authority to the professional revealers, but rather to assume the task himself.

Naturally, Mr. Grass will no longer be who he was. His participation in Hitler’s elite corps could have been seen as youthful foolishness, but his silence over so many years is another matter. And naturally, there are consequences for Germany’s image in the world. When even the most outspoken German moralist wore the uniform of murderers, one might ask whether there is a single guiltless German in this generation.

And the answer to this question is that involvement in the Nazi system, even among the youngest Germans of the time, was more widespread than we have previously wanted to perceive, and many aspects of the era’s crimes even now lie buried in silence. They are crimes that few books chronicle so well as “The Tin Drum,” “Cat and Mouse” and “Dog Years.”

Later, Mr. Grass changed, and his novels changed, too, becoming didactic and colorless. These weaker books, along with the image of the model democratic author, will be effaced by the passage of time. His earlier novels, however, which tell of the deep corruptibility of human beings, of the coexistence of mendacity and greatness and of the infinitely complex nature of guilt, will be with us for as long as people read books.