By John Irving (THE GUARDIAN, 19/08/06):
How do I feel about what Kurt Vonnegut would describe as a «shit storm» of nationalist babbling in the German media, in the wake of my friend Günter Grass’s revelation that he was drafted into the Waffen SS at the age of 17? From what I have read of the editorials, and the lofty remarks of my fellow writers, critics, and journalists of various political persuasions, there has been a predictably sanctimonious dismantling of Grass’s life and work from the oh so cowardly standpoint of hindsight, from which so many so-called intellectuals safely take aim at their targets.
Grass remains a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; his courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of Germany, is exemplary – a courage heightened, not lessened, by his most recent revelation.
Grass enlisted at 15; he has said he volunteered mainly «to get away». I wonder if any of his critics truly remember themselves at 15. He had volunteered for the submarines, but in the last months of the war the Waffen SS were taking anyone they could get. I do not judge what 17-year-olds volunteer for – short of premeditated rape and murder. I signed up for officer training as a 19-year-old in 1961; I might have been in Vietnam as early as 1965, following my graduation from university, but my first child was born in March of that year. At that time, they wouldn’t take you for combat if you were a father. I never served. I was politically opposed to the war, but I actually wanted to go; I was more curious about it than sensible, and I felt guilty that becoming a father when I was still a college student had gotten me dismissed (not intentionally).
I’m a slow processor; many writers are. I wrote my Vietnam novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 20 years after the war. I purposely set my abortion novel, The Cider House Rules, back in the 1930s and 40s – to get my story as far as possible from the present political debate surrounding abortion. I like getting some distance from those things I write about that have seriously affected me – psychologically and emotionally. I wrote about my childhood and adolescence not in my first or second novel, when I was still a young man, but in my 11th and most recent novel, Until I Find You – when I was already in my late 50s and early 60s. Only then did I reveal to the media that the centralmost experiences in that novel were autobiographical – namely, the missing and unmentioned father and the sexual abuse (in my case, at the age of 11 with a woman in her 20s; in the novel, the character is 10, the woman in her 40s).
Now there is all this bitching in Germany about when Grass chose to reveal his Waffen SS enlistment as a teenager! The man (and the writer) is a model of soul-searching and national conscience. People are saying he deliberately withheld this information until after he won the Nobel prize for literature, because he would never have won the prize if it were known he’d been in the SS. (If it is true that the Nobel committee would not have given the prize to him under those circumstances, then the committee should do some soul-searching of its own – I thought it was an award for literature, not political correctness.) And some people are saying that Grass chose to time his revelation to sell copies of his new autobiography.
I heard that when I talked openly about my sexual experience as an 11-year-old with an older woman – that I was just selling books. How naive do critics and journalists think real readers of complicated fiction are? Grass and I aren’t running out of readers. The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man. Was he not putting himself at risk – first at 15, then at 17? And now, once again, at age 79? And, once again, the cowardly small dogs are snapping at his heels.
It was another German novelist of distinction, Thomas Mann, who wrote about a well-known writer’s «vulnerability to mean disdain and spiteful abuse … no matter how plainly such abuse is impelled by private rancours». Mann added that «enemies are the necessary concomitant to any robust life … often the very proof of our strength».
I wish Günter Grass all the best.