Saturday, July 21, 2012
An interview with Günther Grass
Book cover design of The Tin Drum, by Günther Grass
I´ve been reading this interview with Nobel laureate Günther Grass, conducted by Volker Hage and Katja Thimm for Spiegel, and recommend it to my readers. So many things to learn from him....
Here, some excerpts from the parts I liked most, and the link to read it in full:
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 justifyGermany '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.
Günther dancing with his daughter Helen after receiving the Nobel Prize, 1999
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.
Grass shocked Germany in 2006 when he revealed, in the first volume of his autobiography, "Peeling the Onion," that he had been a member of Hitler's Waffen-SS. This photo shows US Army documents that proved Grass was a member. "'I didn't volunteer for the Waffen-SS," he told SPIEGEL.
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.