Interview (in German) with the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Günter Grass, 12 December 1999. Grass is interviewed by Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, and Pernilla Rosell-Steuer, student.
Günter Grass talks about the purpose of literature; how history is presented in his books; his way of focusing on everyday details; the power of literature; the demonic concept in his books; the mixture of fantasy and realism in his texts; and how his characters often come alive.
Interview transcript (English translation)
Hello, I am Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. Today’s guest is the Nobel Literature Prize winner, Günter Grass, and we are very pleased today to have the opportunity to ask Mr Grass a few questions. In this I have the assistance of a colleague.
My name is Pernilla Rosell-Steuer. I’m a post-graduate student at Stockholm University researching the novel Too Far Afield, and, consequently I have the honour of being here as a student.
Günter Grass: That’s very nice!
Mr Grass, German history is absolutely central to the creation of all literature and for me as a foreign reader and for future German readers your books offer a unique opportunity to experience history from an insider perspective. Would you agree that the task of literature is not just to make history readable but also to make it an experience?
Günter Grass: Well, I would be cautious about giving a generalised definition of the purpose of literature. It is not part of the task and yet it is often unavoidable. I have not been able to choose the themes about which I’ve written – they were given to me. The war ended when I was 17. My gift, if I may define it as such, is of an aesthetic nature, a dramatic nature, and that was how I started.
Confronted by this mass of material I was overwhelmed and so it was inevitable. That was just the most recent German history, then post-war history. I have noticed over the years that I have also made an impression as a contemporary author and have done what many authors feel is too dangerous – written simultaneously with events.
Literature is always associated with the temporal distance intrinsic in the past tense of retrospective writing, that is one option. However, I know that, for instance in German literature Fontane wrote his last novel Den Stechlin, and also Frau Jenny Treibel in parallel with events, and experienced the corresponding wrath of the critics.
If a writer does this, writes in parallel with events, he is cruelly exposed to contemporary critics. However, that is the risk one has to take, and it is from this double impulse, by writing in the present as a contemporary yet at the same time also being confronted by the weight and burden of the past, that I have produced my work.
I am also – if I am to generalise and move on from literature – I believe it is impossible to master the future without taking the past into consideration, not purely to live in the present, which at the time is very strongly the case, this makes things one-dimensional, it blinds us and makes us incapable of handling the future.
In your books history is presented in various ways, and from different perspectives. For example, you could say that sometimes history appears to be repeating itself. Whereas in other books we find the themes and motifs of slow progress and symbols such as snails, Sisyphus etc. How do these two ideas or ways of grasping history interact in the books?
Günter Grass: Of course it is also a protest against the ideological fixations we have experienced this century. From the communist perspective, the fascist, the capitalist, it is always the same, like fixed truths, things preached, with a single aim, and I write against that. For me the route is more important than the destination.
This enduring labour of Sisyphus and Camus – modern formulation of it, Sisyphus as a happy man living with his stone and knowing for certain that the stone will never remain in its place up there. Or, however, in the turbulent revolutionary or pseudo-revolutionary times around 1968, when young people were very rightfully protesting, I came up with a hypothesis: careful – progress, I’m in favour of it, but it is a snail.
In truth you can achieve a great leap forward as in Maoist teaching, verbally or in another way, but the phase you’ve left out hurries on, it stands still and then it hits back. Those are the things I’ve gathered from my experience and converted into narrative.
However, just converted to narrative, through the change of perspective, through history seen from below, not from the people who made the history, but from the ordinary people that history brings up again and again, unavoidably, and they were turned into fellow travellers and victims and culprits and reacted correspondingly. These have always been my themes, from The Tin Drum to My Century.
However, your last book, My Century, is exactly the opposite to a normal history book in that you focus on small, everyday details, such as buying ice-skates or the remains of a teddy bear or the significance of winter tyres. Why did you choose to account for your century in this way?
Günter Grass: This is how life is constructed, out of these details, out of these everyday trivialities and superfluities and necessities. And as I’ve already said this is the perspective from which I write.
In a quite pronounced manner in my first novel – in Oskar, just turned three, who sees the adult world from the perspective of the table edge – and thus to this final book. It is a dreadful century, but it is not only the century of great warfare and murderous events but there is also, for example, the development of records, double-sided, the German gramophone society and its consequences.
Then there are always the media, not that I make a great play of this but rather of the people who have been involved in them, in the development of radio or the first German television programme, experienced the influence it has had from this petty bourgeois perspective. These are the things that make me write.
The other great stories have been documented by historians, sociologists etc., but literature can achieve something in a ‘narrative’ way that is closed to the other disciplines.
One thing that is very evident in The Flounder, for example, is the role in the narrative of food and the issue of nourishment.
Günter Grass: Yes, indeed, nourishment.
And I’d like, it may seem a strange question, but there is in German romanticism a thinker who has also attempted to weave gastronomy into the conceptual sphere of the multigeneric romantic work of art, and that is Karl Friedrich von Romer. He published a splendid book in 1822, Der Geist der Kochkunst. Do you know this book?
Günter Grass: Yes, it has slipped into obscurity again and again. The art of cookery is at the tip of a whole range of themes. What you said at first, and that relates to The Flounder too, the history of our nourishment.
Now we know everything, we communicate, as we call it, around the globe and are an over-informed society, but the chief problem of human existence, the issue of nourishment, has still not been solved.
On the contrary, hunger is increasing, isn’t it? Despite all our resources, we fail in the face of this mammoth task that grows with the increase in the world’s population, and I have noticed that as far as the historical record of this topic is concerned virtually nothing happens.
All we ever have is these great battles, dates, peace agreements, religious schisms, all these things, but what about for instance the significance of the addition of the potato, due to the discovery of the Americas for the masses, as a food resource alongside millet, the potato being a second staple food resource which has also contributed to population increase.
In the main this was not seen or was kept quiet or considered insignificant. Therefore, my very pointed assertion is that the introduction of the potato in Prussia had greater consequences than the outcome of the battles of the Seven Years War. And that is true too of Ireland and many parts of Europe.
Romer claimed after all that culturally all the European differences between Scandinavia, Central Europe, led by France, and Southern Europe can be explained as arising from the differences between butter, stock and olive oil. And that isn’t absurd!
Günter Grass: No, no! Right up to the nineteenth century, right into the prisons, there was the Rumford soup, the soup of the poor and the invention of economical cooking and everything associated with it, and the anticipation of great co-operative kitchens. It was indeed a great economiser, wasn’t it, in the most varied areas. An eccentric character, indeed.
– Yes, I have a completely different question. You frequently emphasise the power of literature and of narrative, most recently in the Nobel lecture. Do you think that literature and the author have more power than is generally recognised? At least in Sweden – I don’t know if you are in agreement with me – is literature in the meantime regarded more as just a harmless hobby?
Günter Grass: Yes, indeed according to the conventional concept of power we, as authors, are naturally placed at the bottom of the pile. Literature’s effect is delayed, often for centuries, and under the title “To be continued …” it’s not just the sequel but the development of censorship measures that run in parallel. The oppression of literature and the oppression of authors, even up to the present time.
These are all ongoing things, which, however, at the same time reveal over and over again, if censorship measures are taken against them and authors are persecuted, that there must indeed be a hidden power in literature. There is fear of literature. There is a fear of the penetrating effect of this persistence.
That it is not as history officially states, and that we write the history of the losers, whose voices are seldom heard. History is in the main written by the victors, and literature leaps into this gap and is thus uncomfortable.
Even where it really does not want to, or that it takes up themes, thus Ovid is not a result of the Metamorphoses, but when he described his love games, he roused the displeasure of the emperor and was sent into exile. Thus there is definitely no political theme.
A follow-up question: Could this power be misused? You do frequently raise the issue of the writer’s moral responsibility.
Günter Grass: Yes, indeed. I always get a bit annoyed about this, I contradict the tendency we have to look upon the concept of the “intellectual” as an indisputable sign of quality. There is the ghastly extreme right-wing intellectual, for example, Goebbels became an extreme right-wing intellectual. That is hardly a proof of quality.
There are also monstrous demagogues in the field of literature, and there are those failed leaders amongst splendid writers such as Ezra Pound or Gottfried Benn, who were wonderful writers but politically infantile, or influenced in this direction either by their vanity or through flattery, and as a result have caused something dreadful. This is still the case.
I think that is very well said. That is why literature has been unpopular with the powerful, because it shows that there is more than one truth. And perhaps it is the case that if writers claim there is only one truth, as for example Pound did, then literature becomes a danger to itself. It damages itself.
Günter Grass: Yes, the prevailing power, always claims that there is but one truth, no matter whether it be the Catholic church with its immaculate conception or just the party that is always right in communism or the master race of fascist ideology or capitalism, which now says: “In the view of the West there is only a free market society and nothing else.”
These are the terrible, single truths that appear as doctrines and finally collapse as we have experienced. Literature arises out of many realities, many truths.
Consider that fine Japanese film Rashômon, in which a story is constructed from a variety of narrative perspectives, in which one says: “This is how it was”, but then another perspective produces another truth, another interpretation and all these different truths build into a reasonably logical picture, yet nonetheless there always remains a mystery.
Yes, and that is indeed an issue of perspective and the question is: “What has happened?”. And that can be answered in a variety of ways. But it is also the case that if you’ve worked out what has happened, then you have to make a judgement. Again this can be done in a variety of ways.
There was indeed a concept in twentieth century literature, now virtually disappeared, the demonic, that is to say something that is neither good nor evil, that is unclassifiable, and yet remains a power. I am thinking, for instance in your books, of the character of the black cook in The Tin Drum. She is definitely demonic, isn’t she?
Günter Grass: Yes, yes, certainly for the time, on the one hand almost a contradiction that I have used as one of the driving forces for the narration of The Tin Drum, Dog Years and Cat and Mouse. In the fifties there was a tendency in Germany to belatedly demonise the era of National Socialism, as if an earth spirit had risen from the ground and seduced the poor German people.
And that was not the case. It all happened in broad daylight. At the same time The Tin Drum is on the one hand an attempt at “de-demonisation”, I show how such an ideology with all its criminal objectives can build its foundations out of the petty bourgeoisie. And on the other hand this world is naturally riddled with demonic angst arousing forces, like the black cook.
Where did the black cook come from then?
Günter Grass: It’s a nursery song: “Is the black cook there? Yes, yes, yes.” And that is the manifesto. However, in my case, an important factor is that I am very strongly influenced by fairytales. Because I’ve discovered that fairytales contain the most amazing reality. Precisely because of these contradictions.
And through this we have … the romantics, they collected them, and I have chapter openings, once upon a time … and then a totally realistic contemporary story will be narrated. And in the novel The Flounder the Low German fairytale of the Fischer un sine Fru provided the title and determined the conflict throughout the whole book.
On the theme of fairytales may I pose a further question? I would say that on reading your books I sense an affinity with one of the German romantics, namely E T A Hoffmann. Is that really true?
Günter Grass: Yes, indeed. Except that E T A Hoffmann’s books exist purely in a bizarre, self-contained world, whilst for me the transition from bare realism, from which something almost foreseeable has flipped over into the unreal in the middle of a long sentence, and then, finally, reason takes control again, but now the consciousness produced has changed, that is a … I think, that the bizarre is far more dominant in E T A Hoffmann than in my own work.
Precisely this mixture of fantasy and realism is in part a feature of, for instance, Too Far Afield. Would you also agree that this is a result of German readers still being so strongly linked to this reality that they often have difficulty reading the book as literature?
Günter Grass: You could say that. Because here, on the one hand, I delve back into the past but at the same time write parallel with events. Many find that unusual, and on the other hand I have learnt directly from readers through their letters that, for them, through this book, which deals with the past, the first failed attempt to unite Germany under Bismarck through three wars, much has become clear about what is happening at present.
Those are the different timescales with which I work. However, at the same time it is once again about my undeniable origins in the picaresque novel, of course Fonti and his day and night shadows are a picaresque couple, just like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or Bouvard and Pécuchet in the Flaubert’s French novels, from the fragment of a novel, and that of course leads to comedy and absurd situations.
If, for instance, those in Lusatia stand on the vast, brown coalmines, and I suddenly multiply these two characters, and then it becomes clear how during the communist regime this country was infiltrated by a network of informers, by a duplication, by object and subject, and it is with such images that I like to work.
You do indeed also on one occasion compare this relationship, precisely this relationship between the informer and the person informed upon with the relationship between a priest and his …
Günter Grass: Yes, yes, that, however, has been greatly misunderstood …
“We are spending our whole lives in the confessional,” Fonti says on one occasion.
Günter Grass: Yes, I’ve broken that habit. Always it was the image of the informers wearing their leather coats and looking sinister, that was certainly there too, yet of course the spies of the welfare state are far more dangerous. They say: “I am your friend. Therefore I’ll protect you so that you do (not) fall for the propaganda of class enemies.”
And just like Fonti experienced it in relation to the day and night shadows, where it is difficult to see through it. Where is the welfare, where is the spying, the boundaries have become fluid and that is what I’ve portrayed.
Yes, censorship has sometimes previously been in the form of artistic guidance to the writer.
Günter Grass: Yes, yes. But we are always forgetting the scope of literature, for example, I notice that you are an admirer of German romanticism, aren’t you? Friedrich Schlegel and Brentano, they did part of the Metterlich groundwork toward the end of their lives, and even converted to Catholicism and became terribly bigoted.
This was a hideous discovery for Goethe, as he suddenly noticed how these young people towards whom he had harboured a certain goodwill, became irrational in middle age and converted to Catholicism, of course fanatically as is the way of converts, and he found that very irritating.
Many of your literary characters are also Catholics. Could you say a few words in relation to them?
Günter Grass: Yes, yet also about these Dog Years, the on-going change in ideological dependency, this interplay also plays a part. Sure, I was brought up Catholic and know the stench of the Catholic Church. I moved away from religion early but the impression remains.
You have said that in some way you write aloud, you walk round the room and so on. Is it also the case that somehow you can hear the voices of the characters and you try to listen in?
Günter Grass: It is a wonderful thing in the process of writing when such paper characters are first sketched, and when one is doing good work, from a certain point in time they come alive and start contradicting the author as well. I find that the author is then no longer at liberty, once this is afoot, he may try to lead them on a long leash but they have a will of their own.
I remember when I was writing The Tin Drum, I had the totally misguided idea of giving Oskar Matzerath a sister, and he just wouldn’t have it. There was no space for a sister, yet I had the character of the sister in my head. In fact I used her in later novels, in Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, Tulla Pokriski. However, had Tulla Pokriski lived, and Oskar, it would have destroyed the novel. He protested and it went no further in the manuscript. I have to bow to the will of the fictitious characters and, I find, that this is wonderful for the writer and invigorates the writing experience.
That brings us to the end. Very many thanks, Mr Grass.
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