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Monday 21 August 2006
Grass and Appelfeld: culpability and art
Recent revelations about Günter Grass (his time spent as a teenager in the Waffen SS, in the 10th SS Panzer Division no less) have met with the expected media responses. Grass was (just about; he was 15 years old) the right age and class to have served: it was known he was a soldier, but not that he had been a member of an organisation declared by the Nuremberg tribunal to be "criminal".
As readers, what we might do well to ask ourselves after these "revelations" (instead of indulging ourselves in high-handed and ignorant condemnation) is how Grass's writing has served us as readers in each of his novels. (Not least because saying it was bad to be a Nazi is a pathetically banal response.)
Like Steve, I don't find myself ideally placed to answer: I've tried and failed to read an entire Grass novel on a number of occassions (I floundered with The Flounder; The Tin Drum beat me). Regardless, I think what we should be asking is what questions that we previously hoped his novels might answer or pose cannot now be put or responded to now that we think we know about Grass's personal history? What do we think this knowledge can and should do to our reading? And what does this tell us about our readerly expectations in the first place? What image of the writer has been destroyed or damaged by us knowing now what we think we know? (I note that in Daniel Johnson pompous Open Letter to Günter Grass he complains that: "Now, however, you have forced us to read your books again, and in an ambiguous light": if Johnson was previously reading any novel unambiguously it shows just what a bad reader he is.)
Ellis Sharp condemns, sometimes superbly well, Israel and its atrocities towards the Palestinians (and, in this most recent phase of its ongoing warring, the Lebanese). (I do sometimes find his obsession with Israel a little worrying: all states are war machines.) Recently, Imre Kertész's stupid remarks about José Saramago (referring to none to clever remarks by Saramago himself) were highlighted on his blog and now Aharon Appelfeld has been condemned.
Condemning Appelfeld for his silence, which has been rendered into support for Israeli violence, seems as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Perhaps it is useful to point out the partiality of his understanding of the "human condition", about which he has written so wonderfully well, and right to condemn his silence and the politics it suggests. But this only confirms that Appelfeld's novels are better than the man, a paradox one should remember as we read his best novels and ignore (what we imagine to be) his politics. Knowing that Appelfeld has perhaps failed to understand the full import of his own enigmatic writing makes me wish he was as good a reader as he is a writer. But good readers are as rare as good writers. And good men rarer still.
Posted by Mark Thwaite
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