Smoking Grass

Andrew Hultkrans on Günter Grass and Norman Mailer at the NYPL

New York

Left: Günter Grass's translator, Günter Grass, and author Andrew O'Hagan. Right: Norman Mailer. (Photos: David Velasco)

If, as the New York Public Library’s promotional literature promised, last Wednesday night was when the twentieth century would go on trial, I began the evening as the Millennium Baby, trailing Father Time, played by Norman Mailer, as he ambulated glacially on twin canes toward his date with Günter Grass. Due to audience overflow—the event sold out in four minutes—members of the press were shunted through a long, spartan back hallway to the loading dock, where we were to check in. It was in this concrete fallopian tube that I found myself following Mailer—brought low by time and entropy—a living objective correlative for the convulsive, murderous century he and Grass tirelessly chronicled. The moment was almost painfully metaphoric, but, spotting a colleague, I unceremoniously passed Mailer and tamped its resonance with a laugh. There was ample significance awaiting me inside, and I had to save room.

Grass was there to promote the Stateside publication of his controversial memoir, Peeling the Onion, to be interviewed by novelist Andrew O’Hagan, and to chat with Mailer, ostensibly about Hitler, war, the novel, and other breezy subjects. Putting “the twentieth century itself on trial” seemed a bit of a stretch, even for these wizened titans. Indeed, as O’Hagan, Grass, and a translator took their seats onstage, it soon became clear that it was Grass himself who would be on trial. O’Hagan immediately adopted the prosecutorial line Grass has faced in his homeland since the release of his memoir, in which the Nobel Prize winner and self-appointed conscience of postwar Germany revealed that he was a member of the Waffen-SS for several months in his teens, near the end of the war. The rub wasn’t Grass’s service record per se, but his apparent silence about it during the decades he spent challenging Germans to own to their complicity in the Nazi era.

The fresh-faced, clean-cut O’Hagan clearly didn’t want to be accused of a softball interview, but this pairing—a Scot with a man whose name bears an umlaut—had some unexpected consequences. As with all of his countrymen, O’Hagan is no stranger to the long u, so his tenacious cross-examination—with its recurrent interjection, “But Gyooonter . . .”—came off a bit sillier than intended. For his part, Grass was evasive and hard to parse. This didn’t deter O’Hagan, who interrupted Grass’s ramblings with delicate queries like, “Your mother . . . she was raped, wasn’t she?”

Left: Günter Grass takes the stage at The Box. Right: Artist Roni Horn with publisher Gerhard Steidl. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)

What I could glean from Grass: He wanted to be a submarine crewman but was drafted into the SS; he publicized his SS past in Germany during the ’60s, but no one cared; America “seems to be going down”—inspiration no longer flows from here to the world; when O’Hagan noted that one of Grass’s several eel etchings depicts one of the creatures entering a vagina, Grass explained that “eels have no limit; they want to go anywhere there’s a hole”; fascism came from Italy and, given the right conditions, can happen wherever democratic governments fail to address social ills; on the day he heard he was to receive the Nobel, he celebrated by going to the dentist.

Mailer then ascended the stage and, characteristically, ran the table. After claiming that this might be his last public interview due to failing health—hearing, eyesight, the works—Mailer turned to face a kinder, gentler O’Hagan. Highlights: Mailer has always been angry at America, but this is tempered with a strange love—a man’s relationship to his country is like a marriage; fascism is a more natural form of government than democracy, which is a miracle; literary reputations are made by one’s detractors, “like getting bricks made of shit for one’s house”; the devil created television so he could destroy human minds with narrative-interrupting commercials; Grass’s memoir excerpt in the New Yorker was the best thing he’d seen in that magazine for a decade; reflecting on why Grass took so long to write about his SS experience, Mailer said there was an analogous event in his life that he may never write about—stabbing his second wife, Adele, in 1960.

Grass returned to the stage for the three-way, but this was like setting a crackling clock radio next to a bullhorn—Mailer continued to dominate. When O’Hagan noted that Hitler was a failed artist, however, Grass got off a zinger: “We should admit and keep these mediocre artists in art school—they’re too dangerous.” After some vague banter about existentialism, O’Hagan wrapped up the conversation, and the two authors received a partial standing ovation. To cap it all off, the following night I attended a party for Grass thrown by his German publisher, Steidl, at Lower East Side hideaway The Box, complete with a gay hipster cabaret that, perhaps unintentionally, suggested Weimar culture filtered through postmillennial sensibilities. How it related to Grass or his work, I couldn’t tell. Maybe it had something to do with the eels.