Literary Review - August 2007
published as children’s books than would have done if they had been published as fantasy. Nor was I itching to write about religion. I originally wanted to write a story about a girl who goes into a room where she shouldn’t be and has to hide when someone comes in and by chance overhears something she’s not supposed to hear. A little later I discovered she had a daemon, that was the point at which I realised I’d got hold of a story somehow that I could use – no, you don’t use a story – that I could explore, and say something about Kleist’s essay which I had come across fifteen years before. The religious theme evolved as part of what Lyra has to struggle against and give up. What do you say to Auden’s line that poetry makes nothing happen? Poetry by itself is just a stringed instrument making no sound. It needs air around it and a human mind to resonate it. Then it makes a difference but not in a simple instrumental ‘x therefore y’ way. It’s more complicated; it takes longer to resonate and to set up neural patterns. It does things, but it doesn’t do what the poet thinks it’ll do. You can’t predict how people will read your work. You might think you’ve written a searing indictment of the slave trade and people read your novel for the love story – that’s part of the democracy of reading that I’m very keen on. While not being afraid to play God as a writer? This business about the omniscient narrator also has a bearing on Lyra and the alethiometer and the loss of grace and innocence and confidence and so on. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the modernists, we lost confidence in storytelling – think of Joyce, and Woolf to some extent, and E M Forster with his ‘oh dear – yes, the novel tells a story’ as if it were a shameful thing to do. Suddenly the novel became self-conscious about itself and about the process of storytelling, and a huge awkwardness set in that resulted in a split between the people who tell stories – the middlebrow – and the others who would do anything rather than tell a story who were the other thing – the highbrow. Hugh Walpole on one side, James Joyce on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Whereas in Victorian times everyone read Dickens. The gulf is lessening now because people are becoming less self-conscious, or rather learning to deal with their self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is like shyness – charming in a child of twelve but not so charming in someone of 32 or 42 or 52, so to deal with it you have to pretend you’re not shy. The way to deal with self-consciousness in storytelling is to pretend that you’re not self-conscious. Writing for children is liberating because it forces you to pretend you’re not self-conscious. There is a lovely passage in an essay by Umberto Eco about the difficulty the post-modern chap has in telling his girlfriend that he loves her. He doesn’t want to say ‘I love you’ because those words have been used without irony by Barbara Cartland. Finally he finds a solution.
He says to her, ‘As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you.’ Ha! The tongs of irony you need to hand the sugar of affection. Have you seen the film of ‘Northern Lights’ (to be released as ‘The Golden Compass’ this Christmas) and do you feel at all sorry to think of children coming across the story for the first time as a film? I’ve seen bits of it. Teams of slaves are still putting the thing together, assiduously. The look is wonderful, immensely rich and intriguing and attractive. Lyra is played by a girl called Dakota Blue Richards who has never acted before and holds the whole thing together. She was one of ten thousand seen for the part. No, I’m not sorry. I think the story will survive. I would be sorry if there was a law which said every time a film comes out the book or books on which it was based had to be withdrawn. As James M Cain replied when asked if he minded what had been done to one of his books: ‘They’ve done nothing to my book, it’s there on the shelf.’ A number of those who see the film will have read the book already. Non-readers probably wouldn’t have come across the book anyway. How much trouble did the project encounter in America as a result of your book’s perceived anti-Christian bias? The problem for those who think there’s an antireligious anti-moral bias in the books comes when they haven’t actually read the books: of course there’s a criticism of organised theocratic tyrannical religion but who can disagree with that? A review in the Church Timessaid, ‘When the morality is secure the metaphysics don’t matter.’ The qualities which my books criticise are intolerance, fanaticism, cruelty, and the qualities they celebrate are love, kindness, openness, curiosity. I think the moral majority in America is not a majority at all and that the power of the organised Christian Right is a phantom. Theocracies don’t have to be religious. Soviet Russia was a theocracy. They had a holy book, which was Marx; they had prophets and doctors of the church (Lenin, Engels, Stalin, and so on); they had a priesthood that had privileges and powers above the ordinary, which was the Communist Party. There was also a teleological view of history and you could either be on the side of history or against history. There was a state apparatus of denunciation, betrayal, punishment, the idea of heresy, even the cult of holy relics – so many parallels. In the new edition of ‘His Dark Materials’ you have added a series of what you call Lantern Slides at the end of each volume, glimpses of the characters in different but possible situations. Aren’t these an invitation to others to write stories about your created worlds? It already happens on the Internet. It’s called fan fiction: there are six hundred or so already doing it, maybe more now. Bloody nerve, isn’t it?
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007
CAROLEANGIER The Pounding Of Silence
★By Güünter Grass (Translated by Michael Henry Heim) (Harvill Secker 425pp £18.99)
WHENTHIS BOOKwas published in Germany last year it unleashed a furore. The great castigator of the German people for their secrets and lies had kept his own secret for sixty years: he had ended the war in an SS unit. The press rounded on him. Grass was so shaken he couldn’t sleep. In fact it wasn’t the book itself that caused the storm, but an interview Grass gave for its publication. Newspapers have less space and time than books, and not for the first time the truth was distorted. The SS scandal was absurd. Grass was only seventeen at the time; he was drafted during the chaos at the end of the war; he never fired a shot; and he didn’t know that his destination was the SS until he arrived. It is almost as though the press had picked a paper tiger: an accusation so unfair that Germans reading it could feel, once more, unjustly reviled. In Peeling the OnionGrass does the opposite. He doesn’t let himself off lightly by admitting something everyone will forgive. The SS story is only one shameful episode among many, and far from the worst. Peeling the Onion is not a paper tiger, but a painful and courageous book. Forget the fake controversy and read it. Grass’s real accusation against himself is the other point the press made: not the service, but the silence. Not so much the silence afterwards, for sixty years, though that is disturbing, in a man who attacked it in others. But an even worse silence: the one before, during and immediately after the war. That is the one that Germans, and all of us, need to reflect on; and Peeling the Onion does. Grass was an ordinary Nazi boy from an ordinary Nazi family. He was a dreamer and a romantic, so a particularly easy pushover (his own word) for patriotism and heroics. He thrilled to the Olympics and adored Hitler. At eleven he watched a synagogue burn, feeling only curiosity and surprise. At fifteen he volunteered early, at sixteen he joined in the bullying of a boy who refused to bear arms. At seventeen he believed in Germany’s final victory to the bitter end; afterwards he refused to believe the pictures of Belsen until his own one-time leader, the ex-head of the Hitler Youth, admitted they were real. And all along, those awful silences: when his own partisan uncle was executed; when first a friend,
and then a teacher, disappeared from his school to Stutthof, a concentration camp nearby, about which he never asked either. The teacher, who survived, forgave him. But Grass does not forgive himself. He was only a boy, and betrayed no one, but he rejects all such excuses. He allowed himself to be seduced, he writes, while millions of people were killed in his name; if he had been born two years earlier, he might well have partaken. He could have known, but he kept silent. He ends his moving elegy for his friend: ‘My silence pounds in my ears.’ After the events last year, Grass said he was glad that he could no longer be the conscience of his nation. But he still is – more than ever; and ours as well. He and his fellow Germans could not believe that their leaders would lie, that a German war could be a crime, that Germans could ever do wrong. We are all the same. Criticising your country is harder than criticising yourself, since the latter will make you friends, while the former will make you enemies. But Peeling the Onion shows that if you don’t do it, as an individual and a nation you may lose your soul. It shows much else as well, being the memoir of a man and a writer as well as a German: Grass’s Lawrentian family, for instance (poor working class, with a philistine father, overshadowed sister, and adoring, aspiring mother); the three terrible months of his war, and his wanderings after; his numerous loves, and numerous jobs (as painter, poet, stonemason, sculptor) on the way to his real one as a writer; and thrilling glimpses into a writer’s mind, as it stores up characters and images – including the tin drum itself, seen with splendid improbability in a comfortable house in Switzerland. It is all vividly conveyed, in Grass’s characteristically pungent, if sometimes clotted prose (which the translator doesn’t do enough to smooth out for us, incidentally, even leaving Germanisms like ‘the by then Polish city of Gdansk’ untouched. Why? Grass deserves better). But even the writer is a German in the end. British critics have admired Grass’s interrogation of memory, his careful distinction between the eighty-year-old memoirist and his young self – hardly ever called ‘I’, but rather ‘he’, ‘whoever I was at the time’, or at best ‘someone who was definitely me’. This may well be a writer’s subtlety; but Grass tells us himself (on page twenty-eight) that it is German guilt as well. It is only to the last accusation against him – why he didn’t break his silence before – that he returns a purely writerly answer. He couldn’t write about the Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship that went down in 1945 with 9,400 German lives, or about his mother’s rape during the war, until sixty years later. And he couldn’t write his own story until sixty years later either. That’s just how he writes; and it’s the writing that matters. If he has to wait sixty years to write something properly, he will, whatever the cost. Grass doesn’t say all this in so many words in Peeling
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007