John Irving published a long defense of German author Günter Grass’s new memoir, Peeling the Onion in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. The book created a storm of when it came out in German last year. Grass, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, revealed that he spent the last months of World War II as a member of an SS tank division. While he was only 17 at the time and claimed never to have fired a weapon in battle, the revelation was clearly upsetting to many not only for the nature of Grass’s involvement (the Waffen-SS having executed many of Nazi Germany’s most horrific war crimes) but for the fifty-year delay in his confession.
Irving’s “review” is a fascinating read because of the way an old friendship and a tricky ethical question are managed in prose. Noting that one of his most famous characters, Owen Meany, shares the initials of Grass’s Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum (it’s “homage”), Irving made a point of declaring that he will be attending at least one party for Grass’s 80th birthday, possibly more. And his defense of Grass’s long silence about the Waffen-SS? “But good writers write about the important stuff before they blab about it; good writers don’t tell stories before they’ve written them!”
To decide for yourself, you can read the first chapter of the book online here. If you get cable, Günter Grass and Norman Mailer will be appearing on BookTV this Sunday, July 15 at noon. Or you can watch Grass being interviewed by Charlie Rose right here: