How To Write About Your Friends: Irving Reviews Grass

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:

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