John Irving’s debt to Günter Grass

In this week’s NewYork Times Book Review, there’s an excellent article by John Irving on German writer Günter Grass. Günter Grass is a celebrated and controversial writer in Germany and all over Europe — his books often deal with the German guilt about the Nazi past — but I didn’t know whether his fame had crossed the Atlantic.

Irving’s article is not so much a review of Grass’ latest book Peeling The Onion, a memoir, than a homage, a defense and a praise for this man whom Irving sees as a mentor and friend. It’s very fascinating to see how much Grass influenced Irving from the beginning:

At the ages of 14 and 15, I had read “Great Expectations” twice — Dickens made me want to be a writer — but it was reading “The Tin Drum” at 19 and 20 that showed me how. It was Günter Grass who demonstrated that it was possible to be a living writer who wrote with Dickens’s full range of emotion and relentless outpouring of language. Grass wrote with fury, love, derision, slapstick, pathos — all with an unforgiving conscience.

Later on, Irving confesses how much of a naive American he was when he came to Vienna to study German and imitate his hero. There is also this recollection of a party where Grass told him, through indirect ways, that Irving’s latest book had disappointed him:

 There was a lot of wine; it was a very late night. And when Grass was leaving, he looked worried; pulling me aside, he said he was worried about me. He told me I wasn’t quite as angry as I used to be, and said good night. […] The East Germans stayed on and on, but I spent the rest of the night resolving that I would get angrier and stay angry. If my hero […] found me lacking in firepower, I needed to fan the flame. 

I read this article with deep emotion, because I not only saw it as a token of friendship and admiration, but also as a comforting evidence of a brotherhood among writers of great talent, among people who have accumulated wisdom and detachment from self-righteousness, hype and political correctness. It worries me when European confine themselves to debates where everything is ambiguous, while Americans brush it aside and prefer things to be black-and-white. I sometimes fear that these trends will drive the two continents even further apart. It’s really reassuring to me that Irving doesn’t refuse this complexity and rather embraces it:

 The dedication to “Peeling the Onion” reads: “Allen gewidmet, von denen ich lernte.” (“Dedicated to everyone from whom I have learned.”) In my opinion, every writer who’s truly read Günter Grass is in his debt. I know I am.


3 thoughts on “John Irving’s debt to Günter Grass

  1. Pingback: The Year’s Culmination : What a Book ! « Smithereens

  2. Your knowledge of literature is pretty paltry if you didn’t know whether Grass had been discovered across the Atlantic … astonishing!

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