Tribute: A giant in his own right
Tribute: A Giant In His Own Right. In 1982, when I was in Hamburg for the publication of the German translation of ‘Midnight’s Children,’ I was asked...
In 1982, when I was in Hamburg for the publication of the German translation of ‘Midnight’s Children,’ I was asked by my publishers if I would like to meet Günter Grass. Well, obviously I wanted to, and so I was driven out to the village of Wewelsfleth, outside Hamburg, where Grass then lived. He had two houses in the village; he wrote and lived in one and used the other as an art studio. After a certain amount of early fencing—I was expected, as the younger writer, to make my genuflections, which, as it happened, I was happy to perform—he decided, all of a sudden, that I was acceptable, led me to a cabinet in which he stored his collection of antique glasses, and asked me to choose one. Then he got out a bottle of schnapps, and by the bottom of the bottle we were friends. At some later point, we lurched over to the art studio, and I was enchanted by the objects I saw there, all of which I recognised from the novels: bronze eels, terracotta flounders, dry-point etchings of a boy beating a tin drum. I envied him his artistic gift almost more than I admired him for his literary genius. How wonderful, at the end of a day’s writing, to walk down the street and become a different sort of artist! He designed his own book covers, too: dogs, rats, toads moved from his pen onto his dust jackets.
After that meeting, every German journalist I met wanted to ask me what I thought of him, and when I said that I believed him to be one of the two or three greatest living writers in the world some of these journalists looked disappointed, and said, “Well, ‘The Tin Drum,’ yes, but wasn’t that a long time ago?” To which I tried to reply that if Grass had never written that novel, his other books were enough to earn him the accolades I was giving him, and the fact that he had written ‘The Tin Drum’ as well placed him among the immortals. The skeptical journalists looked disappointed. They would have preferred something cattier, but I had nothing catty to say.
I loved him for his writing, of course—for his love of the Grimm tales, which he remade in modern dress, for the black comedy he brought to the examination of history, for the playfulness of his seriousness, for the unforgettable courage with which he looked the great evil of his time in the face and rendered the unspeakable into great art. (Later, when people threw slurs at him—Nazi, anti-Semite—I thought: let the books speak for him, the greatest anti-Nazi masterpieces ever written, containing passages about Germans’ chosen blindness toward the Holocaust that no anti-Semite could ever write.)
On his seventieth birthday, many writers—Nadine Gordimer, John Irving, and the whole of German literature—assembled to sing his praises at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, but what I remember best is that when the praise songs were done music began to play, the theatre’s stage became a dance floor, and Grass was revealed as a master of what I call joined-up dancing. He could waltz, polka, foxtrot, tango, and gavotte, and it seemed that all the most beautiful girls in Germany were lining up to dance with him. As he delightedly swung and twirled and dipped, I understood that this was who he was: the great dancer of German literature, dancing across history’s horrors toward literature’s beauty, surviving evil because of his personal grace, and his comedian’s sense of the ridiculous as well.
To those journalists who wanted me to diss him in 1982, I said, “Maybe he has to die before you understand what a great man you have lost.” That time has now arrived. I hope they do.
Salman Rushdie, The Newyorker