Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Whatever you do, don't mention the war!"

It’s always fun to see how literature makes the news, and if you’re a fan of contemporary German literature, these are the salad days for juicy controversy. Since April, two of Germany’s (or in one case, now Austria’s) most famous writers have caught the brunt of the 24-hour news cycle’s regurgitated outrage.

First, there was Peter Handke. An experimental novelist and playwright, born in Germany and raised in Austria, on April 6 a small news piece appeared in the lefty French newspaper La Nouvelle Observateur. Handke, who had attended Slobodan Milosovic’s funeral, was quoted as saying, “I am happy to be close to Slobodan Milosevic, who has defended his people,” and accused of “persist[ing] in his defense of ‘Slobo,’ [and who] considers that the Serbs are ‘the real victims of the war,’ approves the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes done in the name of ethnic cleansing.” (For a good overview and spirited defense of Handke, as well as the English translation of this quote, see this article.) Handke’s play scheduled for the winter season at the Comedie Francaise was quickly cancelled, and a prestigious German literary prize was rescinded in early May.

Then there was Gunther Grass. Grass won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature for having “broke “the spell that lay over the German past and sabotaged the German sublime, the taste for the somberly blazing magnificence of foredoomed destruction.” His 1956 novel The Tin Drum established him as the so-called conscience of his generation (whatever that means) who dared the Germans to live up to their responsibility for the Holocaust. But in June, in advance of the publication of his memoirs, it was revealed for the first time that at the age of 17, in 1944, Grass was conscripted into the elite SS, who were responsible for executing the death camps. Condemnation was swift: pundits called for his Nobel to be rescinded (they cannot be) and his honorary citizenship of the city of Gdansk, Poland (he was born there when it was the German city of Danzig) was called into question until he had a very public mea culpa with revered Solidarity founder Lech Walesa. (See the Time magazine article here.)

What’s so fascinating about the controversies, and what’s not much noted, is that they mirror the circumstances of the two writers’ first meeting, at the Group 45 conference at Princeton in 1966. (Yes, we’re getting all literary here.) Group 45 was an influential who’s who of German literati in the post-war era, and the writers in attendance included Grass, Peter Weise and Heinrich Boll. Handke, who was just a student, rebelled against what he saw as their moralizing tendencies and established himself as a nihilistic contrarian by staging his groundbreaking play Offending the Audience, in which four actors simply hurl epithets at the audience for about 30 minutes. The play was a riot, sending up the stuffy pretension of the elitists, who expelled an only too-happy Handke.

The writers he so offended were more fond of staging dramatic readings of the Nuremberg trials (Peter Weise’s The Investigation) or a criss-crossing of absurdist bluster and epic agitprop (Weise’s Marat/Sade or Grass’s The Plebians Rehearse an Uprising). Handke continued his career with such groundbreaking works as Kaspar, a dramatization of a feral child forced to learn language, which is reveaked to be one of society’s control mechanisms. Grass and Handke couldn’t have chosen more different paths: one of witness-bearing and consciousness-raising, the other of nihilistic abandon and art-for-art’s-sake playfulness.

And yet in the end, they were both brought down by the same beast.

In their defenses, Handke never excused or supported Milosevic (the Observateur later all but retracted the story), and Grass’s work is often stunning in its ability to delve into Germany’s grief stricken conscience and pull up all the nasty bits the nation would prefer to forget. But both were celebrities who played on their fame as public intellectuals, and it bit them in the ass. For my money, Handke is the sorrier of the two. Ever the skeptic, he never embraced a role as society’s conscience, but he nevertheless fell victim to a liberal society’s desire to see itself as the hero. His presence at Milosevic’s burial was not, as reported, to honor the man, but rather to explore the ways in which the west has rewritten the sordid history of the former Yugoslavia and ignored its own culpability in the crimes that took place there. But in a world where you’re either with us or against us, he was labelled the latter and left to hang. Grass on the other hand spent so much time encouraging his countrymen to accept responsibility for their own actions that it was with no little schadenfreude that they set upon him for not being able to practice what he preached.

And most amusingly? All this controversy over two writers, and none of it has anything to do with anything they wrote.

This artice was my far too esoteric books article for the September edition of The Seattle Sinner.


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