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Eugenides: Grass showed US writers 'how to be political'

Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides tells DW how his own writing was influenced by Günter Grass - even before he started reading his work. He also explains why Grass' political activism was crucial for US writers.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer and professor at Princeton University. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Middlesex," mostly written in Berlin where he lived for five years. His first novel "The Virgin Suicides" was made into a major movie.

DW: How did you first come in contact with the writing of

Günter Grass

and how would you describe his influence on you?

Jeffrey Eugenides: It's an interesting thing with Günter Grass' work and my own: It taught me that sometimes you absorb influences from writers who you haven't read by a process of translation and osmosis.

In my own case, my novel "Middlesex" came out of a tradition whose back end I was aware of - that being "Midnight's Children," a book by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie certainly learned a lot from Günter Grass and especially from "The Tin Drum."

At that point I was more familiar with Rushdie's work than with Grass'. Then later on I came to more closely study "The Tin Drum" and I saw how much Rushdie learned from Grass and what an inspiration he was in terms of both creating a kind of spectacular hero and weaving the exploits of the hero into history - in Rushdie's case India, obviously in Günter Grass' case Germany, in my case I dealt with America and immigration with Greeks from Asia Minor.

I don't know where Grass got it. Writers always get things from their predecessors. I think he got an immense amount from Kafka. So I realized that I was working in a long tradition that stretched back into the mists, in a sense, and I didn't know where it came from. But I felt influenced by him, kind of at a distance, but significantly in that way.

How would you rate his influence on contemporary American literature more generally?

That would be harder to describe. I'll say that when I was growing up Grass was an important figure culturally and politically in the United States as well as literarily. But in the seventies it was a time that you understood that writers took political stands and sometimes were agitators and sometimes were troublemakers.

We had Grace Paley in this country, who Donald Barthelme described as a great troublemaker. And Grass was sort of a similar figure. So I think Grass provided for American writers an example of how to be political as well as literary.

The books that are known here are most of all obviously "The Tin Drum," "Cat and Mouse," and some others. But you would see "The Flounder" on people's bookshelves and there was a kind of sense of European literature as one that was trying to grapple with history and trying to grapple with the sins of the fathers as it were.

I think he presented that kind of model for American writers that they should, if they were going to be serious writers, look at their nation and look at their country and its politics and try to be as anti-patriotic as possible and as exacting in their descriptions and their examinations of American history.

You mentioned Grass' political activism. He certainly was a politically very engaged writer who did not shy away from controversy. Three years ago he published "What must be said," a poem in which he accused Israel of being a danger to world peace, which caused an international uproar. What is your take on Grass' political stances?

I think it has to be said that he often took the wrong stand on many issues. There was a famous PEN conference in New York where he famously got in a tussle with Saul Bellow. Grass would sort of foam at the mouth about a lot of things. He wasn't always correct.

If you look back at it, it's good that he was there and that someone was doing what he was doing. So I certainly wouldn't come along and say that he was always acting with prudence and probity and all of his opinions were correct.

I think in the main the ideals he held of suspicion toward an out-of-control capitalistic society, suspicion toward nationalism, a desire for a kind of a citizenry of the earth - in all of these things his heart was in the right place.

When he would take specific stands on many things, he proved to be wrong. I think time will tell, but on his stand against German unification he was probably not correct.

His desire to criticize Israel has a lot of merit to it. The means and the words he used were maybe inflammatory, but he is not the only person concerned about the Middle East situation. So you have to take him for his good stands and not for his slightly erratic and crazier stands. But all in all it was good to have him fighting the fight he was fighting.

Six years earlier Grass' revelation that he had served in the Waffen-SS during World War II had also caused a controversy with critics asking why he had waited so long to talk about his role during that time. What do you make of Grass' handling of his own past during World War II?

That was a shock to me as well as to a lot of other people. I have to say that when I lived in Germany I was amazed how many older Germans I met who claimed that they had only worked helping in the anti-aircraft gunnery protecting the homeland. It seemed like everyone had been engaged in some sort of fairly pacific defenses during the war.

So I wasn't surprised to find the same thing with Grass, that he had a higher level of participation in the war than he'd let on.

I think the saving grace for Grass in that affair was that he confessed himself. Almost all the time when people are found out, they are found out by someone else, increasingly now by the Internet. He was a person who believed in expiating guilt and identifying where one was guilty. It is amazing that he kept that secret that long. But he did finally reveal it himself and incredible cost.

The fact is that now, if you look at his obituary in the New York Times, that's in the first paragraph. He spent his life writing books, won the Nobel Prize, but the lede is the revelation of this history.

So he was risking it all with that and certainly became persona non grata for a lot of people. I think it shows a very large amount of courage to do that.

Why did he do it? I don't know, but I think it may have aided him in his project of trying to be the moral conscience of Germany. Sometimes it is the sinner who is most aware of the sin. There are arguments to be made if he hadn't revealed that he wouldn't have been the kind of moral conscience that he was.

I don't know, but I think he fought the good fight in terms of having Germany examine its past. Germany is an exemplary country in that respect and Grass was part of that. And finally he brought that same kind of honesty to his own life. He did it belatedly, but he did do it himself. It's not that we are just finding this out now after he dies.

Did you ever meet Grass personally?

I never did. But my first week in Germany was the week he won the Nobel. I was watching German television and I didn't understand anything at that point. But they went to his bar, his favorite little Weinstube in Lübeck, and there he was drinking wine and all his friends were congratulating him.

And it seemed so amazing to me because in America if someone wins the Nobel Prize, it might be in the papers, but live TV wouldn't go to a writer. It was simply amazing to me that there he was drinking red wine in the forest of northern Germany and the whole country was so excited. So it was kind of my literary introduction to Germany.

What is your favorite work by Grass and what will be his legacy?

It's undeniably "The Tin Drum," part of a long comic, epic tradition of literature. I think it stretches all the way back to the Homeric epics. That's the book that means most to me. As I said I learnt a lot from it at a distance. I think that's the book he will be remembered for.

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