Book Notes

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Günter Grass and His Instant Bestseller

Once again, nothing sells books better than the collision of deception and condemnation.

Since telling a German newspaper that he served in the Nazi Waffen SS during the final months of World War II, Günter Grass has inspired outrage across Europe, including calls for him to return his 1999 Nobel Prize in literature and renounce his honorary Polish citizenship. But all that negative press has been a boon for Grass's new autobiography, Peeling the Onion .

As the controversy over Grass's revelation gained momentum, his publisher pushed up the release of his autobiography by two weeks, and now, only days after publication, bookstores are reportedly having trouble meeting demand. A spokesman for the publisher Steidl told the Reuters news service that 130,000 copies out of the first print run of 150,000 have already been delivered, and a second printing of 100,000 has been ordered.

Grass's American publisher, Harcourt, plans to release an English translation in September 2007.

Author of the 1959 classic The Tin Drum , Grass has always acknowledged that he was raised on a heavy diet of Nazi propaganda, which he renounced after the war. But for years, he claimed he had been drafted into an anti-aircraft unit in Poland, near his hometown of Danzig (now Gdansk), in 1944.

Grass has revealed that, in fact, he volunteered to join the German submarine fleet when he was 15 but was rejected. Two years later, he now says, the army drafted him and assigned him in Dresden to the Waffen SS, the elite Nazi force that played a major role in the Third Reich's atrocities. There is no evidence, however, that he was personally involved in war crimes.

Outrage over Grass's long-kept secret has been especially harsh because the 78-year-old author has spent most of his adult life admonishing Germans to confess their individual and collective responsibility for Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust. Political and cultural leaders in Germany have accused him of gross hypocrisy and even of timing his tardy confession to spur sales of his new autobiography.

Some literary giants, however, have rushed to Grass's defense. Salman Rushdie said in a BBC radio interview, "You can either look at the life on the basis of a youthful mistake, or you can look at it over the course of more than 70 years, most of which have been spent being, in my view, one of the two greatest writers living in the world, with Gabriel García Márquez."

The Associated Press quotes John Irving as saying, "The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer and he has always been a daring man."

In the interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper Aug. 12, Grass said, "My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book. It had to come out finally."

-- Ron Charles

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