Guenter Grass, the 71-year-old German novelist who confronted his countrymen with their guilty silence after the Holocaust, won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday.
The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, credited Grass's first novel, "The Tin Drum," with restoring honor to German literature "after decades of linguistic and moral destruction." The academy said the book "comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them."
Grass and his wife of many years, Ute Grunert, celebrated the nearly $1 million award by drinking a toast with friends at the wine shop beneath his office. Grass said he planned to keep a dental appointment later in the day: "That will help calm the nerves."
He is the first German author to get the award since Heinrich Boell in 1972 and only the second since Thomas Mann in 1929. "I feel joy and pride," he said after learning of the prize, which Nobel-watchers over the past two decades had thought he might get any year. "This prize is a great achievement for me."
At Harcourt Brace in New York, Grass's American editor, Drenka Willen, 69, said her office was too busy to celebrate yesterday. The publishing company is rushing Grass's next book, "My Century," into print. She said publishing executives soon would meet to discuss increasing the print run for the experimental novel, which is "somewhat autobiographical."
For the elegant white-haired editor, Grass's literature prize gives her four of a kind for the '90s. She was also American editor for winners Jose Saramago (1998), Wislawa Szymborska (1996) and Octavio Paz (1990). Her writers, she said in her Yugoslavian accent, "were all really major in terms of what they have produced, the quality they have produced."
Grass, she said, "works enormously hard." And, she pointed out, he is a Renaissance man -- graphic artist, poet, and playwright as well as novelist. He was painting at his house in the northern German village of Behlendorf, near Hamburg, when the academy called with the news. She was unable to reach him on the phone yesterday afternoon.
"The Tin Drum," published in 1959, became one of the century's most admired and revealing allegories of guilt and complicity. The book tells the tale of Oskar Matzerath, a young dwarf who, like Grass, grows up in Danzig -- now Gdansk -- and experiences the German attack on Poland, whereupon the 3-year-old boy refuses to grow up, pining instead for the security of his mother's womb.
At a time when most renditions of the Holocaust were relentlessly dark and grim, Grass used raunchy humor to probe the German psyche and provoke his countrymen. But his irreverence and commitment to the notion that Germany remained a psychologically damaged society wore thin with them. His novels and nonfiction after the critically acclaimed Danzig Trilogy "Tin Drum," "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years" were often dismissed as lesser works and as the product of a political crank.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Grass was one of the first and most vocal opponents of the reunification of his divided homeland. He argued that Germans had forfeited their right to live together in one country. A united Germany, he said, was "doomed to failure" because "our unified state filled the history books of the world with suffering, ruin, defeat, millions of refugees, millions of dead and a burden of crimes which we will never be able to throw off."
"It can't be that my children and grandchildren will have to suffer under the stigma of being German," he told a news conference after yesterday's announcement.
"But these late-born children also have a share of the responsibility for ensuring that such things -- even their stirrings -- never happen in Germany again."
Grass has also been criticized for rarely including overt references to the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews in his catalogue of German crimes. Ernestine Schlant, a scholar of German literature, wrote in a recent book that Grass's works virtually ignore the experiences of Jews. (She is the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley.)
To become a German writer in the aftermath of the Holocaust was a brash and terrifying act. The philosopher Theodor Adorno had pronounced that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbarous." Grass, who was drafted into the German air force when he was 16 and wound up an American prisoner of war, was initially sympathetic to that view. But eventually he decided that Germany needed voices to take on the country's legacy of genocide and proudly carry the banner of shame. In the emotionally repressed years that followed the war's end, Grass's unflinching stories of Germans who cooperated with the Nazi terror were greeted as courageous and wise.
"He found a way to portray German angst that struck a chord in the German consciousness somehow," said Michael Henry Heim, translator of "My Century." "He's had a lot of trouble with critics because he doesn't fit into any set category."
Heim said that the new book, which is divided into 100 parts -- one for each year, with more than 80 different narrators -- deals with reunification. "I wouldn't say he's modified his position, he's" -- the translator groped for the right word -- "he's incorporated the changes in his position into the novel."
Grass, explained Heim, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, is no longer directly opposed to reunification but to the way it's practiced.
In Germany, some reaction was muted, the Associated Press reported. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder honored Grass as a "competent critic of society." His culture minister, Michael Naumann, called him a "difficult, imaginative author."
One of Grass's most vocal champions, American novelist John Irving, told a German newspaper yesterday: "It is a very happy day for me, my middle son's 30th birthday and Guenter Grass wins the Nobel Prize. I will celebrate twice."
In a 1982 essay, Irving wrote that Grass is "the most powerful and versatile writer alive." He compared Grass to one of his "Tin Drum" characters, Sigismund Markus, "the king of the toymakers." If novels are toys, Irving wrote, Grass is king.
Irving told the newspaper, "In recent years, the Nobel has not always been a prize for literature; too often it has seemed a reward for obscurity. Giving the prize to Grass is not only long overdue and richly deserved; it does much to restore one's faith in the Nobel Prize itself."
Guenter Grass: Selected Works
Excerpts from two of Nobel Prize winner Guenter Grass's most notable works:
From 'The Tin Drum':Despite any guilt I may have felt for my poor mama's death, I clung all the more desperately to my despised drum; for it did not die as a mother dies, you could buy a new one, or you could have it repaired by old man Heilandt or Laubschad the watchmaker, it understood me, it always gave the right answer, it stuck to me as I stuck to it.
In those days the apartment became too small for me, the streets too long or too short for my fourteen years; in the daytime there was no occasion to play the tempter outside of shopwindows and the temptation to tempt was not urgent enough to make me lurk in dark doorways at night. I was reduced to tramping up and down the four staircases of our apartment house in time to my drum; I counted a hundred and sixteen steps, stopped at every landing, breathed in the smells, which, because they too felt cramped in those two-room flats, seeped through the five doors on each landing.
From 'The Flounder': Ilsebill put on more salt. Before the impregnation there was shoulder of mutton with string beans and pears, the season being early October. Still at table, still with her mouth full, she asked, "Should we go to bed right away, or do you first want to tell me how when where our story began?"
I, down through the ages, have been I. And Ilsebill, too, has been from the beginning. I remember our first quarrel, toward the end of the Neolithic, some two thousand years before the incarnation of our Lord, when myths were beginning to distinguish between raw food and cooked food. And just as, today, before sitting down to mutton with string beans and pears, we quarreled more and more cuttingly over her children and mine, so then, in the marshland of the Vistula estuary, we quarreled to the best of our neolithic vocabulary over my claim to at least three of her nine kids. But I lost. For all the ur-phonemes my nimble, hard-working tongue was able to line up, I did not succeed in forming the beautiful word "father"; only "mother" was possible. In those days Ilsebill's name was Awa. I, too, had a different name. But the idea of having been Awa doesn't appeal to Ilsebill.