A Scandalized Günter Grass Faces His Public

Grass genuflects (read signs autographs) at the 92nd Street Y. Photo: Haven Thompson

“Who is here?” a skinny, gum-snapping brunette demanded of the air, jostling her way through the serpentine line jamming the 92nd Street Y’s lobby last night. The answer, of course, was Nobel Prize–winning author Günter Grass, who was on hand to read from his new memoir, Peeling the Onion, in which he admits to serving in the Waffen-S.S. during the last year of World War II.

But the reading was a mere amuse-bouche for the main course: a tense, gritty Q&A between Grass and Amos Elon, an Austrian-born, Israeli-raised historian. The 80-year-old author kneaded his hands and tapped his feet, recalling his blind faith in Nazism. “If I look back to myself,” he said, “I was a stupid young boy with a head filled with stories.”

The audience roared and clapped when Elon paraphrased Grass’s analogy from his 2002 novel, Crabwalk. “German history is like a blocked-up toilet, the more you flush, the more it comes up again. Some would say that this is what happened to you,” Elon said. Grass’s fumbling Adenauer jokes were not sufficient to relax the crowd, some of whom were less than satisfied by his answers. “Poor Germans!” scoffed one woman after Grass described the frigid winter of 1946–7 that prevented his enrollment in art school.

“They were obvious, weren’t they?” Elon (whom the Y flew in from Italy for the occasion) admitted about his own line of questions. “If he had said 62 years ago that that’s where he was, everybody would have thought this was perfectly normal and everybody would have forgotten it. It’s his long silence that has created this embarrassing situation.” Still, if the interview was a study in humility on Grass's part, the marathon book-signing line should have restored the author’s faith in his popularity: The Y sold 100 copies of Peeling the Onion on-site, and many patrons brought their own. After the fatigued Grass retired, two fans even staged a photo shoot with the nearly untouched glass of white wine the author left behind. —Haven Thompson

Related: Grass Roots [NYM]