Judith Malina (dead today, April 10) and Günter Grass.


Read all about Judith in today’s NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/11/theater/judith-malina-founder-of-the-living-theater-dies-at-88.html?emc=edit_th_20150411&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=45896446

My chat with her for Folha de S Paulo (2007)

On Apr 13, 2015, at 1:45 PM, Gerald Thomas wrote:

Günter Grass, the German novelist, social critic and Nobel Prize winner whom many called his country’s moral conscience but who stunned Europe when he revealed in 2006 that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II, died on Monday. He was 87.

Mr. Grass and I had worked together on a Tanztheater project in Weimar in 1997 and I felt very uneasy throughout because he refused to look me in the eyes during the full month we were there, in thE Bauhaus capital.

This last week has been heavily doomed by the deaths of famous counter culture icons, beginning with Living Theater legend, Judith Malina, in New York, last Friday.

Ms. Malina hated Mr. Grass and for a good reason. “This man is a Nazi and will forever be a Nazi” she would scream at the top of her hoarse voice and damaged lungs! “How can you work with a pig like that?”, she would ask me, intent on demolishing the little relationship there was between me and Grass. Her passionate outburst was more than pertinent. Counter culture has different meanings in different societies.

Mr. Grass was hardly the only member of his generation who obscured the facts of his wartime life. But because he was a pre-eminent public intellectual who had pushed Germans to confront the ugly aspects of their history, his confession that he had falsified his own biography shocked readers and led some to view his life’s work in a different light.

In 2012, Mr. Grass found himself the subject of further scrutiny after publishing a poem criticizing Israel for its hostile language toward Iran over its nuclear program. He expressed revulsion at the idea that Israel might be justified in attacking Iran over a perceived nuclear threat and said that it “endangers the already fragile world peace.”

The poem (if one can call it that !), prompted an international controversy and a personal attack from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Grass later said that he had meant to attack Israel’s government rather than the country as a whole.
Mr. Grass was propelled to the forefront of postwar literature in 1959, with the publication of his wildly inventive masterpiece “The Tin Drum.” Critics hailed the audacious sweep of his literary imagination. A severed horse’s head swarming with hungry eels, a criminal hiding beneath a peasant woman’s layered skirts, and a child who shatters windows with his high-pitched voice are among the memorable images that made “The Tin Drum” a worldwide triumph.

In awarding Mr. Grass the Nobel Prize in 1999, the Swedish Academy praised him for embracing “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.” It described “The Tin Drum” as “one of the enduring literary works of the 20th century.”

Although Mr. Grass was a playwright, essayist, short-story writer, poet, sculptor and printmaker as well as a novelist, it was his role as a social critic that brought him the most notoriety.

For much of his career, he campaigned for disarmament and social change. By the end of the 20th century, however, his uncompromising antimilitarism and his warnings that a unified Germany might once again threaten world peace led some of his countrymen to criticize him as a pedantic moralist who had lost touch with real life.

The revelation of his Nazi past led to accusations of hypocrisy. He revealed it himself, days before a memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” was to be published. Mr. Grass had long said that he had been a “flakhelfer” during the war, one of many German youths pressed to serve in relatively innocent jobs like guarding antiaircraft batteries. But in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, he admitted that he had in fact been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, which perpetrated some of the Nazi regime’s most horrific crimes. Yes, counter culture has different meanings in different societies.

“It was a weight on me,” said Mr. Grass, then 78. “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”

In his memoir, Mr. Grass reflected on the vagaries of conscience and memory. “What I had accepted with stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame,” he wrote. “But the burden remained, and no one could lighten it.”

Although he was conscripted into the SS in 1944, near the end of World War II, and was never accused of participating in atrocities (and that is what both Ms Malina and I had doubted), the fact that he had obscured this crucial fact of his background for decades while flagellating his fellow Germans for their cowardice set off cries of outrage.

“Moral suicide,” said the newspaper Welt am Sonntag. The playwright Rolf Hochhuth said it was “disgusting” to recall that Mr. Grass had denounced President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl for their 1985 visit to a cemetery in Bitburg where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried, while hiding the fact that he had been in the SS himself.

Mr. Grass’s defenders argued that his social and political influence had been highly positive for postwar Germany, forcing the country to face and atone for its Nazi past. He might not have been able to play that role, they said, if he had been forthright about his own background.

With his mane of black hair and drooping walrus mustache, bifocals slipping down his nose and smoke curling from his pipe, Mr. Grass was almost a caricature of the postwar European intellectual. His books were all but inseparable from his public persona, giving him a unique position in German public life that stretched over more than half a century.

“The Tin Drum” became one of the most widely read modern European novels. It also made Mr. Grass a leading spokesman for a generation barely old enough to have recalled or participated in Nazi crimes.

The book’s hero, Oskar Matzerath, wills himself at the age of 3 to stop growing, and thereafter expresses himself only by pounding drums. He was viewed as representing a German nation so morally stunted that it could not find the courage to prevent Nazism.

An intense antinationalist, Mr. Grass viewed his country with emotions that could flare into fear and hatred. Some critics said the artificially small and weak Oskar Matzerath symbolized what he wanted for Germany.

In the 1960s and ’70s, much of Mr. Grass’s work dealt with the German themes of disillusionment, the militaristic past and the challenges of building a post-Nazi society. His greatest successes of the period were “Cat and Mouse” (1961), about a man whose unusually large Adam’s apple forever sets him apart from the rest of humanity, and the Joycean “Dog Years” (1963), which analyzes three decades of German history and suggests that the country has not progressed much. These two novels, together with “The Tin Drum,” make up what Mr. Grass called his “Danzig Trilogy.”

While he was writing these works, Mr. Grass also campaigned and wrote speeches for Willy Brandt, who was one of West Germany’s dominant politicians from 1957, when he was elected mayor of Berlin, to 1974, when he stepped down after five years as the country’s first Social Democratic chancellor.

Mr. Grass later demonstrated against the deployment of American nuclear missiles in Germany, denounced the German arms industry, and quit the Social Democratic Party, the Berlin Academy of Arts and the Lutheran Church, which he had joined as a teenager after renouncing Roman Catholicism. He criticized both the Lutheran and the Catholic hierarchies as “moral accomplices” of Nazism.

Mr. Grass was a tireless defender of Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba and embraced Nicaragua’s left-oriented Sandinista government in the 1980s. Yet he described himself as an opponent of revolution who viewed “humane socialism” as the ideal society.

He denounced repression in Soviet-bloc countries and attacked governments run by religious fundamentalists, but his criticism was often accompanied by scathing denunciations of Western and especially German capitalism. In opposing the first Persian Gulf war, for example, he focused his anger on his own country, accusing German companies of arming the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“Once again, it is Germans who are designing and producing poison gas factories,” he said in an interview. “This is where you really see the German danger. It isn’t nationalism, and it isn’t reawakened neo-Nazis. It is simply the unchecked lust for profit.”

Many of Mr. Grass’s books are phantasmagorical mixtures of fact and fantasy, some of them inviting comparison with the Latin American style known as magical realism. His own name for this style was “broadened reality.”

“Günter Grass’s books present surprising and extremely contradictory combinations of opposites,” the Russian-German writer Lev Kopelev wrote in an essay on the occasion of Mr. Grass’s 65th birthday. “Minutely detailed presentations of real things and scientifically precise descriptions of historical events are melted together with fairy tales, legends, myths, fables, poems and wild fantasies to produce his own special poetical world.”

Mr. Grass was renowned for his wide-ranging tastes. He was an epicure who favored hearty peasant food, and his work exudes the aroma of home-cooked dishes like smoked goose breast and roast pork with sauerkraut and caraway seeds, the preparation and consumption of which he described in loving detail.

His fascination with animals was reflected in book titles like “The Flounder” and “From the Diary of a Snail.” He was a jazz lover, once worked as a jazz musician, and collaborated on “O Susanna,” an illustrated book on the subject published in 1959.

Some critics hoped Mr. Grass would produce a monumental novel encompassing all the great themes that have tormented Germany through its history, and felt betrayed when he did not. Many of his later works were met with both critical and popular indifference.

The dominant German literary critic during most of his career, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who died in 2013, called him “greatly overrated” and once appeared on the cover of the magazine Der Spiegel ripping apart a copy of one Grass book he especially loathed, “Too Far Afield.” Greatly overrated he was. But now he’s dead and it remains for History to find a place for him in the world of art and fantasy since, so much of his life, played out in reality.

Gerald Thomas
NY – April 13, 2015

About Eduardo Galeano (from the New York Times)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer who blended literature, journalism and political satire in reflecting on the vagaries, injustices and small victories of history, died on Monday in Montevideo, Uruguay. He was 74.

The cause was complications from lung cancer, said his sister Teté Hughes.

Of his more than 30 books Mr. Galeano is remembered chiefly for “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” an unsparing critique, published in 1971, of the exploitation of Latin America by European powers and the United States.

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