Trending: Where rhyme and reason part company
The subject matter of Günter Grass's poem about Israel isn't the problem – it's the quality of his writing, says John Walsh
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Tuesday 10 April 2012
Günter Grass is the heart and conscience of German literature. Grim-faced, Nietschze-moustached, pipe-smoking and combative, the Nobel-winning author of Dog Years and The Tin Drum, has such a starry reputation, it eclipses the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS during the war. You'd think, at 84, he'd be taking it easy. Instead, he's managed to scandalise the international community, to be accused of anti-Semitism and to be barred from entering Israel.
The reason is a poem called "What Must Be Said," a polemic that criticises Germany for exporting to Israel a submarine equipped with nuclear warheads, and warns that Israel may use them as a first strike against Iran. As a letter to his countrymen, it has a polemical force; as a personal wrestle with guilt about being anti-Semitic, it's interesting – but as a poem it's astonishingly prosaic: "I've broken my silence/ because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy; /and I hope too that many may be freed/ from their silence, may demand/ that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,/ may insist that the governments of/ both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of/ the nuclear potential and capability of both."
There have, in the past, been politicians who were also successful writers (Milton, Marvell, Sidney, Disraeli, er, Jeffrey Archer) but it's a curious fact that engaging with politics often sees writers come a cropper. Grass's Tin Drum was an overtly political study of wartime Germany, but the theme was leavened with myth, allegory, religion and folklore. Choosing directness and poetry was a bad idea. The same problem bedevilled Harold Pinter, the great playwright. He wrote about American warmongering with a brutal frankness that never worked. One poem called "Democracy" read: "There's no escape./ The big pricks are out./ They'll fuck everything in sight. /Watch your back." They inspired Craig Brown's parodies, from which they are often indistinguishable.
The former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, hit a wall when he published "Causa Belli," criticising the Iraq war, contrasting what's said by pro-war politicians and what's understood by ordinary people: "They read good books, and quote, but never learn/ a language other than the scream of rocket-burn./ Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:/ elections, money, empire, oil and Dad." Its simplistic quality enraged American commentators. Several offered alternative versions: "They buy my books, and say, This stuff is shite/ But that doesn't stop me preening, or dashing off more tripe/ Once you're Poet Laureate, you can never get the sack./ The only way to shut me up is to invade Iraq."
Ian McEwan's reputation took a nose-dive in 1982 when he wrote an oratorio for the composer Michael Berkeley: it had an anti-nuclear warfare theme, and climaxed with: "Will there be womanish times/ Or shall we die?" Martin Amis also wrung his hands about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Einstein's Monsters in 1988, where he described rocket warheads as resembling hellhounds at a children's tea party. It's among his least regarded works.
The moral seems to be: unless prepared to embed themselves in conflict zones or to confront politicians head-on, writers are well advised to avoid making topical political points (especially in verse) for fear of seeming tendentious. There's nothing worse for a writer's reputation than to sound as if he or she has just dashed off a jolly cross diatribe on current affairs to the Letters page of their daily newspaper.
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