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Words Without Borders

Heroes Don't Fall Anymore

Shortly after I finished writing my last blog about Günter Grass and the Waffen-SS, the op-ed page of The New York Times published an article by Daniel Kehlmann, the rising star in German literature.
In this article, titled “A Prisoner of the Nobel", Mr. Kehlmann asserts that Mr. Grass kept silent about his past all those years in order to win the Nobel.
A wise lesson for all Nobel hopefuls: keep your closet closed until you have won the prize. After that, you can wash your dirty clothes and make some money on the side.
That Mr. Grass decided to reveal his youthful mistakes now was only to prevent journalists, according to Mr. Kehlmann, from digging up the dirt after his death.
There are lazy and there are less than lazy journalists, but I have never met a journalist who said, “I cannot wait to dig up the dirt, but Mr. X has to die first.” Wherever you find the combination of dirt and fame, you can be assured that there are plenty of dirt-diggers in the neighborhood.
Mr. Kehlmann raises the interesting but unanswerable question, “What kind of writer would Mr. Grass have become in another land?” If Mr. Beckett had been a woman, would he have written different plays? If Mr. Balzac had been an elephant, would he have managed to write that many novels? Resaonable people are more than willing to forgive or ignore (which is basically what forgiving is) the mistakes that Mr. Grass has made. But it is clear now that the public wants to see another hero fall. And the hero in question is more than willing to give the audience what it demands.
The only tragic thing in this story is that there is no real act of falling. It’s merely stumbling.
Probably it says something about our times. Today, heroes don’t fall anymore, they stumble before they fade away.


(Words Without Borders, August 24, 2006)