Germany's prize year

Nobel Prize: Grass restored national self-respect through harsh view of national crimes.

October 01, 1999

THE YEAR in which Germany's capital moves back to Berlin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insists it is a great nation is the same year the Swedish Academy had to award the Nobel Prize in literature to Guenter Grass. He had been mentioned for 20 years.

"The Tin Drum," his breathtaking novel that cries out for honor, was published 40 years ago. Awarded to a living writer whose works have withstood the test of time, the Nobel Prize is for doing "something important" at a young age and living long afterward.

After the physical and moral wreckage of the Nazi era and World War II, Mr. Grass sought to redeem German letters through unblinking honesty.

His grotesque and ribald novel, "The Tin Drum," told, through the eyes of a child with magical powers, the monstrosities of Hitler's era.

Subsequent novels carried on. Mr. Grass stayed on the left of social criticism, dealing with important national themes. "A Broad Field" in 1995 condemned unification as West Germany's colonization of East Germany. German critics hated it.

Mr. Grass is attacked from another quarter. An obscure German-born scholar, Ernestine Schlant of Montclair State University, condemned his generation of German intellectuals. Her book, "The Language of Silence," accuses them of omitting the Holocaust and Jewish experience.

Mr. Grass might reflect. Professor Schlant is a candidate for first lady, being married to Bill Bradley. Her moral vision merits attention. Still, it's good for other writers that Guenter Grass got the prize this year. He had it coming. Now he is out of the way.

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