News came last week that the Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass had passed away at the age of 87. In its 1999 commendation, the Nobel committee praised Grass’ 1959 novel, The Tin Drum as “one of the enduring works of the twentieth century.” But for all Grass’ literary achievements as a playwright, essayist and novelist, many obituaries focused on a central conundrum of Grass’ life: the fact that this literary genius who had urged Germans to examine their own complicity in the Holocaust both as individuals and as a nation, a man widely hailed as a moral authority, had, himself, been a member of the notorious Waffen-SS during World War II – a fact that he only revealed in 2006.
Do Grass’ revelations of his own past – or the accusations of anti-Semitism that came in response to his 2012 poem castigating Israel for its stance toward a perceived Iranian nuclear threat – change how we read Grass’ masterpieces? Indeed, do we still consider works like The Tin Drum to be masterpieces?
These questions aren’t unique to Grass, of course. Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka’s controversial post-9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America?” (and not, interestingly, previous accusations of homophobia) caused some commentators to look at Baraka’s previous works in a new light, leading to his removal as Poet Laureate of New Jersey.
Neither are these questions surrounding authorship, political views and biography unique to literature, either. Some view the famed director Roman Polanski’s films in a different light given his conviction for sex with a minor. And occasional performances of Richard Wagner’s orchestral works in Israel generate heated debate given Wagner’s racist rhetoric, and subsequent appropriation by the Nazi regime.
Sometimes the reverse can occur as well. We read a work of literature or view a piece of art and think differently about the author, rightly or wrongly. For example, perhaps the controversial subject matter of Lolita and the convincing narration by the fictional Humbert Humbert causes us to confuse the author, Vladimir Nabokov and the protagonist of his novel temporarily. Such snap judgments can influence how we read and how we process the substance of that reading.
As a historian, I value context – whether is an understanding of the era in which a particular work was conceived, the biographical background of an author or a sense of how a work was received. As a teacher I urged my students to consider why the authors or primary sources decided to write a particular piece in the way that they did, interrogating silences, questioning self-presentation, assessing audience. I asked my students to uncover the biases of authors and of archives – biases that may have been unknown to the authors themselves.
This context is important in understanding works of literature as well. So the readers of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table in one Books@Work seminar reported that the professor’s “interventions” into the text – a presentation on Levi’s biography and Italy’s experience during World War II, discussion of the chemistry concepts that give structure to the book – enriched their understanding of the book tremendously.
But readers of literature – particularly those in Books@Work seminars – are not only historians. They read for all sorts of reasons. To hear stories. To encounter the other. To understand the world around them. To hear the beauty of the written word. To escape the familiar. To embrace the familiar. And so even as we acknowledge, unpack and rethink the meaning of works like Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum in light of the author’s past and how he concealed that past, we also continue to read.
As you read, how much does the author’s past affect how you perceive the story?
Image: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York, [Public Domain] via MoMA.org, Wikimedia Commons.