Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Some of this, some of that

Günter Grass's True History
So 60 years after the fact and after regularly (and rightly) scolding his fellow Germans whenever he felt they were trying to sweep the Nazi past under the rug, 1999 Nobel Laureate in Literature Günter Grass has admitted in an interview with the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that he will detail in his soon-to-be published new memoir how he wasn't just a reluctant anti-aircraft gunner, like pope Benedict XVI supposedly was, as had been long thought (was it not possible for any journalists to have checked this supposed fact years ago?), but that he was drafted by and served with the Nazi Waffen SS. He has been denounced by critics on the right, naturally, since he's been an ardent leftist for five decades--but fellow leftists have also blasted his silence, as has the leader of Germany's main Jewish organization. The admission has also provoked calls for him to relinquish his Nobel Prize--which despite the political calculations that factor into the award honored his (early) novels, particular The Tin Drum (1959)--though the Swedish Academy has said that this cannot be done. Pro-fascist and pro-Nazi writers and other unsavory sorts have previously received the Nobel Prize (cf. Knut Hamsun), but Grass's admission puts him in a different category. He's upset that he's being "attacked" and declared a persona non grata, though what did he really expect? The hypocrisy gives me heartburn, but I also think that on another level, if one gets past the bitter irony, psychologically it makes sense: his long unspoken but internal struggle with his avowal and complicity fueled the acid humor and absurdity of his creative work, and spurred him to be the public conscience and critic that other who were not so tainted, or who had previously acknowledged their complicity, could not. As post-War German-language writers go, I'll take Koeppen, Kluge, Sebald, Timm, Handke, Celan, Bachmann, Bernhard, Mayröcker, Bobrowski, Enzensberger, Helms, Frisch, Schmidt, and others over Grass any day, but I will state without hesitation that at his best, Grass's sometimes perverse fables have provided a powerful lens through which to view his country's history and its plunge into the abyss.

David Grossman's Loss
More curdling ironies: one of Israel's finest contemporary writers, David Grossman, the author of the extraordinary novel See: Under Love (Ayen erech: Ahavah, 1986), learned on Sunday that his 20-year-old son, Uri, had been killed in one of the Israeli Defense Force's battles with Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon; he received the news six days after he'd called, jointly with two of Israel's other most important authors, Amoz Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, for an immediate cease-fire. The son of Holocaust survivors and an outspoken peace activist, Grossman has long called for conciliation with the Palestinians and of Israel's deoccupying the West Bank, but he had initially supported Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's campaign against Hezbollah after the kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers and the launching of rockets against northern Israeli cities. His comments with Oz and Yehoshua included a call to support the proposal from Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, which has formed the core of the UN cease-fire resolution. In the Jerusalem Post, Ira Sharkansky has an thoughtful comment about Grossman public activism and his loss.

Queenan on Reading So Much at Once
I totally identified with Joe Queenan's recent
New York Times piece, "Why I Can't Stop Starting Books": it almost describes my reading habits to a T. In part I am always reading multiple books at the same time because I have to (there isn't enough time to read them sequentially), in part because I read slowly (slothlike perhaps is a shade too fast) and in part because I often several books critically against each other. (Then there's also the ever-present fear that time is rapidly racing ahead, or winding down, so if I don't start a book, I'll just never have time to get to it, and with TV...) Like Queenan, I also feel (at times that) I have too long an attention span, and can put a book down for months and then resume it--though this is less so the case with fiction, or rather, complex fiction that's not too simplistic but also not too formally experimental, which basically is a license to stop and start at will. The desultory reading habit has perhaps served me to some extent in my own writing; I once started a story, set it aside for several years to work on other projects, then resumed it because of a looming deadline and completed it in about a week. (The revisions took a bit longer.) All throughout that time that story's main characters and plot remained in my head, flowing like a hidden tributary. Of course it's a little bit more difficult if I don't care so much about the texts at hand, but I've come to realize that being able to jump around with texts and retain some of them is crucial if you're teaching at the university; and retaining all of the students' creative work in your head, of course, is essential.

Perelman the Math Whiz
So there's this Russian guy, Grigori Perelman, who works quietly for a while solving of one of the more difficult problems in mathematics, Poincaré's conjecture, as well as a related conjecture by an American mathematician. A specialist in the field of differential geometry, Perelman's spent time in the US on post-docs, impressing people with his brilliance and non-materialistic attitude, then he returns home to the St. Petersburg area, whose woods he loves. He works there sort of under the radar on this 100-year-old problem before publishing several short papers on the conjecture, coming to the US to give lectures at MIT, SUNY Stony Brook and elsewhere, then returning home and supposedly heading off once again the woods. Literally. He's a strong bet for one of the top prizes in his field, the Fields Medal, given to the most outstanding mathematician under 40 (he was born in 1966 so the clock is ticking), and also a candidate for a $1 million prize from the Clay Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But it appears he really did appear to head off into the woods and now no one can find him. His short and dense proofs' findings, which have been subsequently verified in more than 1,000 pages of proofs by other mathematicians, represent a watershed moment in his field, to the extent that their implications for mathematics and physics may not be fully understood for some time. But he's really nowhere to be found. Mathematics and mathematicians fascinate me to no end, and stories of breakthrough mathematical research interest me even more. I could easily see a book based on the story of Grigori Perelman's proofs, though the author would have to have real familiarity with the areas the work covers. (A movie might be more difficult, since the practice of theoretical mathematics strikes me as inherently undramatic--although Perelman's story has some good plot points, more A Beautiful Mind than Pi.) I wish I could explain what exactly the breakthrough was, but I'll leave that to the mathematicians. I have been able to wrap my brain around the fact that to topologists, a sphere, a cigar and a rabbit's (or human's) head are all the same, because they can all be "deformed" into one another....

Tonight we caught Niagara (1953) before Noah's Arc came on (and it was preceded on Logo, amazingly enough, by Noah's Ark). I've finally realized from whom Darryl Stephens is channeling not only his voice, but his facial expressions, at least some of the time. It still isn't working, but then there's always Gregory Keith and now Wilson Cruz, and next week Keith Hamilton-Cobb and Rockmond Dunbar...

Is this one to be believed? Well, okay, sure. Whatever you say, Michael Knight. Congratulations on winning your second challenge. BTW, for newbies to Project Runway, there actually was a self-described bi designer, who happens to be of African descent, on last season's show: the interminable egotist, Santino Rice.


  1. I guess I have much more sympathy than is currently in vogue among my brethren for closted brothers with some public profile who refuse to come out. Most of our Queer thinkers keep assuring me that homophophia isn't any more or more pervasive in the Black community; but it certainly seems more unapologetic and ... virulent? vociferous? vital? (as in, springing from the foundation of how many blacks understand their identity [Black=anti-gay]). Poor guy. He probably hasn't even told his mama yet. Anyway, the price of lies and closet seem like punishment enough to me.

    In the case of Gunter Grass, I can't help but think that, sometimes, maybe a lie or hypocrisy can get us closer to, well, not the truth exactly, but some useful understanding of our present and of history which knowledge of the unadulterated truth (Truth? You can't handle the truth!?) would preclude. Certainly, as you pointed out, he could never, under any circumstances, have wielded the positive influence he has if the superceding facts of his SS past had been known from the very beginning.

    Kai in NYC

  2. I posted my Guenter Grass comments on the Monday August 14th blog . . . by accident.

  3. Kai, I hear you about Michael. I mean, he should label himself as he sees fit, and in case, identities aren't fixed; my main critique of his response is its homophobic thrust. Given the industry he's in (or wants to succeed in), he may want to work on that a bit more, especially in 2006 and beyond.

    Grass could easily have spoken out after his first burst of fame in 1959. He'd have lost none of his credibility, though he might not have won the Nobel Prize, which he had his eyes on for years. He seems to have realized that for posterity's sake he'd better get his version out before the scholars and journalists did.