German novelist Gunter Grass was awarded the Nobel literature prize in 1999. His chequered past of serving in Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS as a boy soldier and later as a mason imbued Grass’s writing with a sense of forthrightness that made him Germany’s most-acclaimed writer of the postwar era.
Incisive social critic, novelist, poet, sculptor, and inspiration to such trenchant fabulists as John Irving and Salman Rushdie, German writer Günter Grass passed away this week with a well-defined legacy as “his country’s moral conscience.” Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1999, the author did not shy away from controversial political stances—despite his own once-hidden past as a teenage member of the Hitler Youth and Waffen-SS.
In 2012, Grass caused an international stir with the publication of his poem “What Must Be Said,” a fierce critique of Israel’s militarism. The poem drew some rather predictable charges, and its publication, wrote Der Spiegel, broached what many considered a taboo subject. The incident represents only one of Grass’s many public statements, woven throughout his art and life, against nationalism and war.
Which brings us to the video interview above from 2013. While not exactly addressing a matter of dire geopolitical significance, Grass nonetheless levies his characteristic critical wit against a corporate entity that threatens to swallow the globe, virtually—Facebook. Remarking on his children and grandchildren’s experience with the social network, Grass says he told one of them, “Someone who has 500 friends, has no friends.”
It’s something of a familiar sentiment by now—we’ve all read numerous think-pieces more or less saying the same thing. But Grass goes on to define the value of what he calls “direct experiences” in specific terms—with the admission that he feels like “a dinosaur” for writing his manuscripts by hand and typing them on an old Olivetti typewriter.
The idea of owning a mobile phone and being accessible at all times—and as I know now, under surveillance, is abhorrent to me. With the latest findings in mind, it surprises me—that millions of people do not distance themselves from Facebook and all that—and say “I want no part of it.”
Grass’ aversion to Facebook—and the online world in general—isn’t strictly political, but literary as well. He acknowledges the ease and speed of the internet as a research tool, and yet… “literature… You can’t speed it up when you work with it. If you do, you do so at the expense of quality.” To hear more from Grass about the writing process and his attitudes toward literature and activism, read his interview in the Paris Review.
Grass is best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), a key text in European magic realism. It was the first book of his Danzig Trilogy, which includes Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. His works are frequently considered to have a left-wing political dimension, and Grass was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The Tin Drum was adapted as a film of the same name, which won both the 1979 Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature, praising him as a writer “whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history”.
This article was republished from OpenCulture.com.