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Raw Nerves

Speak Out!

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harcourt, Brace & World, 142 pp., $4.95

Emergency Exit

by Ignazio Silone, translated by Harvey Fergusson II
Harper & Row, 207 pp., $6.95

However Willy Brandt and the new government in Bonn handle power, the fact remains that once again the Social Democrats have been swindled out of their proper majority. Of all those who fought for change, Günter Grass will be among the least astonished by this: this is not the first time that he has seen the Christian Democrats slip on a weighted glove for the last round of an election contest. In 1965, they called Willy Brandt a Red, a bastard, and a renegade, and reversed an unfavorable poll trend to come out on top. In 1969, on the excuse of a modest run on the Deutschmark, the alliance of Kiesinger’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and Strauss’s Christian Socialists (CSU) shut the currency exchanges three days before the poll and blamed Professor Schiller—the Social Democrat (SPD) Economics Minister in the coalition government—for undermining the currency. It worked, of course. Again the CDU/CSU braked the swing toward the Social Democrats, as an electorate ancestrally terrified of inflation jerked back in shock. Brandt saved enough with which to build a coalition, but the Christian Democrats came out as the largest single party.

Two years ago, Grass wrote that “there is no ground for hope that voters have…attained a maturity that would enable them in 1969 to give a party with the best political record a clear-cut majority.” It would be cheering to hear what Grass can now add to this triumphant prophecy, with his second unauthorized election campaign for the Social Democrats behind him. As he says, he is a spectacularly bad loser: the 1969 election results in West Germany should reveal his talents as an ungrateful winner.

Here and there a memorable remark was made by one or the other politician during the 1969 campaign, dull as it was. But the only words worth preserving from the 1965 election, that humiliating auction of security, were Grass’s own platform speeches, grouped together under the title “Democracy, of Thee I Sing.” Two of them open this collection. They have lasted well. In the name of the SPD—though the party was too nervous to sponsor him openly—Grass set out on a one-man election tour of West Germany, a tour of the broad backsides of received ideas by a writer in hobnailed boots. The rudeness and the eloquence, the wit and common sense of these speeches made them famous. His target then was authority: the pomposity and blindness of “restoration” Germany, the creation of Adenauer, and the Prussian discipline of East Germany, the creation of Ulbricht. The young Christian Democrats screamed: the Left cheered.

Four years passed. In 1966, Grass’s beloved Willy took the SPD into a coalition with Kiesinger which shocked the party’s left wing and provoked Grass to several open letters (reprinted here). In 1969, however, Grass embarked on a second private-enterprise campaign for the SPD backed this time by the Social-Democrat Voters’ Initiative, a freshly founded action group whose purpose was to encourage the timid citizen to vote, ask awkward questions, and generally involve himself in the parliamentary process. It was a far bigger affair than in 1965: audiences ran into hundreds of thousands; glossy brochures were thrown about by the kilo; “personalities” testified that they would vote SPD.

It was also more successful: the SPD vote rose powerfully, and no less than 86.8 percent of the electorate went to the polls. But Günter Grass himself was not the Grass of four years back. The old emotive power was there, but some of the confidence, the blackwhiskered good nature, had gone. Grass in 1965 was doing—so he said—“the obvious”: laying into the authoritarianism of the right. Grass in 1969 was fighting on both flanks, touchily conscious of his exposure between the old right wing and the new force of left-wing radicalism. This year his blows flew often wild and low.

This “overtaking from the left” by the explosive growth of young revolutionary movements in West Germany and Berlin is charted neatly in these short pieces (the election speeches, followed by various other orations and articles up to late 1968). After treating the student rebels in Berlin initially as allies, Grass quarreled with them and rapidly decided that they were deadly enemies of German democracy. Speak Out! reveals the uncomfortably steep slope on which a Social Democrat intellectual balances. Too much effort to rescue reality from the grasp of abstract systematizing, too violent a defense of the sound instinct of the “little man,” and he slithers easily toward boorishness and primitivism.

Grass’s posture as a Social Democrat is much like Orwell’s. He displays the same “healthy” revulsion from the etiolated academic, the sheltered, the purist, the “smelly little orthodoxy” (as Grass himself might easily have written). Both draw confidence from the experience of poverty and suffering, from “reality,” which to Orwell was the tramps’ shelter, to Grass the potash mines and casual labor, and both use that confidence to challenge all those who pass judgments from aloft. They dare the purist to come out of doors: “so much Leftist solemnity, and so little of the gusto that it would take…to rush out into the exhausting richness, variety, and contradictions of everyday life.” That faith in the “exhausting richness” is the strength of Grass as a creative writer; Orwell—far less gifted as a novelist—was impressed more by the exhaustion than the richness. But both of them at times lurch into philistine braggartry when nettled by those they consider less “experienced” than themselves.

Through political action (he typically dismisses the term “commitment” as a mere excuse for staying indoors with a good conscience), Grass has achieved a surprising amount. He has enormously assisted the SPD in its effort to emerge from the fatal state within state self-sufficiency which marked its first century of life. He has helped the party to escape from the dusty maze of its own dogmatic programs into the real world, and helped the German small bourgeoisie to bridge the imaginative chasm which had always separated them from the SPD (and which still makes the idea of a “Sozi” as Chancellor simply unimaginable to millions). Grass, by following this line, must also share some responsibility for the SPD’s dizzy new confidence that nobody needs a coherent analysis and program to succeed in the swinging Europe of 1969.

In his attempt to convince his audiences that Willy Brandt could be a patriot although an emigré, Grass also helped the SPD to appropriate patriotic myths. Not only in these writings, but in several novels and plays, Grass has denounced the official Bonn myth that the East German rising of June 17, 1953, was the national rebellion of a whole people thirsting for reunification. Grass points out that this was exclusively a rising by workers disillusioned with Stalinism, which to him—very questionably—means workers who remained true to the principles of the SPD. More positively, he releases the rising from the grasp of Christian Democrat propagandists who do not mention that the intellectuals and the old middle classes of East Germany stayed indoors that June. But the meaning of June 1953 was instantly distorted by both Ulbricht and Adenauer, to Grass “congenial counterparts.”

Grass called the German edition of these speeches Über das Selbstverständliche—“About the Self-Evident.” He summons his fellow citizens to acknowledge what should be obvious: the erratic and jumbled way in which people live as individuals, the morality of “common decency” (Orwell again) which everyone really knows is right, and remarks that—by and large—the SPD and Willy Brandt represent this pragmatism and decency. With the pragmatism goes a typically large pinch of patriotism: Grass berates West Germans for neglecting parliamentary freedoms which East Germans would give much to possess, and, surprisingly, accepts the Bonn line that West Germany has the right to speak for East Germany. (He rejects the “preposterous theory” that East Germans want to be governed by the CDU, but later appeals: “Vote, in order that Willy Brandt at the head of a responsible government ‘over here’ may defend the cause of our fellow-Germans ‘over there.”’)

Many pages here are taken up by splendid but vain open letters. His appeals to Kiesinger to refuse the Chancellorship, as a man who had been a senior Nazi, his warning to Willy Brandt that the SPD would lose its soul in a Grand Coalition with reaction neither transfixed the Chancellor with shame nor aborted the government. But they were read with joy by those who felt equally degraded by what was taking place. The all-out attack on the Nazi past of Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, sustained for two years and through a hundred election meetings, has noticeably eaten away that finely chiseled gentleman’s nerve.

But throughout the years covered by these writings, Grass was experiencing a growing inflammation of his own nerves as the SDS (sozialistische deutsche Studentenbund) suddenly expanded from the status of a tiny intellectual sect to that of the general staff of an onslaught on established West German society and upon Spätkapitalismus. As his early sympathy for “the students” turned to suspicion and hostility, disillusion brought out his less admirable traits.

There had always been a philistine element in Grass, an attractive lust to rupture pomposity with an accurate four-letter word which was later accompanied by an alarming touchiness toward criticism. During the 1965 campaign, although Grass had objected to Ludwig Erhard’s sneers at intellectuals and observed that “a philistine as Chancellor is an insult to the nation,” the novelist himself was soon sneering at “narrow-chested radicals” who “impersonated the conscience of the nation.”

This was more than mere iconoclasm when spoken in a German context, as Grass must have known. Probably he had been enraged by the criticism of superior weekly reviewers who called Dog Years the work of a “Kashubian autodidact”; perhaps he already resented certain colleagues in the Gruppe 47, the unofficial academy of postwar West German literature. Whatever the cause, it was a spark which soon became a pyre of dislike when Grass began to fall out with the SDS and the sophisticated Marxian doctrines which suddenly spread through German academic youth during 1967. Narrow-chested students, Utopians, Lefties, theorists of revolution, and indoor generalizers joined each other at the wrong end of Grass’s personal shooting gallery. Marcuse replaced Heidegger as his philosophical enemy number one. There are passages in these later speeches and articles which make Grass, attacking the German left-wing intellectuals, sound like Lubomir Strougal blasting the Prague writers for pretending to be the voice of the nation. (Impersonating the voice, mutters the back row of seats, is less of a come-on than impersonating the nation.)

To put it in heraldic terms, Grass sees Reason—a barrel-chested martyr with a black moustache—flanked by two threatening Utopians on right and left. These extremists may insult each other, but behind Reason’s back they are holding hands. This notion is the armature of the dazzling lecture entitled “Ben and Dieter,” which ends up melting Adenauer into Ben Gurion as the composite enemy of all rational Jews and Germans.* It corresponds equally well to his growing detestation of the young revolutionary left, which he considers the natural ally of neofascism against democracy.

The interchangeability of Nazi and Communist thug has been a fair gibe in history, especially German history. But it has been overworked now. Today’s identification of militant students with the Hitler Youth is a gob of hysteria from educated people who should know better. Grass regrettably joins them. He calls the Berlin SDS “brilliant disciples…[of] Joseph Goebbels” for daring to criticize aspects of the Dubcek-Sik programs in Czechoslovakia (the SDS had argued, sometimes with insensitive arrogance, that to restore civil liberties and set up a meritocracy was not an adequate Socialism; both the post-August workers’ council movement and the simultaneous turn to radical militancy among the Czech students suggested that this analysis was in great measure justified).

It is hard not to suspect that Social-Democracy’s real, allure for Grass—its sheer dullness, its “worndown corners,” its lack of passion—is aesthetic. One of these speeches ends in a paean to “solid, rather colourless Social-Democracy,” to an SPD society in which combativeness would flow into the fight for parks and revolution would “do something about the German hotel breakfast.” It is difficult to take this seriously from Grass, who knows his own countrymen too well not to realize that his own sort of imagination would starve or be starved, however luscious the hotel breakfasts or orderly the parks, in such a society. Rather, he seems to enjoy the SPD as an emblem of the humble, battered, doggedly practical victims of German history who recur in his novels: the SPD as anti-hero, in short. The real virtues of a man like Willy Brandt, his self-control under abuse, his tolerance of political defiance by his own sons, are something which Grass admires and proclaims, but finds hard to imitate.

Grass has never formally held office in a party or a government (he declares himself ready to serve an SPD administration in the field of international development aid, however, and some journalists have diligently taken down rumors that he might be the next ruling Mayor of West Berlin). Ignazio Silone was one of the best-known personalities of the Italian Communist Party before the war: he is now a famous “ex.” But Grass and Silone reject Marxism in much the same manner, by classing it as an orthodoxy which interposes screens of abstract suppositions between the official eye and the erratic behavior of real human beings. Silone looks back, across a life whose best twenty years were given to the Party, at the peasantry of the Abruzzi among whom he began; he reflects upon their absolute refusal to admit any connection between official morality and private morality, and comes to the conclusion that their skepticism is sound. Crimes, in his village, were often committed by good men for good motives, who were then punished by the law.

As the first sketches and reminiscences in Emergency Exit point out, nobody found this strange. The State was in general something corrupting, to be avoided by a Christian, which did not prevent students from submissively entering the bureaucracy: “our greatest industry then was government employment.” There arose an obedience, a resignation, but also a total refusal to be impressed. In his last pages, Silone returns with emotion to that obduracy. He recalls the total failure of a program of educational films intended to provoke Italian villagers to discussion: they saw the films through, produced absolutely no comment then or subsequently, and explained to the distressed sociologists that “You know how it is. One sees so many different things nowadays.” Silone wonders if “the future of the human race will ultimately depend on this instinctive tendency of human beings to resist indoctrination….”

Yet Silone remains proud to call himself a socialist, and rightly proud of the courage and energy which—as a Communist—he devoted to exactly the opposite goal: creating a society in which the gulf between private and public morality would be closed. The tone of this whole book is noble but confused, in no way the “general political statement” which the blurb claims but rather the unresolved reflections of a man turning over and over in his mind his letter of resignation.

The title essay turns out, surprisingly, to be Silone’s famous old contribution to The God That Failed (1950), though no word or blurb or introduction hints that this is so. The translation is a good deal worse this time. On the other hand, interesting changes have been made. Some rude remarks about Togliatti have been dropped. Silone’s implication in the first version that, after his shattering experiences of Comintern duplicity in Moscow in 1927, he at once fell ill and lost his faith is replaced by a longer and much more candid description of his relationship to Trotsky and Togliatti, and of his mental struggles as he and the Party drew apart. Silone’s younger brother, it is revealed, died under torture in 1932 insisting untruthfully to the Fascists that he was a Communist because, as he wrote to Ignazio before the end, “I have tried to act as I thought you would have in my place.”

It was not, obviously, maverick egoism which drove Silone out of the Communist Party. The stories of his youth in the Abruzzi, of his reaction to brutal unfairness and inequality which are included in these essays combine with the meaning of his brother’s death to show that Silone never ceased to be aware of how much helpless people expected of him. In “The Painful Return,” the elderly Silone rushes to a village he left as a young man, to the deathbed of a woman who predicted at the railroad station all those years before that he would never return. He arrives too late. The priest greets this illustrious son of the town with obsequiousness, importunity, concealed hatred. Silone’s apostasy did not win him an easy conscience, and he did not expect that it would.

Silone is not any sort of classifiable Social-Democrat. He continued in politics after his break with the Communists because of his generous imagination, the spirit of the novelist who wrote Fontamara, could not abandon the search for a purified socialism. But the political writings here are slight: a sensing of the convergence of latecapitalism and bureaucratic state socialism, a very Christian anxiety that the welfare state may be turning the citizen soft, a prophecy that the epoch will end in a millennium of prosperous boredom (a pity that the last essays were written in 1965, before the spread of contestazione in Italy).

But Silone’s search for justification is needless. In a sense, he neither left the Party nor was expelled: Stalin destroyed him with experience. He gave as much as he could to his chosen cause until the Thirties wore him out. Togliatti had a tougher constitution, a matter of fact rather than of vice or virtue. At this length of time, we can stop calling Togliatti a traitor to his own intelligence, or Silone a renegade. Let Silone be a novelist of great compassion and directness, who gave some of the best years of his life to the Italian Communist Party. And when the vehicle of his beliefs spun out of control, he did not use the “emergency exit.” He crashed.

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    Published in The New York Review, June 1, 1967.

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