Friday, September 15, 2006

I have almost certainly said it here before

but it is my deep belief that in the U.S. (I am not sure about overseas shipping prices, just trying to be accurate here) in terms of both quality and quantity there is no better value-for-money reading deal than the New Yorker. I am afraid to say that I often skip the fiction, my blind spot vis-a-vis the literary short story means that only a handful of stories each year really catch my attention, and of course (this is awful) I also pretty much skip the poems, but otherwise I read it from cover to cover.

This week's issue has two pieces I would especially commend to your attention, dig out your copy or maybe even pick one up at the newsstand if you don't have a subscription. The first is David Remnick's long and really quite amazing profile of Bill Clinton (not available online, but here's a Q&A with Blake Eskin at the magazine's website); indescribable, unsummarizable, just read it though!

And even more perfectly to my taste--it's an interesting companion piece to the Clinton profile, actually, I felt I read them especially profitably in juxtaposition--Ian Buruma considers the new memoir by Gunter Grass and the fallout from his revelations about wartime SS-dom. Here is Buruma (whose piece certainly persuaded me that I should read Grass's memoir as soon as it's translated into English):

Why was this man, who dissembled for so long about his own past, so eager to expose the shameful secrets of others? Why was he so intent on imposing a collective guilt on his people, as if all Germans had followed Hitler as blindly as he had? And why is there such a discrepancy between the subtlety of his best narrative writing and the fierceness of his public scoldings? This chasm is not unique to Grass. The same could be said about other great writers: Céline, Harold Pinter, and José Saramago, to mention a few. But Grass is so proud of his post-Nazi identity as a doubter, as “a tireless supporter of the eternal on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand,” that something begs to be explained.

“The German does not think politically, but tragically, mythically, heroically,” Thomas Mann wrote. He was describing the Germans of Günter Grass’s childhood and before. Years of authoritarian politics, overblown romanticism, and pompous militarism had encouraged among educated Germans a distaste for the messy compromises of liberal politics and the materialism of commercial enterprise. They celebrated, instead, a passion for spirituality and deep culture. German nationalism, even before the Third Reich, was often marked by a kind of religious exultation; liberal democracy and capitalism, especially of the American kind (Amerikanismus), were scorned both on the left and on the right.

Grass has sometimes described his childhood self as though he were indeed like Oskar Matzerath, a boy who refused to grow up and was without political convictions of his own. But Grass’s memoir shows him in a slightly different light. He did have a world view, however inchoate. A young worshipper of great art—Dürer, Caravaggio, Velázquez—Grass had his idols, artistic as well as historic, and he longed to be in a smart uniform, adored by the girls. His father, a provincial shopkeeper, a good Roman Catholic, a “peace-loving family man . . . forever bent on harmony,” filled him with loathing. There was nothing grand or exciting about him. He was, as Grass would say, a Spiessbürger, a stuffy petit bourgeois, without any tragic, mythical, or heroic qualities. This loathing, in Grass’s recollection, was one of the reasons that he yearned to join the Army at the end of the Second World War. Grass wanted action, and a break from his family’s Spiessbürgertum.

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