John Irving, the American novelist, offers an apology for Gunther Grass, the German novelist, in the New York Times Book Review. Grass, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and author of The Tin Drum, was for years considered the moral conscience of an amnesiac post-war Germany and was rewarded for his appeals to conscience by many of the victims of the Nazi Reich, including the city of Gdansk, Poland, which made him an honorary citizen. And then came the revelation that at the tender age of 17, toward the end of the war, Grass had been a member of the Waffen SS, the criminal gang of murderers that was condemned in its entirety at the Nuremberg Trials. In the wake of this revelation, Grass wrote a memoir called Peeling the Onion, which peels as far back as possible the layers of truth and fiction that make up his life, a writer's life. John Irving defends Gunther Grass precisely because he is a writer, and life in such a creature is composed by necessity of both fiction and truth. Grass matters, Irving says, because his fiction considered profoundly the questions of guilt and conscience through the use of a writer's tools: images and characters. Irving feels indebted to Grass as a writer and will not renounce his friendship and admiration for any reason, because to do so would be to renounce his own work.
John Irving was never a member of the SS or a winner of the Nobel Prize, so while there seems to be less at stake for him, writing is Irving's life. To deny Grass would mean denying his own life, unblemished as it seems to be. However, there is something deeper than loyalty and career at work here. Irving, an American writer, feels obscurely that just being a writer may involve an insoluble moral compromise. Irving does not say this explicitly, but his apology is also shot through with guilt. We don't know -- or at least I don't -- what weighs on his conscience, but I can tell from my own writerly experience that some of the best images I came up with were conceived at the expense of some truth, partially or in whole.
Not all truths are the same, of course. Being in the SS is not the same as saying that my grandmother was a baroness who raised swans, instead of a peasant who raised pigs. Changing my lineage for the sake of a better understanding of who I am (or for the better amusement of my readers) is not the same as killing for Hitler. The transformation of personal truths for literary reason cannot be explained away by literary conventions, either. You can call it memoir, fiction, comedy, tragedy or doggerel, but the insistent fact of hiding or obscuring the truth remains. One can argue further that writing is in itself a mistranslation if not a downright betrayal of experience, but just how shabby a line of thought that is was amply demonstrated by the unmasking of Paul de Man or Mircea Eliade, thinker-tricksters who sought to hide their fascist pasts by clever inquiries into the unreliability of language.
John Irving created many fine symbolic images in his lively fiction, but their vogue has faded in time. In fact, Gunther Grass' own poetic images had pretty much faded until the recent revelations. In a curious, but not atypical way, the use of truth by both Grass and Irving is an attempt to revive their fictions. The gambit doesn't work, not only because the truths are of such different gravity, but because when truth is revealed, fiction wilts away like an old onion. Where once there were tears, now there is only compost.