Monday, 20 April 2015

Dickens the authorpreneur

Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name.

What changed? It was in this fourth installment that readers met Sam Weller, a cheerful young bootblack with a distinctive cockney idiolect—a character, in other words, in whom many readers could recognize themselves. Dickens gave Weller a fine comic entrance; his first appearance finds him in the yard of the White Hart Inn, polishing eleven and a half pairs of shoes. The half, he explains, belongs to the man with the “vooden leg” in No. 6. Dressed in a striped waistcoat with blue glass buttons, a bright red handkerchief wound loosely around his neck, and an old white hat worn rakishly on his head, Weller was thoroughly urban but with old country values—a good son and a loyal servant. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Sam Weller introduces the English people.” Responding to the market’s roar of praise, Dickens brought Sam to the center of the novel by having Pickwick hire him as his valet: a cockney Sancho Panza to his naive esquire, Quixote.

Readers were enchanted by Sam’s wisecracks, his unabashed laugh-lines, his outlandish habit of quoting Dr. Faust to the chambermaid the one minute and Bluebeard the next, while smoothly interchanging his v’s and w’s. Charles Darwin, writing in 1838 to his friend and mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell, referred admiringly to “Samivel, that prince of heroes.” Sam was especially famous for what came to be known as Wellerisms—one-liners that turned proverbs on their heads. (An example from Pickwick: “That’s what I call a self-evident proposition, as the dog’s-meat man said, when the housemaid told him he warn’t a gentleman.”) Puzzled by this strange, aphoristic creature, one of the Pickwickians says cautiously, “You’re a wag, ain’t you?” To which Sam coolly replies, “My eldest brother was troubled with that complaint, it may be catching—I used to sleep with him.”

Sam was certainly catching: even before the serialization of Pickwick was complete, plagiarized stage versions were up and running, and soon imitators calling themselves Bos and Buz were writing spin-offs—one married off Pickwick, another sent him to Madras. Then came the merchandise men with Pickwick cigars, playing cards, toby jugs, candy tins, china figurines, Sam Weller puzzles, Weller boot polish, jest books, and even Weller Taxicabs, named after Sam’s loquacious coachman father, Tony, whom Dickens introduced to exploit the Weller wave.

Sam Weller not only carried the lumbering Pickwick chaise to the top of the best-seller list, he valet parked it there for the next thirty years. Though it’s now regarded as one of Dickens’s weakest novels, Pickwick was his most popular book during his lifetime, selling 1.6 million copies. At Dickens’s last public reading, writes his biographer Claire Tomalin, when he bid farewell to the “garish lights” he loved, Dickens was so ill and weary he stumbled on the name, saying Pickswick, Pecknicks, Pickwicks—but he was called back several times and got a prolonged standing ovation. Shortly before he died, in 1870, when Chapman and Hall brought out its handsome Charles Dickens Edition, Pickwick had to be reprinted four times: a total of seventy-six thousand copies.

The Sam Weller Bump testifies not merely to Dickens’s comic genius but to his acumen as an “authorpreneur,” a portmanteau he inhabited long before The Economist took it up. Thomas Carlyle once remarked on his “remarkable faculty for business.” Driven as much by commercial success as critical acclaim, he juggled novel writing, journalism, plays, theatrical productions, charity works, public readings, and twenty-mile walks with an inexhaustible energy.

Tomalin rightly calls 1836 Dickens’s annus mirabilis—but he made almost nothing from Pickwick. The profits went straight to Chapman and Hall, his publishers, who held the full copyright. It was a bitter lesson, and Dickens learned it well: if ever he felt underpaid, he quarreled with his publishers or simply broke his contract. Since he was England’s blockbuster writer, publishers conceded to his demands—Our Mutual Friend, serialized from 1864–5, earned him more than any other novel, though it sold less than half as well as Pickwick. By then, Dickens had arranged to share in advertising revenues, and he’d sold Chapman and Hall half copyright for six thousand pounds. They lost seven hundred pounds on the novel.

For a writer who made his reputation crusading against the squalor of the industrial revolution, Dickens was a creature of capitalism; he used everything from the powerful new printing presses to the enhanced advertising revenues to the expansion of railroads to sell more books. In a speech he gave at Birmingham, a factory town, he spoke eloquently about how the people had freed writers from the unseemly patron system. Grimly conscious of how his hero Samuel Johnson had been humiliated by his patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, Dickens was infinitely grateful to market forces—they’d delivered him “from the shame of the purchased dedication, from the scurrilous and dirty work of Grub Street, from the dependent seat on sufferance at my Lord Duke’s table today.”

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Sunday, 19 April 2015

Anchee Min: Empress Orchid

Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908, is one of those historical figures people love to be nasty about. Soon after her death, Edmund Blackhouse, a charlatan foreign correspondent, forged Chinese court documents portraying her as a psychopathic nymphomaniac; ever since, Cixi's many western biographers have gleefully wallowed in allegations of her badness: her extravagance (she splurged the fund for modernising the navy on a marble pleasure boat), her conservatism (she crushed the westernising reform movement of 1898), her ruthless disposal of inconvenient political opponents (including her nephew, whom she placed under house arrest for a decade and perhaps poisoned). This very partial version of events swallows whole the Confucian Chinese male view of history, which, wherever possible, deflects blame for monumental historical catastrophes - such as the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 - on to women.
But the tide of opinion now seems to be turning for the last empress. Last year, Chinese television aired a hit drama series about the last years of the Qing dynasty, in which viewers were flabbergasted to see Cixi portrayed as "a nice person". (Deeply perturbed, China's rulers - all of them men - soon weighed in to criticise the show's historical heresies.) Empress Orchid is a further, feminist step on the road to her rehabilitation. Written by a woman, narrated by Cixi herself, the novel turns the last empress into a dignified, discreet sovereign, holding her country together in the face of foreign invasion, dissolute emperors and scheming courtiers.
Born into a declining gentry family in 1835, the 16-year-old Cixi travels to Beijing with her widowed mother, brother and sister. There they are sheltered by Cixi's uncle until she restores the family's fortunes by being selected as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's legion of concubines. Once received into the Forbidden City, however, she is ignored by the emperor - who, after all, has several thousand other consorts to occupy him. Thus neglected, she is left to contemplate the life choices open to imperial concu bines: allow yourself to be forgotten and grow old torturing coital moths (a traditional concubine amusement), or try to win the emperor's favour, risking assassination by rivals or, worse, mutilation by mother-in-law. Immediately after Cixi enters the palace, the empress dowager takes her on an educational visit to see a legless, armless concubine stored in a jar, whose limbs she removed as punishment for monopolising the emperor.
Understandably depressed by the prospect of a lifetime spent tormenting insects, Cixi bribes her way into the imperial bedchamber. Once there, she wins the jaded and impotent emperor's affections through a combination of plucky outspokenness and sexual wiles, and soon falls pregnant. But her success brings enemies: the moment her pregnancy is announced, she faces the threat of poisoning by jealous fellow concubines. Beyond the palace walls, meanwhile, China is being torn apart by western invaders and domestic rebellion. Hsien Feng disintegrates under the nervous strain, forcing Cixi to educate herself in government. As the emperor approaches death, Cixi has to fight to avoid being entombed with her husband, is hurled at a pillar by an enemy eunuch, and narrowly escapes assassination.
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Friday, 17 April 2015

‘I got a scheme!’ – the moment Saul Bellow found his voice

From the age of 49, when the publication of Herzog in 1964 made him rich as well as famous, Saul Bellow was the most acclaimed novelist in America, the winner of three National Book Awards, the Pulitzer prize, the Formentor prize, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal for fiction. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 and was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French. For Philip Roth, Bellow stands with William Faulkner as “the sturdy backbone of 20th-century American literature”, with a prose style “as rich and roiling as Melville’s”. James Wood has called him “the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century”, a view he characterises as “relatively uncontroversial”. Ten years after his death, all of Bellow’s books are in print and his reputation remains undiminished.

In addition to Herzog, chief among his critical and commercial successes are The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and Ravelstein (2000), published when he was 85. When asked which of Bellow’s works to start with, however, I often say the Collected Stories (2001), which contains several of his novellas, including The Bellarosa Connection (1989), a brilliant meditation on the psychic impact of the Holocaust, in Europe, America and Israel. Bellow’s stories and novellas, he claimed, were written “at the top of my form”.

He was born 100 years ago, on 10 June 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, a quiet working-class town just south-west of Montreal. His parents and older siblings, two brothers and a sister, were Russian-Jewish immigrants from St Petersburg. When he was three, the family moved from Lachine to the heart of Montreal’s Jewish district, where the hero of Herzog also spent his early childhood. Moses Herzog recalls this district as “rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather”, but possessed of “a wider range of human feelings than he had ever been able to find”. In Canada, Bellow’s loving, tyrannical father failed at everything: as farmer, baker, dry-goods salesman, jobber, manufacturer, junk dealer, marriage broker, insurance broker and bootlegger. In 1923, pursued by agents of the Canadian Inland Revenue, he fled Montreal for Chicago, followed months later by the rest of the family, who were smuggled across the border by bootlegging associates. The Bellows were illegal residents in the United States, as they had been illegal residents in Russia, St Petersburg lying outside the Pale of Settlement, the area of tsarist Russia to which most Jews were restricted.

The immigrant neighbourhood where the Bellows settled was on Chicago’s north-west side. Here, Bellow went to local state schools and became an American, while remaining loyal to his Russian, Canadian and Jewish heritage:
I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American. I took all of these things for granted and in me you see a sort of virtuoso act of integration of all these diverse elements and I feel no particular conflict. I never felt any special discomfort over any of these elements. I’ve taken them all for granted because they are part of my history. If that history is mixed, scrambled, anomalous, difficult for any outsider less exotic to put together for himself, that’s not my fault ... I was faithful to what I was. I lived that way and I tried to write that way.
Bellow’s faith in his history, his “reverence for the source of one’s being” (a phrase taken from Santayana), could be said to underlie his mature style. At home he spoke to his parents in Yiddish. They spoke to each other and to Bellow’s older sister and brothers in Yiddish or Russian. At school he spoke English or French. And from the age of three he studied Hebrew. As a young child, “I didn’t know what language I was speaking and I didn’t understand if there was any distinction among these various languages”.

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T.S. Eliot’s American childhood

Even now, if you were to ask readers to name the 20th century’s greatest poem, at least among those written in English, the answer would almost certainly be T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922). “April is the cruellest month” — what college student (or taxpayer) hasn’t, at this time of year, ruefully murmured its opening words? If Eliot’s haunting melange of quotation, lugubrious reflections on life and love, and achingly beautiful word-music has any serious rival for modern poetry’s Number One spot it would probably be his own later, almost liturgical “Four Quartets” (1943). (I myself prefer it.) No doubt a few fans might even opt for the same poet’s youthful masterpiece of erotic dithering, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917): “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.”

While Eliot’s poems continue to be greatly loved, their author himself is another matter. As Robert Crawford notes in the introductory pages of “Young Eliot” — which tracks in enthralling, exhaustive detail the poet’s life up to the book publication of “The Waste Land” — Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) has since his death become nearly as controversial a figure as his friend Ezra Pound. He’s been labeled anti-Semitic and elitist, as well as a religious nut, an abusive husband, a cuckold and a prig. Some of these accusations are, at least partly, true: “How unpleasant to know Mr. Eliot!” as he himself once wrote. And yet the same man could be wholly admirable — generous, loyal, immensely kind.

Earlier biographies — the best is Lyndall Gordon’s — have somewhat scanted Eliot’s American childhood and youth, which is one reason why this new book is so valuable. It is magisterial in its minutiae. It covers the poet’s family life in St. Louis and his summer holidays in Gloucester, Mass., his early schooling and reading, the years at Harvard and his bittersweet love for Emily Hale, literally the girl he left behind when he moved to England. To humanize a figure often (wrongly) regarded as coldly marmoreal, Crawford calls his subject “Tom” throughout. He also promises a second volume sometime after Hale’s letters become available to scholars in 2020.

While proffering a steady flurry of names, facts and occasional trivialities, Crawford nearly always relates his discoveries to the poetry, at times quite subtly, as when he notes that Eliot’s sister Margaret was sensitive to the sound of thunder (the last section of “The Waste Land,” titled “What the Thunder Said”). In these pages, you will learn that a Mr. Prufrock owned a St. Louis furniture store and a Dr. Sweany advertised tonics to increase male energy and vigor. No possible connection to Eliot’s published work, however faint or distant, goes unnoticed.

But Crawford, who is a professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St. Andrews, also interweaves several ongoing themes. Eliot grew up the scion of a distinguished family of preachers, educators and wealthy businessmen (his father owned a brick factory). As the youngest of six surviving children, Tom was distinctly cosseted, especially by his doting mother (who wrote poetry). The reserved, physically delicate boy — he was born with a double hernia and needed to wear a truss; children mocked his big ears — never played sports and seems to have had almost no close friends. Instead he began to scribble at an early age, producing a family magazine of his own stories and jokes: “Eat Quaker Oats” was reworked into “Eat Quaker Cats,” with a feline sketch. (Crawford expects the reader to remember that Eliot later produced the Edward Learish “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the basis for the musical “Cats.”)

While Eliot always maintained that he had a happy childhood, by adolescence this sheltered Little Lord Fauntleroy existence began to chafe. His social relations — especially with girls — suffered because of his shyness and acute anxiety about his body image. Despite surprisingly mediocre grades, he was nonetheless admitted to Harvard as a kind of legacy student — and nearly flunked out as a freshman. Away from home, he loafed, frequented music halls, joined dining clubs and secret societies. The more polite of his youthful verses appeared in student publications; the ribald and offensive ones — with rhymes ending in “unt” and “ugger” — their virginal author reserved for the private delectation of frat-boy hearties he wished to impress. (All this juvenilia can now be yours in a collection titled “Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917.”)

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Thursday, 16 April 2015

“History is True”: Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

“When the times are out of joint it is brought uncomfortably home to you that history is true and that unfortunately you are a part of it. One has this tendency to think oneself immune.”
I have often mentioned Moon Tiger as one of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read it through for at least 10 years, maybe more. The last time I’m sure I read it is when I assigned it in a seminar on “Women and Historical Writing,” in one of my first years teaching at Dalhousie. I was fresh from my dissertation research on gender, genre, and historiography, and Moon Tiger, which is preoccupied with who writes history and how, and with what authority, played right into my hands. Its protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a historian, but a popular one, not a professional one: her career has been defined by a kind of belligerent celebration of her outsider status as she is dismissed by academic historians who see her as unserious. Yet she herself derides her lover, Jasper, for the historical epics he produces for television, which Claudia thinks “diminished the past, turned history into entertainment”: “I held forth about the difference between history as reasoned analysis and history as spectacle.”
Moon Tiger itself experiments with different approaches to history. In particular, it prods us to consider the insoluble problem that history is at once personal and general, that the particular which matters so much, so intensely, to each of us in the moment is always part of something much larger in which it can easily be lost. How can history, as a narrative, accommodate both these levels of attention? The novel’s vacillation between first-person and third-person narration is a formal gesture towards the desired balance. But even the third-person narration focuses mostly on Claudia, whose personality dominates the novel just as she has always commanded every room she enters: “always,” thinks her sort-of adopted son Laszlo, “Claudia has seemed brighter cleverer more entertaining than other people, . . . always when you leave Claudia you go flat a little.” It’s through Claudia that we are directed out into the world of impersonal history: we are shown its events through her eyes and through her ideas about it, as if to remind us that objectivity is always already compromised, that nothing means anything until it is seen, considered, narrated — all of which requires a point of view, a story.
So Moon Tiger is Claudia’s story, but it is also a historical story. In particular, it is the story of her years as a correspondent in Egypt during the Second World War, when she had the experiences which still, at the end of her life, are “its core, its centre.” The section about the war in the desert, and the heartfelt love story of Claudia — the usually impervious, arrogant, brilliant Claudia — and Tom Southern (“oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending”), comprise the novel’s stunning centerpiece, but embedded as it is in Claudia’s wide-ranging reflections on history and mortality, and in her memories of her family, it doesn’t define Moon Tiger as either a war novel or a romance. Instead, it provides the most fully realized example in the novel of the ways we are all, as Tom says to her, part of history, not exempt from it. We can’t always tell what that truth means: it’s cataclysms like war that break open our illusion of immunity, revealing that most of us are not writing history but living it — that we are not really the authors of our own lives.
As she lies in her hospital bed waiting for death, Claudia dreams of writing another book, this time “a history of the world.” It’s an absurd project, of course: no book could be so comprehensive. But as she reflects, there’s a way in which she herself already embodies just such a history:
My body . . . remembers Java Man and Australopithicus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I share but cannot apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee; there, but for the grace of God, went I. Being the raging agnostic that I am, of course, I consider that God had nothing to do with it.
Claudia is fascinated by fossils, those physical traces of the past in the present, reminders of the enormous changes but also continuities of the earth. On her deathbed, she feels at once the totality and the singularity of it all, the simultaneity of the big stories (“Rommel was pushed out of Africa … we won the war”) and the personal experiences. Against the overarching narrative of the war she has Tom’s diaries, “louder now than the narrative I know”...
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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Letters From an Unlikely Literary Friendship - Henry James and Edith Wharton Letters: 1900-1915

Henry James and Edith Wharton

To her, he was ''Cherest Maitre.'' To him, she was ''Dear and unsurpassably distinguished old Friend!'' ''admirable Confrere,'' ''Princesse Rapprochee!'' ''the Firebird'' and ''Dearly beloved Edith.''

Few of their mutual acquaintances could have predicted that such a warm, affectionate friendship would develop between Henry James and Edith Wharton - a friendship lovingly documented by this meticulously edited collection of their letters. Although their novels portrayed similarly well-to-do social circles, although both left America to live in Europe, there was little else initially to draw the two writers together. Indeed, they had twice attended the same dinner parties in the closing years of the 19th century without James so much as noticing the shy young woman who was then known as the wife of Teddy Wharton.
By the turn of the century, the two had begun a polite literary correspondence, with James urging the younger writer to stick to America as a subject: ''I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it - it's an untouched field, really.''

''Use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts,'' he added, ''they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine.''

As Wharton began to establish herself as a writer, however, artistic differences and envy threatened to eat away at the blossoming friendship. Wharton despaired of critics' ''continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James.'' She took issue with his increasingly rarefied esthetics. (''Everything, in the latest novels, had to be fitted into a predestined design,'' she wrote, ''and design, in his strict geometrical sense, is to me one of the least important things in fiction.'') And in 1904 she told her editor that she had been unable to read anything James had written in the last 10 years.

James, on his part, professed admiration for Wharton's work, but the tone of his encouragement tended to underscore their artistic differences. He singled out ''The Reef'' as his favorite of her novels - clearly the most Jamesian of her efforts - while somewhat condescendingly observing that her masterwork, ''The House of Mirth,'' was ''better written than composed.'' Already covetous of her social position and independent wealth, James was to become even more envious of the wide readership and fat advances she achieved so quickly in her career - a career that had begun not, like his own, as a sacred commitment to literature but as a means of escape from a suffocating marriage.

After learning that the earnings from one of her novels paid for her luxurious touring car, James remarked that proceeds from ''The Wings of the Dove'' had enabled him to buy a small wheelbarrow in which his guests' luggage might be transported from the local railroad station to his house. ''It needs a coat of paint,'' he wrote. ''With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.''

Happily enough, none of these petty differences seemed to diminish the growing affection Wharton and James possessed for each other. Although James unfortunately burned most of Wharton's correspondence -in 1909, during a fit of depression, he burned most of his personal papers -his letters and her few remaining ones indicate that they shared not only an interest in literary matters but also a concern for each other's domestic ups and downs and a love of gossip.

In fact one of the charming aspects of this volume is that it shows just how susceptible James, that severe high priest of Art, could be to the stuff of ordinary life. His letters are filled with references to dreaded trips to the dentist (''the process arrests the flow of soul''), with catty appraisals of dinner party guests and exasperated complaints about the hardships of travel. As time goes by, the combination of failing health and an arduous work schedule would force James to withdraw almost exclusively to the solitude of his home in England, where he depended upon Wharton and other friends to bring him news of the outside world.
As these letters indicate, the friendship between James and Wharton spanned particularly difficult periods in their lives, and the two writers provided each other with much needed emotional support. Wharton's affair with their mutual friend Morton Fullerton was passionate but tempestuous and brief; and her ill-matched marriage to Teddy Wharton ended in 1913, after he embezzled large sums of money from her and showed growing signs of mental instability. James counseled her throughout these travails, while Wharton helped see him through the severe depressions that overtook him toward the end of his life. In addition to providing him with companionship and good will, she campaigned (unsuccessfully) to win him the Nobel Prize, secretly persuaded Scribner's to divert some of her own royalties to provide him with an $8,000 advance for ''an important American novel'' and made elaborate plans for a celebration of his 70th birthday that were supposed to help alleviate his financial worries. ...

Monday, 13 April 2015

A life in writing: Günter Grass

In his studio in the Behlendorf woods, near the Baltic city of Lübeck, Günter Grass reflects on the outcry over his fictive memoir Peeling the Onion. His mention, four years ago, of having been drafted as a teenager into the Waffen SS at the tail end of the second world war sparked the most explosive in a half-century of career controversies. "I'm used to it by now," he says. "What I do is sometimes – at least in Germany – met with wounding campaigns. I always face the question: should I grow myself a thick skin and ignore it, or should I let myself be wounded? I've decided to be wounded, since, if I grew a thick skin, there are other things I wouldn't feel any more."

His bestselling debut novel, The Tin Drum (1959), was decried in some quarters as blasphemous pornography, and banned in dictatorships from the Eastern bloc to Iberia, while his novel Too Far Afield (1995) was savaged by critics, not least for raining on the unification parade. The story of his stint in the Waffen SS was broken in the German press in 2006 as a shocking disclosure, though "it came out later that I'd spoken openly about it in the 60s," he says. "Nobody was worked up by it at the time."

That was in an era turning its back on the past amid Germany's "economic miracle", whose amnesia was assailed by Grass and other writers, including Heinrich Böll, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Martin Walser – before opinion shifted with the Auschwitz trials and 1968 student protests.

Yet for decades, he wrote in Peeling the Onion, he "refused to admit" to the "double letters" of the Waffen SS. He always avowed membership of the Hitler Youth, volunteering without success for the submarine corps at 15, and being conscripted as a tank gunner at 16, before being wounded, never having fired a shot. Yet, as one of the "schoolboy generation" burdened with crimes he learned of only as a PoW in US hands, he wrote: "What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame." That Grass took 60 years to address his Waffen SS membership in his work might be a reminder of the difficulty of the task he undertook. As his oeuvre suggests, the past is never "come to terms" with, but recurs in a perpetual grappling with responsibility and guilt of the kind that "hibernates in dreams".

On whether he might have handled things differently, he says, "I would have had to write my autobiography earlier. It was portrayed . . . as though I'd made a confession – and even that full of false comparisons. I did not volunteer for the Waffen SS, but was, as were thousands of my year group, conscripted. I did not then know as a 17-year-old that it was a criminal unit. I thought it was an elite unit."

For Grass, his conscription has less significance than the unquestioning beliefs of his youth, for which he claims responsibility, and spent a lifetime "working through" in fiction, poetry, drama, essays and memoir. "I belonged to the generation that grew up under National Socialism, and was blinded and led astray – and allowed itself to be led astray," he says. Soon after 1945, "while many were retrospectively counting themselves members of the German resistance, I said: 'No, right until the end, I believed like an idiot in the final victory.' I was shattered when the Germans capitulated. I never made a secret of it. Everything I have done since emerged as an insight after the war."

Though the "Grass affair" brought attacks on his moral authority, he has never styled himself "Germany's conscience" ("No one person can be the conscience of a country – it's stupid"). Accused of hypocrisy in attacking others' wartime records, he objects: "When I criticised [Kurt Georg] Kiesinger because he wanted to be chancellor, I was talking about a man who . . . during the Nazi-era, had a leading position in the propaganda department. He was no 17-year-old."

A lifelong Social Democrat, though no longer a party member ("I criticise them but I'm still on their side"), Grass sees the furore as politically driven. "I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. That didn't work. I still keep opening my mouth."

The controversy is touched on in an exhibition in Günter Grass House, the Lübeck museum that houses prints, watercolours and sculptures by the 1999 Nobel laureate. It was founded in 2002 in the 15th-century print works where he keeps an office, near a red-brick Gothic cathedral like those in Danzig, his Hanseatic birthplace (now Polish Gdansk). "Günter Grass and Poland", on until January 31, has a newly unearthed photograph from his first return in 1958, clasping his Slav great-aunt Anna, a Kashubian in voluminous skirts who inspired the potato-field conception in his most famous novel.

Later he met the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who in 2006 demanded that Grass hand back his honorary citizenship of Gdansk. Grass says he wrote to the mayor, and the idea was rejected. "The people of Gdansk said: 'No, he belongs to us!' I'm there every other year; I'm proud they celebrate me." In 2005 he showed 10 translators around the city on the occasion of new 50th-anniversary translations of The Tin Drum. The English one, by Breon Mitchell – out this month in Vintage paperback – is unexpurgated and more faithful, Grass feels, to his "tapeworm-long sentences".

His studio barn is next to the house he shares with his wife Ute, an organist. Downstairs he hammers on his blue Olivetti, and upstairs makes prints. With his "walrus moustache" and pipe paraphernalia, Grass seems relaxed, switching between German and English – even mischievous. Rehearsing his objections to the "annexation" of East Germany in 1990, he scowls theatrically, "you're speaking with an angry old man", but laughs with good humour. He looked forward to marking his 83rd birthday this month with friends. As for fearing death: "No, I'm astonished with each new spring. At my age, every year is like a gift."

More here.