LIVE from the NYPL: The 20th Century on Trial: Günter Grass & Norman Mailer interviewed by, and in conversation with, Andrew O'Hagan

June 27, 2007

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7:15pm Günter Grass interviewed by Andrew O'Hagan

8:00pm Norman Mailer interviewed by Andrew O'Hagan

8:45 - 9:15pm Günter Grass & Norman Mailer in conversation with Andrew O'Hagan


I always thought violence was one of the frontiers left to us as novelists. The great novelists of the nineteenth century dealt with love, they dealt with disappointment and love, they dealt with honesty, they dealt to some degree with corruption, they dealt with the forces of society as general abstract forces that could bend a person's will. Then came the twentieth century."

Norman Mailer, The Paris Review, Summer 2007

"Auschwitz was not a manifestation of common human bestiality; it was a repeatable consequence of a network of responsibilities so organised and so subdivided that the individual was conscious of no responsibility at all. The action of every individual who participated or did not participate in the crime was determined, knowingly or unknowingly, by a narrow conception of duty."

Günter Grass, What Shall We Tell Our Children?

Born in the 1920s, Günter Grass and Norman Mailer went on to become grand men of letters. They witnessed the 20th century at close quarters. At the center of each writer's consciousness is the role of their respective countries in World War II and the legacy of violence and guilt that created the Cold War. Yet as stylists these two novelists appeared to internalize the great forces of their times: the appeal of totalitarianism and the cult of celebrity, the struggle for national definition and the psychology of sex.

Mailer and Grass set out to create revolutions in the consciousness of their times, and now might be the moment to ask how the 20th century itself emerges from their work. What was that century? What would they write for its epitaph? Nobel Prize-Winner Günter Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion takes him back to his wartime childhood and adolescence it is a searing book that provides evidence on behalf of the self-accusing. Norman Mailer's latest novel, The Castle in the Forest, is his take on Hitler's own youth. These two great writers have come full circle, to the same place and time, and their creativity puts the 20th century itself on trial.

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About Günter Grass
Günter Grass was born in 1927 in Danzig-Langfuhr of Polish-German parents. After military service and captivity by American forces 1945-46, he worked as a miner and stonecutter and studied art. His first poetry was published in 1956 and his major international breakthrough came in 1959 with his novel The Tin Drum, an allegorical account of German reality during the first half of this century, which, with Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, was to form what is called the Danzig Trilogy. In the 1960s Grass became active in politics, participating in election campaigns on behalf of the Social Democrat party and Willy Brandt. This was the start of his lifelong fight for peace and against all kinds of ideologies. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. His latest book, Peeling the Onion, has just been published in English.  

About Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1923. He published his first story at Harvard when he was 18. Mailer was drafted into the Army in World War II and served in the South Pacific. In 1948, he published a book that made him world-famous: The Naked and the Dead, based on his personal experiences during World War II. It was hailed by many as one of the best American novels to come out of the war years and named one of the "100 best novels in English language" by the Modern Library. He has since published over 30 books and has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has been President of American PEN and his his most recent novel is The Castle in the Forest.


About Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O'Hagan was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1968. He is a contributing editor to the London Review of Books and a contributor to the New York Review. He won the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. His new novel is Be Near Me.