Truth and War Literature

By Arnon Grunberg

As of Monday September 8, I've been teaching at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Not forever, thank God, just for one semester.

One course that I'm teaching side-by-side with a philosopher is about Plato's Symposium. I'm not a Plato specialist, and neither is the philosopher.

For close reading, you don't have to intimate knowledge of the author and his times. Now and then I feel like an impostor, but according to the philosopher who has been teaching for quite a while, this is fairly natural. He said that everybody who's teaching has to bluff sometimes.

A comforting remark if ever there was one.

The other course I'm teaching all by myself. According to the syllabus, this course is titled íTruth and War Literature.ë It has an emphasis on literature from the concentration camps.

At first the university had wanted me to teach creative writing, but I refused to this. Last year I was talked into doing a master class for unpublished authors. I finally decided to take the unpublished authors to a boxing school. I have never made anyone angrier in my life than these people, but at least a few them genuinely enjoyed the boxing training.

There are enough authors but not enough readers, and especially not enough careful readers.

Too many students were interested in íTruth and War Literature,ë so I had to split up the group in two.

Monday and Wednesday I start discussing truth and war literature at 3 pm and I stop at 8:30 pm (with a two-hour break in between groups). I come home exhausted. Strangely enough, the interest in Plato's Symposium is less overwhelming.

I wanted to start with something not that cruel in my war class. So we started reading a poem by Wolfgang Wondratschek, "Die Einsamkeit der Männer" [The loneliness of men], inspired by Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano.

Soon the discussion focused on power. I asked, íWhat do we mean with power, could we be more specific?ë

One student hesitantly answered, íWell, power gives you a good feeling.ë

íOkay,ë I said, ífair enough, but why exactly? Where does the good feeling come from?ë

After the course, a student approached me and enquired why I had asked such personal questions.

For a second or so I felt insecure. But then I asked, íDo you believe it's possible to disconnect the reading experience from the reader? Is it possible to read objectively with a certain set of standards to weigh the quality of the text and do you believe that these standards have nothing to do with your own experiences, with your life?ë

íYes,ë the student said. íThat's the academic way of reading.ë



But maybe the basic question is, if the close reading-method gives you the appropiate tools to understand a literary text. Of course you have to read well and carefully, but that does not necessarily mean that you have to exclude in your analysis references to the time in which the author lived or lives; what his ideas on literature and LANGUAGE were or are and so forth.

Of course you may demand that the arguments in the analysis are explicit and open to criticism. That’s the way you have an open discussion, which may in the end clarify more about the richness of the text or its possible shortcomings than the close reading-method would ever permit.
COMMENT: You teach about truth and war in literature. You write about war and you write literature. But how truthful is your writing?



I take it this student in Leiden was Dutch, and that she (Let’s make it feminine) spoke Dutch. But you quote her as an English-speaking student. Of course you are not alone in this. Probably every writer does this, and has to do this. But is this truthfully written? Does the truth change in translation? I’d say yes. The next question is “Does this matter”?
DATE: 09/23/2008 9:44:56 AM

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