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On my desk in Toronto is an unanswered letter from Günter Grass, mailed from Lübeck on March 23. I'm sorry I didn't answer him before he died. He wrote that his age was giving him a hard time, but he wasn't complaining; he said his heart and lungs were "paying him back" for what he did to them – "smoking with assiduity." He was grateful his brain was still working properly – "immer noch klar im Kopf," was how he put it, adding, "besser als umgekehrt." (My German isn't great, but, roughly translated, "better than the other way around.")

There was a sombre sentence in the last paragraph: "Die Welt ist wieder einmal aus den Fugen und mir, dem kriegsgebrannten Kind, kommen böse Erinnerungen." That's a hard one, literally, but what he means is: "The world is out of kilter once again, which brings dark memories to me, the child burned by war."

I was 19 or 20 when I read The Tin Drum; I hadn't known it was possible to be a contemporary novelist and a 19th-century storyteller. Oskar Matzerath refuses to grow; by remaining small and childlike, he is spared in the Nazi years – he survives the war but doesn't escape the guilt.

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When I was a student in Vienna, I volunteered to be a model for the life-drawing classes at an academy of the arts off the Ringstrasse. I said I had "experience," but I wanted to be a model because Oskar Matzerath was one.

I reviewed Grass's controversial autobiography, Peeling the Onion, for The New York Times Book Review in July 2007. Grass's revelation – namely, that he had been drafted into the Waffen SS when he was 17 – incensed his critics. One called the revelation "tortured"; others complained about the lateness of the admission. In The Times Book Review, I called these criticisms "sanctimonious dismantling." The Waffen-SS revelation was Grass's story; he wrote about it with "a recurrent sense of shame." Was he supposed to blab about his guilt to journalists? Then the journalists would have written his story, in their herd-instinct way. No one could have written about Grass's shame better than he did. His autobiography is dedicated "to everyone from whom I have learned."

I learned from my favourite 19th-century writers that I wanted to be a certain kind of novelist – like Dickens and Hardy, like Hawthorne and Melville. I learned from Grass how to do it.

One night at his house in Behlendorf – this was October 1995, my son Everett was only a four-year-old – Günter's wife, Ute, had roasted a lamb, and Günter sang an English song to Everett, whose German was limited to a couple of colours and the numbers up to five. "One man and his dog went to mow a meadow" – that song. It goes on, up to 10 men and dogs. It was such a simple song, but Everett paid very close attention; he loved it. Later, my wife and I realized that Everett had not understood what a "meadow" was – or what "mow" meant. (Everett had been trying to figure out what those men and their dogs were doing, and to whom.)

That was a wonderful evening, but when I think of Günter now – 20 years after the meadow-mowing song – I think of him as the boy he was writing about when he wrote Peeling the Onion. He called himself "the war child badly burned and therefore inexorably attuned to contradiction." (Perhaps more to the point, as Günter also described himself, "I found anything with a whiff of the national repugnant.")

As a writer, Grass was one of the great ones. As a man, he held himself and his nation – meaning every nation, any nation, and each individual – accountable. This is what I would write to him, if I could answer his letter.

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