Günter Grass Essay - Grass, Günter (Vol. 2)

Grass, Günter (Vol. 2)

Grass, Günter 1927–

Grass, a West German novelist known for his bizarre fictions contained within the traditional novel form, is the author of The Tin Drum and Dog Years. He is also a poet, playwright, painter, and sculptor. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Grass's … novel, Cat and Mouse, was something of a give-away, I thought, a piece of work so thin that its 'allegorical' skeleton obtruded, in a way it didn't in the dense composition of The Tin Drum—and alas its bones could be seen to lack articulation, its symbols were too often wantonly private. Dog Years is an altogether more powerful work, with a recovered density of detail and documentation, but it has no cohesive presence to match that of Oskar the dwarf drummer…. Disbelief is not so readily suspended here; fantasy demands, more imperatively than in The Tin Drum, to be reconciled with realism, the individual story with national history, the 'symbolic' with what it symbolizes. And the reconciliation cannot always be made—at least, cannot always be seen to be made.

Central to the book, it would seem, is the idea of the blood-brotherhood of German and Jew, with emphasis laid on the blood as well as the brotherhood. Each needs the other, the German the Jew, the brotherhood the blood. This is represented parable-wise in the faustball business….

One readily understands the difficulty Grass faces. He doesn't want just to write another 'anti-Nazi' book: that has long since become a heavy industry, a respectable profession, everybody is against atrocities. Indeed, 'satire' is universally fashionable…. At the same time Grass is appalled by what was done in the name of Nazism, and by all that has been forgotten in the name of reconstruction and economic recovery. Do we forget because we must—or because we will? One solution, especially congenial to Grass's gifts, is to glance sideways at the horrors, through the eyes of children….

But too often Grass seeks to extricate himself from this central difficulty—the problem, to put it simply, of dealing freshly and feelingly with a numbed subject—by means of a calculated vacillation between the grim and the farcical, between the portentously 'significant' and the unrelated tour de force, between realism and fantasy. Symbolic-smelling red herrings lure the reader off on wild-goose chases, and allegorical hounds, let off their leashes, howl oracularly and then disappear into thin air.

D. J. Enright, "Dog Years: Günter Grass's Third Novel," in his Conspirators and Poets: Reviews and Essays, Dufour, 1966, pp. 201-07.

"The Tin Drum" and "Dog Years" were operas; in "Local Anaesthetic" Günter Grass has given us a fugue. The drama of the war years called for opera, needed its large stage, its capacity for costumed emotion. In the postwar period it was not a matter of arias and clashing cymbals, but of short runs and slim beginnings, of finding a voice and using that voice to pose questions. Questions that have a way of turning back on themselves. The fugue form is exactly right for the purpose.

In the earlier books, Grass swept his readers with the sheer—one is tempted to say mere—force of his invention. There was a feeling of blitz, especially in "The Tin Drum." The magnitude of Grass's imaginative energy provoked large adjectives, a piling-up of praise. But after the last rave had died away, one discovered that many people one knew had abandoned these books part way through, had walked out or fallen asleep at the opera….

There is little in Grass's previous books to prepare us for this one. Where they were sprawling and self-indulgent, "Local Anaesthetic" is lean and ironic. Dryly, not cosmically, ironic. Its form, the relation of its parts to each other, is as efficient and economical as a Volkswagen….

Technically, "Local Anaesthetic" is probably the most convincing demonstration to date that the novel is not only alive and well, but healthier than ever. It shows what a strenuous program of exercises can do even for a middle-aged art form. Either independently or by borrowing, Grass has possessed himself of everything fiction has learned in the last two decades—and he uses that knowledge so well that the book is a brilliant tour de force. With this important difference: unlike most tours de force, it never condescends to its content. Every invention satisfies a need and comes out sounding natural….

As the book progresses, "facts" are exposed as fantasies, and these fantasies, once recognized, give a new inflection to still other facts and fantasies. As in music, every part modulates every other part. Grass even gives a new dimension to the old stream of consciousness device. He uses it not in the Impressionistic broken phrases of "Ulysses," but in Cubist chunks, in a constant, nagging re-examination of reality. The movement cuts, fades, zooms, pans from place to place, character to character. Grass even splits the screen to show separate scenes occurring simultaneously.

The language of "Local Anaesthetic" is as clean and sharp as it was arch and inflated in the earlier books.

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 29, 1970, pp. 1, 15.

Grass's artistic temperament, from "The Tin Drum" on, has been drawn to the gritty and mechanical; even in a nostalgic idyll like "Cat and Mouse," he devotes a disproportion of words to the mechanics of getting in and out of a sunken minesweeper and to chemical substances such as flakes of rust and gull droppings. His plots snag on small operational procedures: "The Tin Drum" opens by specifying how a woman rotates five skirts, wearing four and washing one each week. His characterizations ponderously depend on physical deformities—dwarfishness, protuberant ears, a grotesque Adam's-apple. Whereas Starusch has a prognathic bite, his young antagonist, Scherbaum, turns out to have the opposite defect, a distal bite, and is last seen wearing a corrective labial bar. Grass's prose is physically encumbered, chunky, resistant. Even if we allow for the losses of rhythm and penumbral connotation inevitable in any translation, we miss the plastic ease of expression and interconnection that until recently was the common property of even mediocre European writers…. Compared to relatively recent masters of European humanism like Proust and Mann, Grass is hard to read, hard to "get going" in. His device of aping television, however witty and timely and rigorously exploited, feels superimposed; it is a gesture of the author rather than an outgrowth of the material. Who, we wonder as we read, really retains his life in film-clip form, who but an author at his desk would project these overanimated parables of German guilt and unease?

John Updike, "The View from the Dental Chair," in The New Yorker, April 25, 1970, pp. 133-36.

Grass is pre-eminently a great comic novelist. His scenes emerge from what could be called principled anarchy. Like his other novels, Local Anaesthetic is plot-less, a mélange of scenes thrown together, in which time past and time present are jumbled in the mind of the protagonist….

Past and present, reality and fantasy, youth and middle-age, Grass mixes them all. Generals reconstruct the lost war in sandboxes while students paper their walls with Bob Dylan and Che or else cut away Mercedes Benz emblems to make Christmas tree star flowers. For while the focus in Local Anaesthetic is on the generational conflict, the way in which Grass depicts this is humorously to match illusion against illusion, Starusch [the protagonist] against Scherbaum [his student]. If the young revolutionaries are laying the groundwork for a future barbarism, then they are acting out the fantasies of their fathers. The violent games Vero Lewand and her cohorts play are matched by generals reconstructing battles, by memories of the Dusters roaming the streets of Danzig as the Russians approach, by Starusch's own erotic fantasies. Confusion is everywhere….

Grass has mellowed somewhat, but he is still a remarkably enthusiastic writer. In a curious way, Local Anaesthetic pays tribute to the very students with whom Grass has been arguing throughout much of the '60s. Like Grass's other novels, its chief limitation is the curious sense of depersonalization that the reader feels. Not that we do not know these people. But in portraying his Germany undergoing its metamorphosis, Grass leaves us with the feeling that life has failed fiction. Perhaps all that I am saying here is that the wildly exuberant comic novel that we welcomed in The Tin Drum now seems in danger of boring us through excessive exposure.

Leonard Kriegel, "Günther Grass' Tale of Men and Molars in a Mended Germany," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 8, 1970, pp. 195-96.

Anyone who knows the work of Grass … will [realize] that the story [in this case, of Local Anaesthetic] is there primarily to serve as a framework for the author's Protean fertility of imagination and that slightly less intense, more tinselly quality that we have agreed to call not imagination but fancy. Grass has both imagination and fancy, and as he sweeps along he does not pause, nor allow the reader to pause, to ask which is in play at the moment. At certain times in the past this might have been a disadvantage to him. Today, it is an advantage, because modern literature is Ovidian, and the Ovidian style makes use of fancy and imagination indifferently.

When I say that Ovid provides the essential bearing, I mean this. Virgil and Ovid are the two great polarizing types of classical Western literature. Whereas Virgil gives one the sense that everything he writes about is external and unchangeable—Rome's destiny is fixed, Rome can never alter, the heroic virtues will always be what they are now—Ovid gives the opposite impression: everything is flowing, changing; all shapes are melting continually into one another, the great law of life is that nothing can stay still….

Grass is very Ovidian. One sees it in his poems, where fancy predominates, and in a novel like Dog Years, which tells the story of recent German history through the consciousness of a Danzig sheepdog belonging to Hitler. He is an Ovid whose fanciful copiousness is put at the service of a social and historic conscience. This makes him a very important, and very refreshing, figure in contemporary literature. He is as 'committed' as the next man, but he is by nature incapable of falling into the dreary error of supposing that 'committed' literature cannot rise above the imaginative level of the printed instructions on a can of beans. He knows, perhaps with his conscious mind or perhaps simply with his artist's instinct, that all art includes an element of play, of escape from mere grim literalness; and that it makes its deepest and most serious utterances with the aid of this play-element. The choruses in Aeschylus are not trying to persuade us that this is their normal way of talking, any more than an operatic aria is meant to sound like someone humming in the bath; and the fact that things have circled round to a low point at which these things have once more to be said, is some indication of where our machine-civilization stands in relation to the arts.

John Wain, "Art, Play and Protest," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), June 20, 1970, pp. 23-5.

Günter Grass's collected poems [Gesammelte Gedichte] are a remarkable if somewhat special achievement…. Broadly speaking, they are spare, indeed bare; the images are strong and sharply outlined though often opaque. "A poem must not mean but be," to borrow MacLeish's oft-cited statement, and these poems surely "are." Thus many poems are enigmatic, surrealistic, or both; but some which seem absurd, like the superb "Kinderlied," make excellent sense if carefully read. As in his prose fiction, Grass shows himself a master of wit, irony, and of a usually black humor. Frequent motifs are soldiers, nuns, chickens, cooks and cooking, and above all the contemporary Berlin scene, which is the most striking element in the entire collection. In fact there is a certain monotony in the themes and imagery of Grass's poetry, but clearly he "does his own thing" and does it well. Verse, like drawing and giving political speeches, is only one of his relatively minor talents, but it is a real one.

Henry Hatfield, in Books Abroad, Spring, 1972, pp. 297-98.

A play that profusely uses mental acrobatics to confront the Establishment, Günter Grass's Uptight … is a neatly constructed series of quick conversations between five characters living in present-day Berlin….

[The] main plot of Uptight works delightfully. More difficult and less fully achieved is a secondary plot involving two women who represent the more emotionally radical attitudes of the World War II and present generations. However, director Alan Schneider, with the help of a rock combo, bicycles, and Santo Loquasto's multileveled setting, has sustained a fluidity and liveliness that prevent us from getting bogged down in Grass's philosophical complexities.

Henry Hewes, "Distal and Proximal Bite," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, May 20, 1972; used with permission), May 20, 1972, pp. 62-3.

In 1959 the publication of The Tin Drum brought sudden fame to a thirty-two-year-old sculptor and poet from Danzig named Günter Grass. The novel signaled a resurgence of that rich German language whose "death" the critic George Steiner had recently announced. Here was an abundance of reality in precise and picaresque detail; here, too, was an abundance of imagination centered on the mythical figure of a dwarf: a boy who refused to grow and who now sees literally "from below" and with a jaundiced eye the dubious fruits of Germany's awakening and Hitler's victories.

Since that auspicious debut thirteen years ago, Günter Grass has remained in prominent public view not only as a novelist but also as a playwright, essayist, and political polemicist. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the recent publication of his fifth novel, Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (From the Diary of a Snail), should be hailed in Germany as a major literary event….

Yet the new book amounts to considerably more than the slightly romancé diary of Günter Grass…. From the Diary of a Snail is unquestionably a work, of creative fiction—opinionated, polemical, argumentative—in which the speech patterns of our consumer and protest society are strikingly conveyed. Grass makes frequent use of unfinished sentences, which the reader familiar with current clichés will know how to conclude. Although there is much more of present-day reality here than in any previous work by Grass, the book is far from a mere chronicle, and its "true stories" serve a genuine artistic function of collage. The relationship between storytelling and history in this novel is comparable to the same relationship in the novels of Stendhal and Balzac. Stories and history, Geschichten und Geschichte, go together….

In certain respects this Diary of a Snail seems rather remote from current trends in modern fiction, even if the mixing of fiction and non-fiction is familiar. The art of novel writing does not, it seems, follow a straight line. Occasionally "regressions" become necessary. Grass would rather risk losing out on the unity of his work than losing out on the richness of its component strands. Neither does he want to lose his right to introduce reflections and polemics.

How the new novel will stand up in years to come remains a matter of conjecture. Many of the events and persons mentioned are familiar to today's newspaper readers and television watchers in Germany. However, in years hence many allusions may need to be elucidated in footnotes. Even now, readers outside Germany will need them. Grass's previous novels included within their pages all the information necessary to any reader, but this one relies on some outside knowledge. It will be worthwhile to revisit the Diary of a Snail in a couple of years to see how the passing of time has affected this strange—and brave—piece of work, whose very core is the contrast between progress and melancholy, between the improvable present and the unredeemable past.

François Bondy, "A Snail's Eye View," in World, October 24, 1972, pp. 50-1.