Günter Grass Essay - Grass, Günter (Vol. 1)

Grass, Günter (Vol. 1)

Grass, Günter 1927–

A German novelist, known for boisterous conception and execution (especially in such novels as The Tin Drum and Dog Years), Grass is also a poet, playwright, painter, and sculptor. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

The Tin Drum is the scarifying memoir of a midget drummer, writing from a mental hospital, who has a power of recall of the past thirty years of the Central European bourgeoisie that is equaled only by his voluble and sardonic contempt for them. In his mockery of the bakers and boy-scout leaders who had become Nazis, there emerges, as it were, some of the buried laughter and horror of the German consciousness itself. Tender and violent, spiritual and obscene, sportive and gruesome, Oskar's laughter covers virtually the whole range of human expression, but its two poles are cynicism and terror, the respective feelings with which his memoir begins and ends and to which his awareness of the meaning of his life constantly reverts….

Grass's main insight in The Tin Drum is of the infantalism of German culture, in particular, and of the human animal, in general. The only character who doesn't appear as a case of thwarted development is Oskar himself, who has deliberately remained a midget to protect himself from becoming emotionally stunted by a "normal" family life and business career and also by virtue of his belief that the best place for a man, particularly in a mad age, is hidden under the skirts of a woman, a condition which his size is designed to facilitate. The purpose of his writing this memoir and of drumming up the past is, as he says, "to get back to the umbilical cord," and through his account of thirty years spent amid the storm, and wreckage of recent history he is only at peace when he has found another warm, dark, sheltering place inside a woman's skirt, closet, cupboard, or bed.

Oskar's infantilism is not a conceit of the author, but the real thing: a powerful current of libidinal energy and purpose that drives him to turn his mother's lover over to the Germans and his presumptive father over to the Russians and to stab at the pregnant belly of the maid who is carrying either his brother or his son. Perverse, brutal, fetishistic, and macabre, he provides a perfect sounding-board for the history that unfolds around him, he being the reality of its unreality….

Dog Years often seems more an exercise in writing than a vision of an era. It is strange that such a powerful and original satirist of German character should produce such a determinedly literary piece of work. Not that Dog Years isn't eminently worth reading; it's just that after reading The Tin Drum one feels let down by an all-too-German archness where one has come to expect the wit of a deeper terror and rage.

Theodore Solotaroff, "The Laughing German" (1965), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 198-204.

Grass's first novel, The Tin Drum, is the imaginary autobiography of a mad dwarf who can recall the shameful past of the Nazi régime by beating his magic drum. Grass spares us nothing, but his approach lacks the grey guilt of so many German novels about the same period; he has handed over his narrative to a creature who is too innocent to be possessed of any ethical attitude to the events he chronicles. The book is a big, bawdy, sprawling triumph. The later Dog Years deals with Hitler's last days. In finding out what happened to the Führer's missing dog, we piece together—from all sorts of disjunct sources—the story of declining power and a desperate end. Again, we are impressed by a great satirical gift, mockery, bawdry, a powerful and idiosyncratic personality, but deplore the lack of real artistic unity. And one wonders what these gifted Germans will do when their recent history has been plucked bare of fictional feathers. The Anglo-American novel has other things to do than atone for the past or blast national character. The works of Grass [and others] are remarkable commentaries on history, but a novel ought to be more than that.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 181.

For all his bizarre distortions, which recall Expressionist visions, [Günter] Grass has all the virtues of the old-fashioned novelist in the Naturalist tradition. He knows, and can render with meticulous accuracy, the appearance of a prewar elementary school, the life of a log rafter at the turn of the century, the work of a waiter in a dockside tavern, and how a grocer's shop was operated during the War. The variety of tones and dialects is equally impressive, and Grass is touchingly accurate in depicting the speech of Skat players (strangely neglected in German literature), of gypsies, minor Party officials, a patriotic schoolmaster exhorting his charges to be clean and hard. In this sense, Grass' fiction can be classified with that of a group of modern authors—Joyce, Faulkner, Pavese—whose works are bound up with a certain locality. Grass' very accuracy compels him to record such features of prewar Danzig as to make nostalgia absurd—the rise of the Nazis or the concentration camps near Stutthof … as examples. Yet the devices Grass uses to express his inevitable doubt and ambivalence, the visions and the parodies, are firmly rooted in a minutely observed petit-bourgeois background depicted down to the last potato dumpling. (p. 25)

The child's perspective gives Grass' novels an undertone of an exile's nostalgia. The nostalgia, however, has an accidental character—the air of being a by-product of the narrative—so that it is completely inoffensive and unsentimental. Above all, the child's perspective finds itself, by and large, in harmony with the evil and insanity of the surrounding world; and this harmony is a devastating commentary on the world. (p. 52)

Grass' reputation rests chiefly on his fiction. His poetry, especially his early poetry, is often tentative in character, as if he were experimenting with images that suggest the absurdity or precariousness of the human condition. The absurd plays, attempts to clarify and develop such images, are aptly characterized by Martin Esslin as "metaphors come to life on the stage." (p. 134)

When Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] and Hundejahre [Dog Years] deal with Western Germany, Grass' indignation and ense of political engagement come to the fore. The author who created out of the prewar era the vision of an absurd world without values now seems disconcertingly inclined to allow his voice to be heard in judgment and condemnation of West German personalities and institutions. His concern with political issues finds expression in his private campaign for the Socialist Party …. (pp. 135-36)

W. Gordon Cunliffe, in his Günter Grass, Twayne, 1969.