(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The ldquo;headbirths” of the title refers to the way Harm and Dörte Peters spring from Günter Grass’s head, comparable to the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. Grass creates these people, in part, to counteract the decline in German population. He speculates on the gains and losses if the Germans were multiplying like the Chinese and the Chinese declining like the Germans. Grass, recalling the notorious Nazi demand for “living space,” argues that, since the Germans see themselves as overcrowded, they might as well let the myth become reality.

Within the novel (first published in German as Kopfgeburten: Oder, Die Deutschen Sterben Aus, 1981), Grass anticipates criticism of it on the grounds that this is one of his contemporary, political books, rather than one of his more popular “historical” ones. That argument is more than a little disingenuous. Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1962) and Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, 1978) are by no means apolitical. They are highly regarded because they have been formed with great care and contain plenty of “living space” where large issues can develop. The real problem with Headbirths is not the ephemeral nature of 1979 German politics and world issues, but the ephemeral nature of Grass’s treatment of characters and themes.

Grass cannot resist an imaginative historical trip with himself cast as a German ten years older than he actually was during World War II, pandering to the Nazis in order to get publication, serving in the army, becoming disillusioned at Stalingrad. Although a promising idea, it is not developed to the point of telling readers anything about Grass that they were not given in depth in earlier works, nor does it contribute anything to the basic themes of this novel. Current relations between East and West German writers and Grass’s “modest proposals” for governing a unified Germany are very much to the point of 1979 liberal malaise, but Grass’s criticism of the Nazi he might have been is merely awkward base-touching, with World War II as a pro forma prelude to Germany in 1979.

Grass views the division between the two Germanies as an arbitrary piece of foolishness perpetrated by the Soviet Union and the United States. He proposes a Germany united by a cultural history museum at the Berlin Wall, with a switch of economic systems between the two Germanies every ten years to relax the East and burn fat off the West. He proposes an end to compulsory education, the civil service, and all German births, while at the same time advocating the establishment of a tax on Church property and of a citizen’s militia to allow Germany to take control of its own gloomy destiny. In the death of his friend, novelist Nicholas Born, and of a radical-gone-tame, Rudi Dutschke, Grass sees signs of the passing of German artistic and politically liberal leadership.

While the cumulative effect of these whimsical set-pieces contributes to the shapelessness of this novel, it also pushes Grass forward as the central character. By presenting Harm Peters’ reactions to Grass’s own “modest proposals,” the novelist emphasizes Peters’ lesser role in the novel. Interestingly, Grass’s wife, Ute Grass, does not overshadow the fictional Dörte Peters. Harm Peters is a foil for both Grass and Dörte; Ute Grass does not participate in the action in any vital way.

Volker Schlöndorff, director of the film The Tin Drum, is another...

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Headbirths Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

The Atlantic. CCXLIX, April, 1982, p. 110.

Commonweal. CIX, July 16, 1982, p. 409.

Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass, 1985.

Irving, John. Review in Saturday Review. IX (March, 1982), p. 59.

Lawson, Richard H. “Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out,” in Günter Grass, 1985.

Library Journal. March 15, 1982, p. 650.

Nation. CCXXXIV, April 24, 1982, p. 502.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, March 14, 1982, p. 11.

Rohlfs, J.W. “Chaos or Order? Günter Grass’s Kopfgeburten,” in Critical Essays on Günter Grass, 1987. Edited by Patrick O’Neill.

Ryan, Judith. “‘Into the Orwellian Decade’: Günter Grass’s Dystopian Trilogy,” in Critical Essays on Günter Grass, 1987. Edited by Patrick O’Neill.

Times Literary Supplement. April 23, 1982, p. 455.

Updike, John. Review in The New Yorker. LVIII (June 14, 1982), p. 129.

West Coast Review of Books. VIII, May, 1982, p. 25.