Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2103
Article abstract: Grass is to be considered one of the leading figures of German literature since 1945. His writings address social and political issues in a unique manner, and he has consistently stressed the relationship between the artist and society.
Günter Grass was born in the free city-state of Danzig (Germany), today the Polish city of Gdańsk, on October 16, 1927. His parents were middle-class merchants of German-Polish descent. The free state of Danzig was occupied by the Nazis when Grass was eleven years old, and, by the age of fourteen, he had become, as did most boys his age, a willing member of the Hitler Youth. From 1944 to 1945, he served in the German army but was wounded in April, 1945, and then sent to a hospital in Czechoslovakia, where he was captured by the Americans. Taken one day by his American captors to the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau (outside Munich), Grass could not believe that such atrocities could have taken place, and he thought it was a hoax perpetrated by the Americans. When the Nürnberg trials on Nazi war crimes were held, he finally realized the truth of the historical record.
After the end of the war, Grass worked for a while as a farm laborer, and in 1947 he became a stonemason’s apprentice, spending time in a mine. He also performed in a jazz trio. He married Anna Schwarz, a dancer, in 1954. These various jobs did not suit his artistic nature, and from 1949 to 1956 he studied drawing and sculpture in Düsseldorf. In 1955, his wife submitted, without his knowledge, one of his poems to a poetry contest, and he won third prize. He then spent several years in Paris and worked on his writing projects and his graphic art. Grass has given exhibitions and published collections of his etchings.
During the early 1950’s, Grass wrote a number of surrealistic poems, which he illustrated himself and which were published under the title Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (1956; the advantages of windfowl). He also wrote several plays that suggest the love of the grotesque and bizarre that figures in so many of his later writings. Noch zehn Minuten bis Buffalo (1954, 1958; Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, 1967) is one of the better-known plays from this early period. In 1958 the young author was asked to read at the prestigious Group 47 annual meeting of German writers and was awarded first prize.
The epic novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961) was his first commercial success, and it generated much public controversy. It is the grotesque and, at times, licentious story of Oskar Matzerath, a precocious dwarf, and his picaresque adventures before, during, and after World War II. Oskar—part Grigory Rasputin, the madman, and part Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the poet—struggles in the course of the novel to find his true identity amid the chaos of his family life and the social and political upheavals of Germany during the Nazi era. The text incorporates many of Grass’s memories of and reflections on his youth in Danzig. Because of the novel’s often open attitude toward sexuality, it scandalized many of the more conservative elements in German society at that time. The city government of Bremen, for example, refused to grant him the literary prize that the committee had awarded him.
The surrealistic style of The Tin Drum marks Grass, at least in part, as the heir to a well-known Prague writer of the early twentieth century, Franz Kafka. As in the latter’s dreamlike stories, emotional states of mind are treated as if they were external events. Oskar, for example, distrusts, as a child, the adult world, and so he refuses to grow up. He wills himself into not growing and retains the physical stature of childhood. When he is angry or upset, he screams, as does any child, but, in the novel, Oskar’s vocalizations have the unique ability to shatter glass. The effect of such a writing style is of an altered or miraculous “reality” in which subjective feelings become objective occurrences.
After the success of this initial novel, Grass was awarded the Berlin Critics Prize in 1960, and he moved from Paris to Berlin, where he has resided since. His first marriage ended in divorce; he married again in 1979. An outspoken and independent-minded liberal, Grass rejected the materialistic consumer society of West Germany, refusing to own a car, television, or telephone.
Grass’s first novel became part of a series of narrative texts that has been called “Die Danziger Trilogie” (the Danzig trilogy). The second work of the set, Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse, 1963), is a novella that describes the youth and early adulthood of the Christ-like figure Joachim Mahlke, as related by his childhood friend and eventual betrayer, Pilenz. Mahlke, a Danzig youth, is an overachiever who has an overly prominent Adam’s apple. He feels he must exceed the accomplishments of his fellows and thereby earns both their admiration and resentment. He becomes a superior swimmer and diver and eventually, in his pursuit of social acceptance, a war hero. In this story, as well as in The Tin Drum, Grass levels criticism at the German involvement with the phenomenon of Nazism. Grass, along with his contemporary Heinrich Böll, is part of Germany’s postwar attempt to come to some kind of moral and social reckoning with the terrible events of the past. The third novel of the trilogy, Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years, 1965), also takes place in Danzig and picks up thematic elements as well as characters present in the first two works. It utilizes three narrators—Eddi Amsel, Harry Liebenau, and Walter Matern—who offer a colorful and bizarre portrait of modern Germany and the horrors of the Nazi era. In 1966, Grass published a play, Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand (The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, 1966), which takes a critical look at the revolutionary theater of Bertolt Brecht and the discrepancies between artistic production and the realities of social and political change. Örtlich betäubt (1969; Local Anaesthetic, 1969) deals with issues of both World War II and the Vietnam conflict. It is a novel about the high school student Philipp Scherbaum, who seeks to protest against the hypocrisy of the adult world and his teacher, Eberhard Starusch, himself a former rebel. A nameless dentist, who treats both student and teacher, offers commentary and wisdom to both his patients.
During the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, Grass became more involved with the German political scene, campaigning and writing speeches on behalf of the liberal Social Democratic Party. The semifictional text Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972; From the Diary of a Snail, 1973) chronicles his political involvement during the 1969 West German election campaign and develops several fictional strands as well. The image of the snail comes to represent the steady but slow nature of social change and historical progress.
The 1970’s saw the emergence of the feminist movement in the United States and Europe, and Grass’s next novel, Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, 1978), takes a satiric look—from a decidedly male perspective—at some of the more controversial issues. The story begins with a version of the “Fisherman and His Wife” fairy tale. In Grass’s book, the flounder—the archetype of the male—is caught by three German feminists who put him on public trial for crimes against humanity. It presents a series of chapters that examine in a humorous and outrageous manner the relationships of men and women throughout history. After this text, Grass worked in a more serious historical context in the novel Das Treffen in Telgte (1979; The Meeting at Telgte, 1981). The plot involves a fictitious meeting of German writers and artists toward the end of the exceedingly destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The novel looks at a typical concern of its author: the success or failure of the “humanizing” role that art and literature play in the “real” world of politics, greed, and war.
Grass’s next novel, Kopfgeburten: Oder, Die Deutschen sterben aus (1980; Headbirths: Or, The German Are Dying Out, 1982), again makes use of both diary material and fictional invention. The fictional plot involves two German schoolteachers, Harm and Dörte Peters, who are traveling throughout Asia and in the process of deciding whether they should have a child or not. At that time, Grass himself traveled in Asia, and his diary observations on cultural and political differences between Germany and the East make up a major part of the text. His next novel, Die Rättin (1986; The Rat, 1987), is a sobering tale of Europe after the nuclear holocaust, narrated by a female rat who is one of the sole survivors. The novel reflects Grass’s pessimistic attitudes about the future of mankind amid the failed attempts to limit nuclear proliferation between the superpowers in the 1980’s.
Although Grass is known primarily as a novelist, he has published a wide variety of work in other literary forms. Several of his plays have already been noted; he has also published a number of poetry collections in the course of his career. Gleisdreieck (1960), Ausgefragt (1967; New Poems, 1968), and “Ach Butt, dein Märchen geht böse aus”: Gedichte und Radierungen (1983) present a variety of poems and illustrations that take up the same themes present in his narrative texts.
Some of Grass’s works elude generic classification. One such book is Zunge zeigen (1988; Show Your Tongue, 1989), based on a trip that Grass and his second wife, Ute, took to India between October, 1986, and January, 1987. Combining journal entries, poems, and drawings, this text takes up many of the themes that have preoccupied Grass in his later work, particularly his apocalyptic vision of the contemporary world.
The playful sense of the absurd and grotesque that informs many of Günter Grass’s works has given him a unique presence in the literary history of postwar Germany. He must be considered a consummate narrative artist who possesses a wild and decidedly Rabelaisian imagination. His surrealistic style appears at times as a forerunner of the “magic realism” found in the later works of Latin American authors such as Gabriel García Márquez. The often bizarre characters that populate his fiction are highly entertaining and yet offer a singular and disturbing perspective on the historical and political events around them.
These grotesque and absurd elements in Grass’s work comprise a major dimension of the satiric thrust that fuels his sharp social and political criticism. His intent is to raise—through satire, humor, and outrage—the reader’s consciousness concerning politics and society. Grass’s work represents in this regard what the French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre called une littérature engagée, a literature that directly addresses the pressing concerns of society. This author’s active participation in the political issues of West German society has been an extension of the import of his writings. For future generations, Grass will be remembered as a highly talented artist who sought to take a stand on the problems that confronted his nation.
Cunliffe, W. Gordon. Günter Grass. New York: Twayne, 1969. An overview of Grass’s major works as of the late 1960’s. Provides a good introduction to major themes in early Grass. Contains notes and bibliography.
Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass. London: Methuen, 1985. An excellent critical introduction to Grass’s writings up to the early 1980’s. Contains notes and a bibliography.
Hollington, Michael. Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1980. This is a scholarly study that examines the sociopolitical themes of Grass’s writings and personal life. Contains notes and a bibliography.
Leonard, Irène. Günter Grass. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1974. This is an introductory monograph on Grass’s works up to the early 1970’s. Contains notes and a bibliography.
Miles, Keith. Günter Grass. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. This is a scholarly study of Grass’s major texts (up to the early 1970’s) that presents reasonable critical discussions of important themes and issues. Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Reddick, John. The “Danzig Trilogy” of Günter Grass: A Study of “The Tin Drum,” “Cat and Mouse,” and “The Dog Years.” New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. An excellent scholarly study of Grass’s well-known novel trilogy. Contains notes and a bibliography.
Tank, Kurt Lothar. Günter Grass. New York: Ungar, 1969. An introductory study that is dated but still useful. Contains a bibliography.
Willson, A. Leslie, ed. A Günter Grass Symposium. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. An excellent collection of scholarly articles that explore various aspects of Grass’s work up to the late 1960’s. Contains notes and a bibliography.