Grass, Günter 1927–
Grass, a West German, is a lavishly gifted novelist, playwright, poet, painter, and sculptor. He has lectured and read in the United States and many foreign countries and his graphic work has been exhibited in Germany and New York. He won international acclaim with his first novel, The Tin Drum, an "irreverent treatment of religion, political ideology, and romantic love," and he is still the most widely admired of the German writers who emerged after World War II. Critics generally agree that his subsequent work has been less masterful than that first great novel; nevertheless, all of Grass's work has the character—the exuberance and potency as well as the discipline—of virtuoso performance. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Günter Grass … received the Group 47 prize for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), which earned him a place among the German literary elite. He had made his debut with the collection of verse, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (The Advantages of the Wind Chickens, 1956). In the controversial play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (1966), Grass tries to revive German tragedy. The hero of the drama, named the Boss, has certain characteristics which are unmistakably reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht. The background of this play is the Berlin workers' revolution in 1963. A delegation of workers appears in the theater where the play Coriolanus is being rehearsed and tries to convince the Boss to support their cause. He, however, betrays the workers' revolt by integrating them into his rehearsals as plebeians in a revolution scene of Coriolanus. Thus, he uses the revolutionary reality only as a model for his theater instead of making his theater a model for the revolution. (p. 389)
The Tin Drum along with the short novel Cat and Mouse (1961) and the novel Dog Years (1963) form a trilogy. It is unified by its common background, by the appearance of the same line of characters in each work, and by scenery from Grass's German-Polish hometown. Danzig for Grass fulfills the same function as Dublin did for Joyce: it is the center of his literary universe.
In Dog Years Grass abandons the unusual narrative perspective of the gnome and has a team of authors relate the story. Three men, one after the other, describe their common past and their present situation. The first, Eduard Amsel, is a half-Jew, artist, ballet master, and manufacturer of scarecrows. He tells of his blood brother, the actor Walter Matern, a former stormtrooper and anti-Fascist.
The second part of the novel contains letters of another author in which Grass characterizes three generations of Germans living through the Hitler regime. The third part consists of a report of Walter Matern's wanderings through West Germany. As in his first novel, Grass reveals a fascination for detail which swells the novel to oversize proportions. The shifting of the narrator enables Grass to practice his inclination for grotesque perspectives and situations. Grass proves himself an accomplished story teller although he regularly interrupts the flow of the story to make room for his ludicrous notions and his linguistic gags.
The technique of changing narrators and Grass's absurd humor continue the traditions of the German novel established by Jean Paul and E. T. A. Hoffmann. A second look at Grass's novels shows them to be formally quite traditional. Although critics label The Tin Drum a modern novel of development, it must be recognized as a parody, a metamorphosis of this particular genre. Cat and Mouse is developed along the traditional patterns of the German novella; even the leitmotif can be plainly identified. Certain passages in his novels, especially the description of the attack on the Polish post office in The Tin Drum, compare favorably to the best classical prose. (p. 390)
Diether H. Haenicke, in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971.
Günter Grass is a richly comic writer and a very serious political man: the question, inevitably, is whether there may not be an element of dichotomy in this high-spirited, centaur-like creature. In putting this point, I am not of course arguing that Grass should not hold political views as an artist, should not have freedom to preach them to his fellow-countrymen, until the society in which he lives is either enchanted, or bored out of its wits. Curiously, it is precisely in Germany, thought to be both an unpolitical and unfunny country, that a strong tradition of political satire has developed over the past century….
Thomas Mann is perhaps the obvious master with whom Grass should be compared. Thomas Mann—I am thinking particularly of The Magic Mountain, the Joseph Saga and Doctor Faustus—is the intellectual writer par excellence. And perhaps here the narrow distinction between 'clever' and 'intellectual' can yield a useful point. Thomas Mann is often too intellectual—dare one say it?—for the good of his talent…. Grass's democratic instincts are as deep as Büchner's; and very different from the slightly patronizing Patrician Liberalism of Thomas Mann. Thus, if they are somehow earthier than Thomas Mann's, it is to some extent because Grass is not an intellectual. Yet these grass-rooted (the pun is irresistible) appeals have had, arguably, greater impact on Germany over the past ten years than Thomas Mann's ever had on the Germany of Weimar. (p. 86)
The problem with Mann, as we have seen, is that he intellectualizes everything—often to the point of deliberate self-parody. He is an elegant standard-bearer; but he does not much like mud on his hands. Grass is Mann's antithesis. He does not mind getting his hands dirty—in real life, he has been after all miner, stonemason, and sculptor. His meetings end with beer sessions well into the night—not quite Thomas Mann's style. And he is also, what one can never imagine Thomas Mann being, a superb poet. Interestingly, in the poetry the exuberance is tamed; and this gives rise to the suspicion, not that Grass is lacking in any way in literary fecundity, but rather that he has not yet learnt fully to control it. Here, perhaps, the huge success of his early novels The Tin Drum and Dog Years has not served him altogether well. The German reaction (and the foreign, too, for that matter) was perhaps too over-enthusiastic and the more self-indulgent passages were too easily overlooked. In The Tin Drum the self-indulgence may not matter very much. Grass's subject-matter was basically autobiographical; and he must have seen himself as writing in the tradition of Simplicissimus and, indeed, of the Bildungsroman in general. Still, we are asked to accept some pretty fantastic improbabilities…. (pp. 86-7)
But there are then at least two Grasses: one a surrealist largely orientated to the past, in particular to the past of his Danzig childhood; the second the autobiographer of his own election-trekking in 1969. The latter has a plainer style altogether; and a pack of horse-sense….
Progress, in Grass language, is a snail; the snail of the title [From the Diary of a Snail] can be Willy Brandt's career at one moment and a curative phallic symbol the next. It can stand for much else too—in fact altogether too much. But Grass's is not a Hegelian snail, indeed is very ready to do battle with the neo-Hegelian Frankfurters [Mander refers elsewhere to a recent German literary movement, the Frankfurt School, as a "locust-swarm of Hegelian-Marxists"]….
The satire is hard-hitting, accurate, and amusing. The only criticism that a foreigner might make (but, after all, this is Herr Grass's book, and the German language has its own moods and motions) is that there are perhaps too many in-jokes about the S.P.D. and German politics in general. The average British reader will not know what the (real-life) figures of Eppler, Ehmke, Gaus and many others stand for (just as little as he will know what significance to attach to the 'Danzig' characters in the book, although here the German reader may well be equally mystified). (p. 87)
Grass has become self-indulgent in his prose, probably because of his very virtuosity as a poet. Admittedly, it is usually the other way around. Prose-men shrivel in poetry; poets blossom in prose. But Grass is after all a man with a message: he wants to use words to arouse his countrymen, to help them purge themselves from the musty phrases they have for too long been fed by 'the establishment' (Nazi or otherwise). One may quarrel with Grass's chosen model on this count: the S.P.D. The S.P.D. is as cliché-ridden, tongue-tied, and uncharismatic an organization as one can well imagine…. Yet this mystical-naive belief in the Grand Old Party (the S.P.D. is in fact the oldest of German political parties) must be accepted, albeit with a certain suspension of disbelief, if one is to enter into Herr Grass's snail-world. I do not find this possible myself, and I cannot help feeling that there is an excellent political documentary in this book crying out to be de-snailed and de-slugged and freed of the dubious and tortuous sub-world that Herr Grass has so determinedly shuffled into his political narrative. From the Diary of a Snail is like an enormous epic balancing on a tiny, and somewhat precarious, object—a snail-shell, shall we say? What we have here, perhaps, is the spectacle of the new Grass struggling with the old. Happily, the issue of the struggle is still very much in doubt. (p. 88)
John Mander, "Grass Roots," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.), May, 1974, pp. 86-8.
Snail, I thought at first (as … most reviewers have suggested) restates the thesis of Herr Grass's previous work, Local Anaesthetic: 'the classic question now and then is revolution versus evolution.' Much of the book supports that reading. There is an account of the author's campaign on the stump for Willy Brandt, of the hours at and between SPD meetings…. There are frequent asides about the unglamorous aspects of arguing a social-democratic case while other writers and, as ever, the young are making with the machismo of extreme Left absurdities. There is an extended metaphor about Danzig and the war and the conflict between Doubt and Love, or reason and faith, organised with great vigour and confidence, but which is sustained by Grass's to me unfortunate selection of the 'snail' as the house on which his argument rests.
The intention is clear and perhaps for most the simile of the snail is persuasive. The snail progresses; its slowness is relative. It plays in this novel the role of the dentist's techniques in Local Anaesthetic, slowly building, rejecting violence. And it's an argument with which I have almost complete sympathy. Herr Grass's message, to borrow his description of himself, is as always, in its devious way uncomplicated. He believes in reason against cruel faith, in patience against revolutionary change, in building a compassionate civilisation against the current glib brutalities of bombs. Apart from political fruit-and-nut-cakes, I doubt if most people would quarrel with him. The world, one hopes without too much confidence, has had quite enough of German idealism, of the Hitlerian and Leninist fruits of Hegel. 'It's time,' writes Grass, 'that makes terror habitual: time is what we must write against.'
The snail metaphor is I think flawed….
For example, how would the 'snail' attitude meet any serious crisis in Europe in the next decade? Can social democrats afford to be as quiescent as the simile implies: snails are easily crushed, frequently eaten? How well did it work in that decisive period of our time, in Germany between 1929 and 1933? Then, the Social Democratic 'snail' was insufficiently belligerent, and permitted fascists and communists to conspire to destroy a democracy and some 50 million people. In Ulster, in the past five years, had the 'snail' shown more strength, then it might have been possible to fight off the fascists of all kinds.
Since Günter Grass is a writer of such unusual creative intelligence, I prefer to think that he is not evading these arguments, but that his Diary of a Snail is about something else. About it, as about Dürer's Melancolia 1 he writes:
While I was writing this book for my own and other people's children, in which progress is measured by a snail's yardstick, I was describing at the same time what it is that weighs on the mind: I speak up for melancholy.
Melancholy, he maintains, has been democratised. This is putting his argument crudely, since his depiction of Melancholy on the factory assembly line and on the package holiday tour is some of his most powerful writing. Grass concludes his essay on Dürer:
Only those who know and respect stasis in progress, who have once and more than once given up, who have sat on an empty snail shell and experienced the dark side of utopia, can evaluate progress.
It is a fine and illuminating conclusion for a powerful artist to reach. I find it depressing because the ignorant armies of extremism have not gone away, and one hoped that Herr Grass might have had something more positive to propose. Melancholy is too easy a way out.
John Morgan, "Melancholy Grass," New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 7, 1974, p. 809.
From the Diary of a Snail is a work that attempts much, bearing the load of German history as well as Grass's personal history. American readers unfamiliar with much contemporary German politics will have added difficulty in coming to terms with Grass's book; furthermore the work suggests that the German spirit remains expressionistic or surrealistic. Diary is a hybrid. To use Northrop Frye's terms, the first part of the title indicates that the work is confession; the second part indicates that it is an anatomy. There is deliberate distortion of reality as the major threads move towards fantasy. Grass keeps his readers constantly fluctuating between the two forms, both of which are suited for analysis of ideas, for the creation of a kind of melancholia. The confession recounts the moves of Grass the writer, the politician, the husband, the father; the anatomy focuses on the career of an alter ego, Hermann Ott, also called Doubt, a non-Jewish school teacher loyal to the Jews, who grows up in and survives Hitler's regime. Both characters have an endless fascination with the snail, and so Grass forms countless variations with the metaphor, shocking, arresting, rebuking a Waste Land consciousness…. While the book may perplex at times, it uses metaphor and fantasy in a vigorous way and is a suggestive defense of an artist's involvement in contemporary politics. (pp. 104-05)
Joseph M. Flora, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Winter, 1975.
"Inmarypraise" is, in actuality, an amalgam. It is a poem by Günther Grass. It is a translation of the poem by Christopher Middleton, printed beside the original German text. It is a handwritten version of the poem on several pages in what one supposes is Grass's sprawling, distinctive hand. It is a series of almost surreal photographs by Maria Rama, used as a background of most beautiful sketches and etchings by Grass himself. It is a list of reproductions by Cedric Hentschil. And, finally, it is a layout by P. J. Wilhelm. It is an amalgam at the very highest level, attaining new meanings and new directions in both poetry and book production. (p. lvii)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).