Grass, Günter 1927–
Grass is a West German novelist, playwright, poet, painter, and sculptor. His novelistic sensibility is primarily a comic one, and his exuberant, fantastical, fugal fictions are completely unique. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
[Grass's] plays … are essentially images seen with the eyes of a painter who is so obsessed with his images that they also seek expression as poetic metaphors; a lyrical poet so eager to see his metaphors come to life that he is compelled to write for the stage. Or, to put it differently, so vivid were the images in the painter's, the poet's mind that they had to start to talk in dialogue….
Grass's subject matter, the degradation of Germany in the time of Hitler and in the aftermath of war, is sordid in the extreme. And in his writings—poems, plays, and novels—he never tries to evade the most direct confrontation with these nauseating facts. But because he deals with them so directly, with the total lack of self-consciousness, the innocence of a child, the disgusting facts can be accepted without the physical reactions of disgust that would make them intolerable as the subject matter of an artist's vision. Brecht spoke of naïveté as one of the most precious of aesthetic categories; Grass possesses that innocence of vision to a degree unparalleled by any other writer of our time.
It is the vision of a Douanier Rousseau, a Paul Klee. And Grass's plays can best be seen as images from that sphere brought to life on a three-dimensional canvas….
It has been said that Grass's dramatic works lack the documentary quality, the descriptive, autobiographical detail that he incorporates in his novels. But this, to me, seems to overlook the essential difference between the narrative and the dramatic form. If Grass wrote plays filled with details about his early years in Danzig he would be producing naturalistic drama wholly at variance with his own artistic personality. In the novels it was possible to combine the most abundant autobiographical detail with the wildest flights of grotesque fantasy. There is no time in drama to preserve both of these elements. Yet, precisely because the dramatic form demands more conciseness, more concentration, because it makes Grass confine himself to a limited number of images in each of his plays, it brings out his lyrical quality, the quality of his vision as a carrier of images. Nor is it a coincidence that each of his long novels contains passages written in dialogue and, indeed, that these dialogue passages could be performed in the theatre: the episode of the nuns on the Atlantic Wall from The Tin Drum was staged in Düsseldorf, the discussion chapter from Dog Years at Munich.
Indeed, for a writer of Grass's chaotic and anarchic exuberance as a storyteller, the dramatic form provides a most salutary discipline; on the other hand, the dramatist is to a much greater degree in the hands of his directors and performers. His plays' relative lack of success in the theatre may well be due to the difficulty of finding the right style for their performance. Grass himself has criticized the timidity of German producers in tackling unusual works like his plays, and there certainly is some substance in these strictures. His play The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising did indeed cause a stir, but here the more topical—and more sensational—subject matter played its part. For in this play Grass managed simultaneously to attack the sacred cows of Eastern and Western Germany, which is no mean feat….
Günter Grass is a committed writer; it is one of the most...
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hopeful signs for the future of Germany that her leading literary figures have broken with a long-standing tradition that artists of all kinds should keep aloof from politics. However fantastic and unrealistic Grass's plays may appear at first sight, the social comment is present and very much to the fore: inFlood there is a powerful warning against any nostalgia for the times of calamity and camaraderie; the murderer in Mister, Mister and the murderous teen-agers have obvious implications for members of both generations in present-day Germany; in The Wicked Cooks there are clear reflections of power struggles and intrigues; even the slight, parodistic curtain-raiser Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo can, ultimately, be seen as an attack against illusions, a plea for realism in looking at the contemporary scene. There is thus no split between Grass the author of seemingly abstruse, absurdist plays, and Grass the indefatigable campaigner for the Social Democratic party in the German elections of 1965 and 1966.
Martin Esslin, "Günter Grass the Dramatist" (originally published in a slightly different version as an introduction to Four Plays, by Günter Grass, published by Harcourt, Brace & World), in his Reflections: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1969, pp. 143-50.
Local Anaesthetic … is worth reading by anyone who still thinks there is a dividing-line between "the novel" and "poetry." It adds up to a very powerful and remarkable picture of one man's mental landscape, and not just any man chosen at random but the characteristic sensitive and intellectual inhabitant of West Germany. All the social realities and the uncomfortable historical legacies are there; on the other hand, the continual switching into and out of fantasy, and the pivoting of the story on enormous symbols, take it right out of the domain of that kind of documentary or social-realist novel that would have been, twenty years ago, the natural way of dealing with this kind of subject. Towards the end of the book, there is a passage in which the hero seems to be recollecting the experience of helping his student to set fire to the dog, and being attacked by the crowd, dragged away by the police, thrown into a cell, etc., etc., but there is no indication of any kind whether these things have actually happened or whether he is daydreaming. This, like the T.V. commercials presented by his ex-fiancée, is simply an example of the kind of thing that, whether it takes place or not, fits naturally into the mental, moral and emotional atmosphere the hero is living in, and which is the real subject of the book.
The dachshund blazing to death in front of the cake-eating ladies, the unattainable girl lying wrapped in cellophane in the deep freeze—these are metaphors, and the ability to communicate primarily in metaphor has generally been thought of as a mark of the poetic mind. Aristotle thought it the special distinguishing mark of the poet that he could create original metaphors, which presumably means that Aristotle would have classed Local Anaesthetic as a poem.
John Wain, "A Salute to the Makers," in Encounter, November, 1970, p. 59.
The density of Grass's writing derives in part from his documentation—for instance, the naval expertise in Cat and Mouse and the faustball and ballet material in Dog Years—though at times this documentation appears to be posing as a sort of autonomous allegory. In the new novel, Local Anaesthetic, there is a fair amount of technical information about dental methods through the ages, and about geology, and more than a fair amount (for its relevance is more dubious) about the manufacture of cement….
Generally in Dickens, documentation—what a person does for a living, where he lives, his favourite food and drink—is properly indistinguishable from characterisation—what a person is. And there is less room for inoperative material in this relatively short novel than in the mammoth Dog Years. Dog Years was a notably energetic work: as in The Tin Drum, a lot was going on even if some of the activity remained enigmatic. By comparison—by comparison with other novels by Grass, for when all is said, he is one of the very few authors whose next novel one has no intention of missing—Local Anaesthetic is a little on the tired side. Admittedly, that is inherent in its theme: a wearied, worried bafflement, the apparent homelessness in the affluent state of passion and ideals, even their possible dangerousness. After all, an Economic Miracle isn't as hateful as a Master Race in arms…. If the citizens have their eyes glued to the idiot-box, then just remember the commandants of concentration camps who read Hölderlin or played Schubert sonatas. The plump ladies stuffing themselves with Torte in the Konditoreien along the Kurfürstendamm are not a pretty sight, but are they moral monsters? 'Freedom of choice and second helpings. That's what they mean by democracy,' says a thin-skinner student….
Grass has been most courageous. He has turned from the meaty material of Nazism and post-war moral chaos to the stolidly triumphant bourgeoisie of today's Bonn and West Berlin, from 'de-demonizing' the Third Reich (if that was what he was up to, and personally I never found him that cosy) to Chancellor Kiesinger and the aforementioned undemonic Ku'damm cafés…. My God, it almost seems that, but for the Americans misbehaving in Vietnam, we could all live at ease with our consciences for the first time since…. Grass's subject here is essentially this: what does St. George do when the local dragon is 'relatively' not such a bad beast and the villagers are not especially terrorised by it? Yet dragons are dragons—and do we want St. George to lay aside his sword and let it rust?…
We don't need these concluding words to persuade us that Grass has not sold out to the comforts of comfort, the complacency of middle age, the ethos of 'I'm all right, Johann,' the convenient silence of the mouth-stopped cake-eaters. And, pace Time Magazine, I see no evidence [in Local Anaesthetic] that he believes in 'the apparently helpless and surely tragic bankruptcy of liberalism'. He has simply noticed that clean sweeps leave a lot of room for more dirt, that revolution exacts a very high price for its problematical benefits.
D. J. Enright, "Always New Pains" (1970), in his Man is an Onion: Reviews and Essays (© 1972 by D. J. Enright; reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Co. and Chatto & Windus), Open Court, 1972, pp. 96-102.
A Bildungsroman requires that outer events transform themselves into casual factors in the development of a character. This is not at all the case with Oskar [of The Tin Drum]. He does not change. The stopping of his growth and the gratuitous toleration of a small increase in growth do not derive from experiences with society or reactions against it. Oskar imbibes parts of the social but owes nothing to society. He relates to it like a free-loader and pirate not like a zoön politikon….
Oskar Matzerath as a "monad without windows." As the self-reliant individualist who views society merely as an object. Oskar Matzerath without "faith, hope, and love"—to quote the horrendous title of the last chapter in Book One. It is all quite clear: the narrative account completely resists the attempt of a critic to take seriously the ideas of the literary theorist Matzerath and his role as hero of a conventional novel. Oskar is neither a hero nor a character of a novel as he himself understands the norms of the traditional novel. The essential meaning of the book will be missed if one wants to understand it—and in this way to be taken in by Oskar's ideas—as an epic account.
This is not what The Tin Drum is. And Oskar is not an individual in the sense of Tom Jones or Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom or Baron de Charlus. Oskar is an artifice in a completely new and momentous sense. His existence in the novel is an artistic process that keeps itself as far away as possible from simulating any kind of "nature." The ingredients of this artifice gradually become visible. Above all, Oskar is pure awareness that can manage with a minimum of corporeality. To compensate for this awareness, he had already demonstrated a high capacity for reflection to protect himself while yet in his mother's womb, and most definitely from birth up to the present. The awareness intends to reveal as little as possible and to resist pressures of society….
Since Oskar does not have any emotions and, aside from small crises of the nerves and attacks of sensuality, would like to remain pure consciousness without communication with things social, it must be assumed that Grass is attempting to portray a special social pattern with the help of a supposed hero who is fit for neither the Bildungsroman nor the picaresque novel.
Oskar as an artifice is important chiefly as a location and standpoint, and this is at the far end of normal human dimensions. Oskar sees only the bottom of everything. He is the gnome, the perpetrator, who is neither seen nor heard. In this way he avoids (along with his author) the difficulties that the realistic narrator of the old school encounters, who can portray the actions of his characters only the way the general public is able to see….
[In] writing the novel The Tin Drum, Grass wrote the satirical novel of a modern version of a man of the Enlightenment with the help of his grotesque artifice…. [If] one wants to speak about tradition in the first great novel by Grass, one is most compelled (as far as form is concerned) to think about Laurence Sterne, Jean Paul, and E. T. A. Hoffmann….
It is most typical of the comic-satirical novel that the narrator, or rather the author, sets up a secret agreement with the reader by occasionally shoving aside the persona who is supposedly reporting the events as though he were a hindrance. This is done—behind the back of the chronicler—in order that the author may address the public himself….
[But the] forms of the grotesque and satire, of irony and humor, demand distance. They never allow the narrator to lose himself completely in the narration. Only a novelist who prefers not to use a narrator as function, and yet cannot do without one (as in the case of Flaubert), will strive to present the story by itself and nothing but the story, a narration without a narrator. But a novel such as The Tin Drum, which is concerned with functions, needs the interplay between narrator and reader—mostly with the help of a persona, often in contrast to the persona.
Hans Mayer, in his Steppenwolf and Everyman, translated and with an introduction by Jack D. Zipes (copyright © 1971 by Hans Mayer; reprinted with permission of Thomas Y. Crowell Co. Inc.), Crowell, 1971, pp. 184-88.
Satire …, especially in the grotesque mode, prevails in Grass's treatment of the more blatantly political subject matter in [The Tin Drum]. But Grass is protean in his use of other materials and devices. Closely related to the author's views on Hitlerism is his emphasis on history: Through historical summary, anecdote, place legends, superstitious lore, allegory, myth, and symbolism, Grass tries to convey the reality of living through a certain continuity of events in historical space and time—"great" events which in their totality are no more but no less real than the mishaps and the fortunes of the individuals in the historical continuum….
Making the characters a part of history forces Grass to raise, at least indirectly, the question of whether they have free will or are moved by social and political currents beyond their control and in consequence bear no moral responsibility for their actions. In The Tin Drum, unlike his stance in Dog Years and in The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, Grass evades giving a clear-cut answer to the question by presenting the entire narrative as the artistic recreation of a possibly disordered and certainly immature mind. In a novel which, regardless of the elaborate pose of objectivity, is one long j'accuse, this evasion is a moral inconsistency and possibly an artistic flaw. However, two arguments may be advanced in defense of this evasion. First, Oskar has been called a moral monster; he is not one, but he may be schizoid, as is implied by the frequent shifts in viewpoint between the first and third person, and throughout most of the book he is definitely a child who, when he reaches thirty, is still far from being full-grown, physically and mentally….
Second, despite his concern with history, Grass presents history as meaningful only in its effect on individuals. In one of his essays he criticizes Hegel's theory of history as a "fatal guide," and in his fiction he is indifferent to any alleged laws or principles of historical development that might lighten the individual's load of responsibility. This indifference is consistent with his general distrust of systematic ideologies.
This distrust is part of his artistic as well as his political credo. He felt no obligation to present positive alternatives to the situation of Oskar and his society. In suggesting that involvement is better than withdrawal, Grass scarcely goes beyond Camus's The Stranger….
The theme of involvement and withdrawal likewise dominates Cat and Mouse, a novella in which, as in The Tin Drum, the problem involves religious belief as well as psychological growing up. But the political element is always present, though often submerged. Again Grass has constructed his tale in the form of a reminiscence written long afterward by a major character, a framework that allows the author to present all judgments as provisional….
[The] overtly political content of Dog Years is greater than in his two previous novels. As a whole, the work still lies within the tradition of the realistic, panoramic novel, but the political and religious allegory tends to dehumanize the characters; their voices tend to merge into the single voice of the author. Moreover, much of the social and political satire is aimed at language and ideas rather than at actions—for example, the many parodies of Martin Heidegger. In an author less brilliant at re-creating scenes with vivid, sensuous detail, the increase in allegory and parody might be a gain; in Grass it is a net loss.
This tendency to talk and allegorize more and to re-create less may have developed because Grass's increasingly political orientation drew him into a task beyond even his powers, nothing less than awakening the consciousness and conscience of the entire German people by offering a cross-sectional history of the German middle class before, during, and after the war….
Grass seems to imply that one ingredient of the new Germany is art perverted by technology and industry, which, thus perverted, helps to create a grotesque, materialistic caricature of what a society should be. The social and political satire of the postwar leaders who base their policies on the predictions of the mealworms is specific and relatively good-natured; the satirical allegory of the scarecrow mine is far-reaching, savage, and much more radical than anything Grass has said in his nonliterary speeches and writings.
Since the 1965 campaign, Grass's art has come progressively closer to undiluted political discussion—with results not altogether pleasing. The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (1966) had a promising theme: a theatrical producer and playwright (inspired by, but not a portrait of, Bertold Brecht) who refuses to support the East German workers' uprising in 1953 partly because it is badly planned and partly because it is not good theater. However, like Brecht's weaker plays, The Plebeians bogs down in longwinded discussion, and it was coolly received by reviewers and audiences. Davor (Therefore), which opened in West Berlin early in 1969, is reportedly little more than a series of interconnected dialogues, largely on political and philosophical themes….
Though the juxtapositions of episodes and dental conversations [in Local Anesthetic] are often comic in their incongruity, the speech and narrative lack the baroque richness and excitement of Grass's prose in The Tin Drum or even in parts of Dog Years. Moreover, Local Anesthetic lacks the multidimensionality of his earlier fiction: The Tin Drum was a religious and a picaresque novel as well as a political novel and a Bildungsroman. Finally, as reviewers of Local Anesthetic have noted, Grass is here too often content to state his views in discussion rather than to embody them in description, action, or characterization….
The content, or substance, of Grass's work has always included ideas consonant with his belief in practical reform rather than in doctrinaire programs of either the left or the right. One commits a logical fallacy in saying that Grass's increasing preoccupation with the role of the artist as militant citizen has led him to overstress political themes in his work with the enthusiasm of the doctrinaire liberal and to impose the form of political discussion on his raw material quite arbitrarily rather than making a genuine attempt to overcome its "resistance"—that is, doing full justice to the complexities, nuances, and grotesque elements latent in that material and which he actualized so effectively in The Tin Drum. But whatever the causes of this doctrinaire imposition, the effect has been a debilitation of his art.
Norris W. Yates, in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 215-28.
With the rise of Nazism, the German artist became dramatically implicated in his historical milieu. This implication is one of the chief concerns of the works of Günter Grass; the artist-heroes of his novels find themselves in difficult and finally contradictory positions, vis-à-vis their contemporary society, so that they typically have to engage in a series of disguises or changes of identity in order to survive. From one standpoint this is simply a variation on the familiar theme of the modern artist without an identity; at the same time, the cliché was made more pointed and even grotesque by the impact of Nazi history. More important, however, is that Grass is writing in the tradition of the Künstler- and Bildungsroman and, more specifically, in the wake of Thomas Mann; as such, he is very aware of how the artist has been used symbolically, particularly in Doktor Faustus, as a means of voicing and representing the essential forces at work in German history and culture. As in the traditional Künstler- and Bildungsroman, the artistic careers of Oskar in Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] and Amsel in Hundejahre [Dog Years] interact with and symbolically epitomize the circumstances and the structure of German history and culture; at the same time, however, Grass has given new dimensions to this interaction and symbolic relationship.
Oskar's relationship to his historical milieu is exceedingly difficult to define. At one extreme, he is the kind of person whom the Nazis persecuted ruthlessly because of his physical deformity and counterfeited mental retardation; indeed, he is threatened once explicitly with such persecution, and the possibility of his extermination is always in the background. At the other extreme, he becomes at one point in his career an active collaborator with the Nazis, for he works in a propaganda troupe on the Atlantic front, and, just after the uprising at the Polish post office has been brutally quelled, he allows himself to be "rescued" by the assailants, while remarking that he, Oskar, "zählte sich zu den Heimwehrleuten" [that he, in other words, was counting on the "folks back home"]….
Bebra [his Meister] tells Oskar that, given his dwarfed body, he cannot afford to remain passive during the coming times; if he does so, he will doubtlessly be destroyed by the Nazis. Instead, Oskar must compensate by assuming somehow a more active role in society than he has yet done. In this way, he becomes a highly comic realization of the unconventional artist's dilemma during the Hitler years, for, if an artist did not fit the Nazi idea of what he should be, he had to assume some kind of false identity in order to escape persecution. Oskar's comically literal response to this advice from Bebra comes shortly thereafter; he drums waltz time under the rostrum of a Nazi gathering in what is, as he argues it at least, an aesthetic rather than a political protest against the Nazis….
[As] Oskar plays the role of both persecuted and collaborating artist, he reveals in the kind of art he practices traits which smack both of fascism and what fascism rejected. On the one hand, his narrative style may be seen as often marked by a cruel aesthetic elitism…. The maintaining of such elitist aesthetic distance, one of the most essential forms of Oskar's language, and the attempt to see poetic beauty in death and destruction are familiar forms of fascist rhetoric….
At the same time that Oskar is using this rhetoric, however, he is also criticizing it; by calling attention to what he has done and by being so callous as to suggest that he could footnote the number of the Polish dead, he screws his statement up to such a point of brutality that we cannot help being aware of the grotesque image it makes. In making use of a form of fascist rhetoric, then, Oskar similtaneously becomes a type of artist which the Nazis loathed: a satirist, a parodist, a negator.
Behind this dualism in Oskar's voice lies a deeper paradox; Oskar embodies and simultaneously deflates the myth which the Nazis built up about the nature of the artist. This myth was itself self-contradictory, as the career of Oskar shows us; at the same time the Nazis habitually venerated artists and poetic vision in their propaganda, they persecuted and censured them in actual fact. More important though is the fact that, under Hitler, art and politics were identified in an appalling way; the fascist dictator was seen as the counterpart to the poet, in that they both possessed a vision which elevated them above their fellow men and the unpoetic restrictions of rational thought….
[On] a deeper level, we can see Oskar as an inclusive symbol for Nazi Germany; he is an exemplification and a parody of the chief elements that lie behind the Nazi mythology of art and society. The Nazi attempt to achieve a creative unity of members of the Aryan race in which social unity was also artistic wholeness involved … a willful rejection of rationality in favor of some deeper mythic, emotional, and somehow poetic bond. Viewing the Nazi era in retrospect, we see how such an attempt would have two chief tendencies, both of which we find in Oskar's parodic rendering of them; it would represent, on the one hand, a willed regression, reflected in Oskar's choice to remain a child and in his consciously grotesque infantilism, and, on the other hand, the willed assumption of a state close to madness, reflected in Oskar's present status, as the inmate of a "Heil- und Pflegeanstalt." Here the irony of Oskar's position comes full circle: by embodying the essential aspects of Nazism, he becomes a creature which the Nazis, with their persecution of the insane and deformed, would have sought to exterminate. Moreover, through his paradoxical character he provides us with a broader portrayal of history than either a patently fascist or antifascist artist could: he is both what the Nazis were and what they rejected, and he simultaneously presents to us in his narrative the Nazi dream and the Nazi reality.
Ann L. Mason, "Günter Grass and the Artist in History," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 347-62.
In this century of analysis, when the obsessions of interior fantasy become the objects of medical, scientific and literary research, is it any wonder that those old practitioners of dream witchcraft, storytellers, should turn to autobiography and begin to debate fiction and fact? The publication within the last few years of two stunning books in Germany, diaries of Günter Grass and Max Frisch … which defy conventional boundaries between the novel and personal narrative, convince me that we are witnessing the creation of a new genre, a literature inhabited by creatures with the mouth of human confession and the loins of beasts, fabulous wing or haunch. Of course, it has its antecedents, Kafka's diary, Dostoyevsky's, but these were not conscious attempts to set autobiography and fantasy before the reader in deliberate collage. Certainly among the poets we have seen this introspective charting.
Whatever its predecessors, Günter Grass's From the Diary of a Snail is an astounding new book. In the next breath I must say that this yoke of fiction and biography does not entirely work but the attempt is masterful and through long passages it sounds the humanistic clarion of the melancholy angels, Camus, Orwell. The form is bold as if in one structure, the diary, to house the three mansions of these predecessors, story, autobiography, political essay….
Throughout the book creeps the snail, as image, metaphor, magical talisman, presiding beneficent deity; the emblem of Grass's faith in the patient invisible inching forward of mankind to a better world, justifying his efforts in the election campaign, mocking our pretensions of "Superman," reminiscent of Kafka's cockroach in The Metamorphosis, but with a certain sly low-to-the-ground humor that laughs away the latter's despair and sets us back on the road, moving by infinitesimal degrees forward with wry and "earthy" satisfaction….
It is more than just another book—an event in the fall of 1973, a diary which we must all inhabit, make part of our own biography. Not only are the events of 1939 and 1969 set in parallel, but again and again Grass reminds us how the sirens tempt us to leap into intolerant, righteous charge on the horse of the Apocalypse. So the storyteller with his bitter, ironic parable sings the fall of the old animal heroism, blood lust, and would make us adopt a new heraldry, self-depreciating and humble to the point of comedy, snail.
Mark Jay Mirsky, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 23, 1973, pp. 1, 8-9.
Writers nearly always imagine it is easy to be a reporter, not to speak of a moral philosopher. The latter is simpler. One of the hardest things in the world is to describe what happened next.
Perhaps because of this, because his great gift is for fiction, Grass's Germany, the Germany he bravely stumps for Brandt, bringing the good word about old-age pensions, comes out gray and flat [in "From the Diary of a Snail"]. He is doing this for the young, for their own good: the writing takes on a nervous finger-shaking quality, as though he knew perfectly well, under the gloom and goodwill, that it is no use telling children what they are to remember.
Mavis Gallant, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1973, pp. 4-5.
Günter Grass addresses his newest book, "From the Diary of a Snail" …, to his four children. The eldest of my four children once, under the illusion that she could turn pebbles into jewels, acquired a bright little machine that, loaded with gray sludge and plugged into a socket, revolved and tumbled to a hypothetical lustre whatever bits of the material universe were put inside. That curious device (now defunct) offers the best analogy I can think of to Grass's present authorial method. The gray sludge is "fug" or "melancholy"—the leaden aura of staleness and inertia possessed by compromised, relative, muddled, hashed-over, snail's-pace reality. The electricity is Grass's phenomenal energy, not only intellectual but personal, soulful, human; however farfetched his fancies, Grass (like the not dissimilarly mustachioed Kurt Vonnegut) convinces us that his heart remains in the right place. The bits of rough matter are whatever obsessions he finds simultaneous within him: in this book, snails, children, hermaphroditism, Dürer's print entitled "Melencolia I," the fate of the Danzig Jews, the suicide of Manfred Augst (real), the adventures of Hermann Ott (fictional), and the 1969 West German elections, wherein Grass contributed nearly a hundred speeches to Willy Brandt's successful campaign. While functioning, Grass's narrative engine, like the polishing machine, seems inexhaustible and distinctly unmusical, at least in translation. Though my daughter's polisher ran for days and weeks without stopping, the rocks and shards inside never shed, along with their incidental roughnesses, the core of obduracy that makes sea-smoothed stones so dryly disappointing when arranged on the summer-cottage mantelpiece. And when "From the Diary of a Snail" stops shuddering and churning, what tumbles out, though of a certain sheen, is not a work of art.
Not that art is overtly aspired to. "From the Diary of a Snail" began as a Sudelbuch, a scribble book, a book of jottings Grass carried with him on the campaign trail: "My entries come to me on the road…. I mean to speak to you by roundabout bypaths: sometimes offended and enraged, often withdrawn and hard to pin down, occasionally brimful of lies, until everything becomes plausible."…
Upon this campaign diary Grass permits to intrude—or has imposed in two years of revision—a number of other concerns, tales, devices, and designs….
What we want from our great imaginers is not fuel but fire, not patterns but an action, not fragmented and interlaced accounts but a story….
In fairness, and with no aspersion on the efforts of Mr. Manheim [Grass's translator], who for all I know has done the best of all possible jobs, one feels that exceptionally much has been lost in translation. The poems flung into this diary must be better than they seem. For every piece of wordplay that is explained in a footnote, there must be several too delicate to unravel. Grass's curious trick of unpunctuated word-triplets ("bitter tired finished," "went stood lay") must appear less gratuitous in German. Throughout, the skin of words feels a little raw in English, as if it lacked the epiderm of intelligent verbal nervousness, of voiced sensitivity. And of course the many references to contemporary political figures strike chords muffled here. We do not so much read this book as overhear it: a German is speaking to Germans, intimately and urgently. For Grass, in addition to the universal duties of a writer, has the local duty, with all the German writers of his generation, of guarding and barring the path back into Hell.
John Updike, "Snail on the Stump," in The New Yorker, October 15, 1973, pp. 182-85.
Reading "Diary of a Snail" made me think of Grass as a hairy Thomas Mann, with smelly feet. He has a similar sense of meaningful congestion. His interrupted literary style makes you feel like your mind has a bad cold, but it is a cold which could be the occasion for an important re-ordering of the psychic life. But caution: it's like whole-grained bread—you chew it reflectively and put it down often. Too hasty ingestion and its rough richness may interfere with your stomach.
Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1973 by The Village Voice, Inc.), October 25, 1973, p. 33.
At no point of Günter Grass' heady career as contemporary Germany's most powerful and widely read novelist has it been possible to fit this clowning but desperately earnest maverick into any conventional literary slot. Not for him the Olympian detachment, high seriousness and smooth narration that was once the earmark of German novelists. Instead, Grass has recaptured the cruelty and remose of 20th-century German history through a tumultuous, unsparing manipulation of fantasy, fairy-tale nightmare and the appalling reality of the grotesque: in The Tin Drum, the dwarf Oskar Matzareth's magic drum beats out the dread Nazi years in his own disruptive rhythms; in Dog Years, the subterranean army of mechanical scarecrows waits to unleash its Grimm vengeance on the postwar world; the teenager Mahlke, in Cat and Mouse, with his monstrous Adam's apple, desecrates the Iron Cross—to the horror of piously nationalistic German readers. Nothing has delighted Grass more than to turn his countrymen's passion for Ordnung upside down and let the past tumble guiltily out of the nation's pockets.
Most recently, in Local Anaesthetic, a novel deliberately meant to set the reader's teeth and soul on edge, Grass turned to the smug present-day prosperity of the "economic miracle" to dramatize the generation gap between jaded, enervated liberalism and chaotic, revolutionary youth. There, more than ever, he refused to make any conventional concessions to his readers….
A chatty, helter-skelter potpourri, From the Diary of a Snail contains an embarrassment of truncated, unassimilated riches that do not always prove their worth. In part, the work is a manual on the anatomy and mating habits of the snail—the novelist has always had a passion for facts—submitted both as Grass' self-image ("I am the civilian snail, the snail made man … with my tendency to dwell, hesitate, and cling") and as a symbol of true progress ("It seldom wins and then by the skin of its teeth. It crawls, it goes into hiding but keeps on, putting down its quickly drying track on the historical landscape … far from well-situated theories, skirting retreats and silted revolutions").
The book is, moreover, a short history of German Socialism….
There is, however, an excess of tedium involved in plowing through everything that Grass has thrown indiscriminately into From the Diary of a Snail. If a subtle order to his selection and arrangement of details exists, it is impossible to tell. Furthermore, Grass indulges in breathlessly incomplete sentences, to no discernible purpose…. There is too much … mannered coyness, too much about snails and electioneering and food, too many cute children's questions with heavily ironic answers.
Yet it is not the whirl of miscellaneous dailiness that eventually defeats the reader, and certainly not Grass' moderate, antiapocalyptic, antiextremist position on social change, which is altogether admirable in its robust sanity and responsible intelligence. What ultimately drags him down is the book's lazy anything-goes organization, a formlessness that resembles a random-entry notebook. One's attention is forced to shift gears so frequently, and without warning, that the work becomes blurred, difficult to read, and not worth the effort—except, that is, for the too-brief novelist's story of Doubt.
Pearl K. Bell, "Of Mollusks and Men," in New Leader, October 29, 1973, pp. 15-16.
The eponymous hero of [From the Diary of a Snail] engages in a melancholy symbiosis by collecting rare and lovely gastropods, just as Grass collects odd stories, recollections and conversations which strike his moonish fancy during his campaign progress through the Federal Republic. The structure of the piece is that of self-reflectiveness, a vain and necessarily incomplete process which does less than justice to the tokens and ideas which swim to the surface of the ordinarily unembarrassed and unselfconscious mind. But for Grass it is the staple of his 'fiction' (it takes little effort to dramatise ourselves right off the teeming surface of the world) and he has taken yet one more step backward by creating an alter and ulterior ego, a factoid, an untruth expressly designed to behave like the truth and resurrect the prone and melancholy self….
[The] voice drones on, endlessly analysing, dissecting the facts of its own inadequacy. It is as if the will were seeking some kind of identity with history, an aspiration at once weighty and futile. The book is Germanic in just that sense, and it can be terribly dull.
Grass invents himself everywhere, but none of his pieces will fit into anything but the meretricious mood which would only last a moment were it not cosily ensconced within the generalisations of the scholars. His political persona is no more plausible—and it is to his credit that he seems to realise this—than any of the more imaginative personae who are dreamt and then forgotten. Even that image of the snail as unconsidered but remorseless destiny bears precious little meaning any more, just as the snail of dialectic can only make its way by wreaking violence and twisting the world all out of recognition. Everything becomes the figment of system, and it is only when Grass's backroom weariness emerges and the heat of Utopia has cooled that the whole business is seen for the transparent fraud it is. It is ironic to note, of course, the publication of this swan-song in the week that Willy Brandt goes down at the hand of secret services, managers and technocrats. This must seem another weight on Melancholy's shoulders, as Grass sits bent double over the typewriter, the ladders and globes and scales refusing to come together even for that one line which offers the promise of his wholeness, and the forgiveness for whatever private nightmare is consuming him within this book.
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 18, 1974, p. 614.