Günter Grass Grass, Günter (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grass, Günter 1927–

A German novelist, poet, playwright, and artist, Grass has also been active in the German Socialist Democratic Party. As a representative of the generation of Germans who grew to maturity during the Second World War and a former member of the Hitler Youth, Grass in his work is never far from the problems confronting contemporary Germany. He is a brilliant stylist, displaying a genius for handling a variety of narrative styles. Woven into his work are elements of the fantastic, the grotesque, and the absurd, presented in Grass's exuberant linguistic style, with its flare for puns and word play. He received the Georg Büchner Prize, Germany's most prestigious literary award, in 1965. Grass once trained to be a painter and sculptor, and now illustrates his own works. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Ann L. Mason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grass has repeatedly expressed his scepticism about the use of symbols, associating this mode with Nazi propaganda and with ideological thought in general…. (p. 69)

For Grass, the symbolic mode is tied to the German idealistic tradition. As a result, he constantly devalues fixed symbolic patterns in his works and discovers symbolic equivalents for ideas, traditions, or historical conditions that exhibit simultaneously their relevance and their absurd arbitrariness. Grass both uses and parodies his use of this mode. He makes connections playfully and too profusely, as with the dog in Hundejahre; he makes clear the grotesque discrepancy between symbolic equivalents and the occasions of brute reality, thus emphasizing the inadequacy of the whole symbolizing process. In Hundejahre, the scarecrows, which have so often been identified with the Nazis, are revealed as insubstantial and insufficient to express the reality they represent; in the scene in which Amsel is beaten by the Nazis, his artistic constructions are juxtaposed ironically with the more terrifying image of the assailants…. (p. 70)

Ann L. Mason, in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1976.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Grass's works] deal with the question of guilt, specifically Germany's guilt, but more importantly, universal existential guilt.

The picture he paints, to use his own words, is gray, perhaps depressing to some of his readers, but the reason for the gray is because this color is mid-way between black and white, and therefore closer to the reality which Grass knows is somewhere between evil and good. (p. 436)

"Where's the witch, black as pitch?" sing the unknowing children of Grass. A chorus too aware of this figure's significance chants a response whose mocking echo—Ha, Ha, Ha!—lingers long after the reader has put aside the work in which this character is found, Although she appears in this form only in The Tin Drum, this enigmatic figure does not confine her activity to this one novel, but rather casts a menacing shadow over all of her creator's work….

Those of Grass' heroes who feel pursued by the wicked witch react in a manner typical of fugitives. Now they turn back to face an accusing past, now forward to face the future with all its uncertainty. Such a fear of the past, coupled with an apprehension of the future, cannot help but effect one's present. For Grass, it does so specifically by strengthening the need for confession: "What would Catholicism be without the Witch who blackens every confessional with her shadow?"

In Oskar Matzerath, the author of these lines as well as of his own life's story, Grass has concentrated the multifariousness of guilt, from the guilt forced upon a person by one's peers or elders to that self-imposed guilt whose tracks lie too far in the past for even an omniscient gnome like Oskar to retrace. (p. 437)

Grass' characters … are aware enough of guilt yet ignorant of its origins; hence they are destined to chase an illusory phantom with a multitude of names. On this relentless chase the best one can expect are infinitesimal pauses during which one can forget for a moment one's sense of guilt. There is a danger, however, in this line of thought, namely the danger of confusing such stops along the way with one's destination. In Grass' unique language this would be tantamount to mistaking the "local anaesthetic" for the genuine cure…. (p. 438)

"And he's always running off to pray." The words are spoken of Joachim Mahlke, the reluctant hero of the second part of "the Danzig Trilogy," Cat and Mouse; though they might seem insignificant at first glance, these words nonetheless contain the theme of eternal flight sustained by hope, which is central to Grass' work. The idea expressed here spells the difference between the...

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H. Wayne Schow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Tin Drum has] an epic range in its temporal and cultural matter [and] a largeness of vision which, in its own way, comprehends the tragicomic implications of personal existence and historical development. (p. 5)

In confronting the structural variety and ambiguous richness of The Tin Drum, we find that they … derive from an extraordinary cornerstone—the functional complexity of the protagonist-narrator, Oskar Matzerath, whose creation is an achievement of imaginative and technical brilliance. As a result of Oskar's bizarre stance and strange capabilities, Grass manages to combine features of the most disparate novelistic forms as well as provide multiple perspectives on his social and historical materials.

Grass's most obvious departure from convention was to make Oskar a dwarf and a highly unusual one at that. (p. 6)

Though The Tin Drum is not a historical novel in the strictest sense, it is firmly embedded in a recent, particularized (and for these reasons highly convincing) historical matrix. Oskar's family history through three generations unfolds between 1899 and 1945 in the highly charged political and cultural tensions of Danzig and from 1945 to 1953 amid the post-war contradictions of West Germany…. Such "placing" inclines us to regard him (with certain reservations) primarily as a real person in an immediately real world and, therefore, capable of being influenced by that world. Thus, even though Oskar outrages us frequently, we have some encouragement to sympathize and identify humanly with him. (Perhaps he is so upsetting to us at times, because he seems potentially "one of us"….) (pp. 7-8)

[But Oskar's characterization is not] wholly consistent with the limitations implicit in the surface realism of the novel. Grass has endowed him with several powers of a kind ordinarily encountered only in fantasy, including precocious adult awareness from birth, and the ability to arrest arbitrarily his normal physical growth at the age of three and to commence it again, ostensibly by choice, some years later. (p. 8)

[These capabilities make Oskar] doubly an outsider. Not merely is he a freakish "exceptional child" freed from conforming to conventional patterns of development; almost as if by virtue of his supernatural awareness, unique abilities, and shrewd willfulness he stands above adults in the normal world, marching to his own drumming, exploiting the climate of license in which he moves.

This relationship to society suggests in some obvious ways the stance of the picaresque hero, as critics have frequently noted. Like the Spanish picaro, Oskar stands socially, morally, and to an often surprising extent, emotionally removed from the events around him. He makes his way through the world largely on his own terms, confident in his ability to manipulate and survive. Where the picaro moves up and down the social-class structure, usually in the role of a resourceful servant, Oskar by virtue of his small size and seeming insignificance enjoys considerable mobility and can turn up in the most improbable places. As an observer he enjoys an additional advantage: people around him assume unthinkingly that his arrested growth extends to his mental development as well, an impression he deliberately cultivates. Accordingly, no one pays any serious attention to him, and he comes and goes freely, witness to the most private acts of family, neighbors, and even public figures.

Characteristically, picaresque fiction lends itself to satire because the picaro's mobility provides a wide range of material for satiric attack and an appropriately detached viewpoint. If in The Tin Drum Grass is an eclectic novelist incorporating a surprising number of fictional modes, he is not least of all a satirist. His targets range from the quixotism of Polish patriotism to the morally bankrupt aestheticism of the Nazis; from the petty pleasures of the petite bourgeoisie between the wars to the indulgence of post-war Germans in excesses of guilt; from the shallowness of postwar German materialism to the special lunacies of modern art. For all such subjects, Oskar is a remarkably effective satiristic medium, an advantageously placed reflector of what is outside himself. (pp. 8-9)

Grass himself acknowledged that his novel was indebted to the form of the picaresque novel, in the same breath observing that it was similarly descended from the Bildungsroman…. To see how Grass has spanned these genres is to grasp in part Oskar's psychological complexity. (p. 9)

From his early years … Oskar has been searching for self-understanding in the way of a Bildungsroman protagonist. He is involved in a quest for identity which has intensified...

(The entire section is 1972 words.)

Michael Hollington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Günter Grass's] novel Der Butt (The Flounder) … seems to have put paid to the view that his recent work exhibits a continuous decline from the standard of his first novels….

Despite its characteristic baroque complexity of form the book has many immediately attractive features that make it fairly easy to understand why it has been so successful. It is probably the funniest book Grass has written; it contains some agreeable sensations, titillations, and provocations; and its subject is women's rights.

But it is a great deal more than an opportunistic exploitation of popular contemporary issues. It is at once an original contribution to the form of the novel, a more...

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Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Günter Grass's primary function, from The Tin Drum on, has been to be good for the German people. The Nazis had both etiolated and inflated the German language. Grass restored blood and particularity to it and hurled whole dictionaries at his readers. He did not and still does not write what Thomas Mann would call novels, since naturalistic fictional technique would have imposed on him the duty of depicting with gloomy accuracy the shameful ante and post and bellum times, the alternative being to produce escapist fiction. He has looked at a diseased and convalescent and over-affluent Germany with the eyes of fantasy, that kind termed Rabelaisian, which admits monstrous exaggeration, word-play, mad catalogues, intestinal jokes and noises, allegory, magic, the setting of the historically embarrassing in a context of laughter. Grass and Rabelais meet in a generalized devotion to eating. The Flounder is not a wine and garlic book but a beer and dill one. On one level it may be described as a history of the Baltic lands in terms of food. Grass rightly says that nutrition is the most important thing in the world and that the professional historians ignore it. On another level we can call it a neo-mythical fantasy of the age-old struggle for dominance, now at its height in free Germany as elsewhere, between men and women….

It is perhaps best to take this fantasy … as a celebration of life in all its gross particularity, with Grass still telling the German people to beware of the abstractions that have too often made them flounder in a nordic mist and to consult the needs of the stomach…. Grass makes all his points early and then keeps piling more of the same mash on our plates. I felt full about a third of the way through.

He is not a novelist. He is a fantasist in a venerable European tradition, and he is also a kind of poet.

Anthony Burgess. "A Fish among Feminists," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 13, 1978, p. 1141.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Flounder [Günter Grass] dishes up the history of the German branch of the human race from the end of the Stone Age to the present as seen from the perspective of the digestive tract. Flavored with dill, stuffed with prunes, and awash in beer, The Flounder is a kind of Germanic One Hundred Years of Solitude, a Baltic Ulysses (at least in scale), and fantastic in any language…. (p. G1)

The Flounder is a very European novel, one in the tradition of Rabelais and Beckett, not that of Thomas Mann. It is full of jokes and bawdy stories, allegory and mystery, exaggeration and learning. It has all the trappings of what is described—self-described, in fact—as a "major novel."… Fortunately, it is a bravura performance—it had better be because to fail in an endeavor of such vaulting ambition is to fall flat as … well, as a flounder—by a brilliant virtuoso, a vastly intelligent, sensitive and humane writer with a zany eye for the preposterous. Above all, it is a novel of ideas…. [While] I admire Günter Grass's novel, I found its brilliance more dazzling than radiant; it flashes rather than glows. After finishing it, I felt stuffed, rather like the man in the old Alka-Selzer commercial who exclaims. "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." (p. G4)

William McPherson, "A Fish Story," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 5, 1978, pp. G1, G4.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Flounder is even more epic in conception, if not in scale, than Günter Grass's previous big novels. (p. 57)

[All] major historical periods and sociopolitical phenomena enter into this tale of food and sex and power struggle through the ages. Significantly, no matter how repressed women are in any given time, they manage—usually through cookery—to control their men….

There are nine principal women in [the narrator's] historical past, as well as two more, for good measure, in the near past and present. Those figures, nine and 11, recur throughout the three levels of the work…. (p. 58)

What is this? Is Grass trying simply to outdo Dante's use of...

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Morris Dickstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Flounder" is one of those monstrous miscellanies like Rabelais's "Gargantua and Pantagruel," Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," Melville's "Moby Dick" (a Grass favorite), Flaubert's "Bouvard and Pecuchet," and (in our century) Joyce's "Ulysses," that can take on the guise of narrative fictions but whose wilder energies lie elsewhere—as inflatable vessels of bizarre information, vehicles for all kinds of encyclopedic, mythological, and historical lore….

Frequently these are scabrous and scandalous books, more blatantly obscene than other kinds of fiction—Mr. Grass is no exception here—yet they're also the work of intensely bookish men, anal types, collectors and...

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Nigel Dennis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grass has said that he wrote [The Flounder] as a fiftieth-birthday present to himself, and a birthday present need be pleasing only to the recipient. Much of The Flounder seems to have been pleasing to Grass—a nice change, probably, from all his political involvements of previous years…. It may have been fun fiddling with the number nine and finding other notions to apply it to, such as providing the book with nine sub-heroines who are also nine cooks. But what if none of the nine is interesting to read about? Even the greatest rambling novelists—those who work by whim and self-indulgence—run the risk of being bores; even Rabelais and Sterne, the greatest of the ramblers, are most decidedly bores...

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Paul Zweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like much American fiction of the 1960s, The Flounder represents a variety of what I would like to call kitchensink modernism: form and control are out the window; anything goes, including the kitchen sink, or, in this case, the kitchen stove. Into his enormous stew of a narrative, Grass stirs large chunks of social history, some fanciful anthropology, travelogues, fairy tales, a virtual cookbook of succulent recipes, mock-romantic pastoral, including some of the great mushroom-hunting passages in recent literature (maybe the only such passages), autobiography, contemporary politics, the whole seasoned with a liberal sprinkling of poems about which the best I can say is that they don't survive translation. The...

(The entire section is 513 words.)