Günter Grass Grass, Günter (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grass, Günter 1927–

A West 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, replete with puns and word play. He received the Georg Büchner Prize, Germany's most prestigious literary award, in 1965. Grass once studied to be a painter and sculptor, and now illustrates his own works. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Keith Miles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Günter Grass is the most consistently interesting and disturbing writer at work in Europe today. With his prodigious talents, unmistakable voice, alarming energy, wayward genius and sheer physical presence, he has made himself a tremendous force in modern European literature. He has faults, naturally: as befits a great writer, he sometimes has great faults. But—as he himself might say—this much is certain: for the German novel he has once more gained an international audience. (p. 11)

The facts of Grass's life have been repeatedly recorded in his fiction. In the Danzig Trilogy—The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years—the suburb of Langfuhr is presented to us with such ferocious devotion and in such meticulous detail that we almost feel we could find our way around the area like residents. (p. 12)

Yet Grass is not an autobiographical writer in the sense that O'Neill is in Long Day's Journey into Night or Joyce is in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Grass begins with familiar events and places, but then transforms his own experience into highly artistic fiction. What may start out in the realm of fact can quickly and deftly be developed in terms of allegory or fantasy or legend or fairy-tale. Grass's emphasis on his personal history is not merely a case of providing a firm, recognisable basis from which his novels can take flight. It has two other functions. In the first place, that personal history is offered as a set of credentials—"I, too, born almost late enough, am held to be free from guilt. Only if I wanted to forget, if you were unwilling to learn how it slowly happened, only then might words of one syllable catch up with us: words like guilt and shame; they, too, resolute snails, impossible to stop."… Grass wants to hide nothing. (pp. 12-13)

[Grass] is obsessed with the historical process itself. The present is an extension of the past and quite inseparable from it. Furthermore past and present can co-exist…. Grass's preoccupation with the importance of history and antecedent informs his whole creative approach. In the Grass universe, everybody has a pedigree. (p. 13)

[There is a bold arrogance in the theme of The Tin Drum (1962)]: an investigation of a whole, sensitive period of German history, a forbidden area as far as many of Grass's countrymen were concerned. Grass is not the only author to reconstruct the story of the nation from the last days of the Weimar Republic through the horrors of National Socialism and on to the war. Heinrich Böll in Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959) deals with the same subject matter. Böll, the realist, the committed moralist, the radically Christian observer of the human condition, gives us a work of subtlety, irony and compelling craftsmanship. It appeals to the mind, and occasionally to the heart. The Tin Drum, on the other hand, assaults the intellect, the soul and the emotions, makes impossible demands on the reader, leaves him exhausted. Billiards at Half-Past Nine confirms our prejudices against Nazi Germany with skill and humour and is oddly reassuring; The Tin Drum explores the darkness beyond our worst suspicions and is constantly unnerving. Böll contrives something approaching a happy ending. Grass's ending spreads unease. (p. 22)

[A] feature of Grass's first novel which places it apart from, and above, any competitors is the quality of its language. The vitality, thrust and range of Grass's language is stunning. He writes freely and convincingly in a bewildering variety of modes—a dialect, schoolboy slang, biblical parody, officialese, idiom, literary allusion, fairy-tale, dramatic dialogue, prose-poetry—and yet manages to blend them into a single, coherent mode. Here is no Thomas Mann, writing graceful, detached prose, which is marked by its linguistic refinement. Grass has an immense gusto for words themselves and uses every device in the language, sometimes out of sheer enjoyment. Yet he never permits himself to be completely overwhelmed by his love of language. (pp. 22-3)

Grass the poet wears a variety of hats; he takes on the roles of lyric poet, educationist, jester, moralist, realist, surrealist, traditionalist, experimentalist. His poems can evoke the light-heartedness and delicacy of a Paul Klee or the nightmarishness and abrasiveness of a Georg Heym. They can be playful celebrations of innocence or grim reflections of experience. They can reproduce the exterior world or exist in a realm of their own…. [Grass is able] to wear all the hats at the same time, to fuse the disparate personalities into one. The artist does not vanish when the political activist speaks: the jester does not disappear in the presence of the moralist. It is the characteristic feature of Grass's poetry that it finds a way to make each cap, separately and simultaneously, fit. (pp. 25-6)

What is being established [in The Railroad Track Triangle (1960), a volume of poetry,] is the autonomy of the object, the supremacy of the thing. It is a concept which is fundamental to all of Grass's work and which accounts, in his poetry, for the proliferation of such objects as beds, door-bells, hats, mirrors, chairs, tables, cigarettes, scissors, spoons, forks, musical instruments and so on. Grass objectivises everything, even language itself…. (p. 31)

His third volume of poetry, Questioned [1967], is no essay in didacticism. The illustrations may have taken on a more savagely realistic shape, the number of poems which relate to political issues may be considerably higher than in the two previous collections, and the title-poem itself may be unequivocally about the modern German; but the volume is still pre-eminently the work of a remarkable lyric talent. (p. 33)

Grass the poet is indistinguishable from Grass the dramatist. The same principles inform his approach, the same bewildering variety of hats is worn. In a much-quoted discussion in 1961, Grass explained that poetry, plays and prose were, for him, all built upon dialogue. The transition from the lyric to the stage play was thus smooth and natural: Grass wrote poems in dialogue form and elaborated upon them. This process is at its clearest in the plays Flood and The Wicked Cooks, which have their origin in poems from the first and second collections respectively. It accounts for the strengths and the weaknesses of Grass's earliest dramas. (p. 35)

Rocking Back and Forth [Grass's first play] is an ingenious, inventive play, propelled by a simple idea. It has wit, satire and surrealistic values which recall the poems. Its shortcomings are equally obvious. It is too theoretical, too discursive, too pointlessly obscure. (p. 37)

The autonomy of objects is stressed even more forcefully in Grass's next play, Onkel, Onkel (1956). Like its predecessor, this four-act play reveals genuine anarchic talent which specialises in the grotesque. (p. 40)

Grass breaks all the rules of playwriting in order to argue [in Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo (1957)] that the rules must be broken and scrapped and ignored if art is to make any meaningful progress. In its precision, invention, concentrated imagery, sureness of control and uninhibited fun, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo is the most effective and appealing of Grass's early plays.

The Wicked Cooks (1957) is an altogether more ambitious play, and one which is prefigured in the poem, 'Chefs and Spoons'. Grass's obsession with cooks and with cooking is proverbial. Metaphors from the kitchen have eaten hungrily into his poetry, prose and drama. The Wicked Cooks is a scarifying but irrepressible allegory in five acts. (p. 44)

There is no surer guide through the undergrowth of Grass's first novel than that which he himself provides in his title. For The Tin Drum is primarily about just that. It is not a study of Oskar Matzerath and his problems: it is a novel about the tin drum and its relationship to Oskar. Throughout, the drum stands central. It is the key symbol, the main-spring of the narrative, and the controlling influence on the imagery and style of the work…. [The] drum is at once an organic part of Oskar, and something quite separate which has to be strapped on to him; a gaping red wound, and a proudly-held weapon: a source of vulnerability and a perfect protection. The drumsticks, too, are both organic and separate: monstrous growths or bone-like sticks held by the embryo hands. The duality is even more pronounced in the figure of Oskar. He is at once simple and complex, child and adult. The pointed hat and the apparel suggest a dwarf, but the face is that of a baby. Malevolence competes with innocence, protest with pathos, freakishness with normality. The novel starts here, with this striking demonstration of realism at one with surrealism. Imagine the drawing without the drum, and one realises how much it contributes. (p. 56)

The Tin Drum is, at bottom, a hymn to individuality, and Grass counters the flatness and sameness of Nazi Germany by introducing a host of highly individualised characters. He indicates the enormous loss which takes place in human terms, when any organisation imposes uniformity from above. (p. 73)

Objects dominate [The Tin Drum]. They control, influence, symbolise...

(The entire section is 3867 words.)

Leonard Forster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For most readers Günter Grass's work is so dominated by the Danzig trilogy that it is difficult to see what he wrote after it in the proper perspective. (p. 56)

The Danzig trilogy is an attempt on a grand scale to explore how things came to be the way they are now—an exploration of 'unbewältigte Vergangenheit.' This is a subject which is easy to treat in general terms and in so doing to allow it to escape into vagueness, leaving unexplained precisely those things which need explaining. Grass insists on the concrete, the detail, the apparently unimportant trifles which are the stuff of life for most of us and which gradually add up to something more impressive than mere abstract generalities…....

(The entire section is 2074 words.)