Günter Grass 1927–
West German novelist, poet, playwright, and artist.
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 other 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, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
The Tin Drum has been called a picaresque novel, a Bildungsroman, and sheer pornography. In a famous account of modern German literature, Grass's style is described as "naturalistic … with an alloy of surrealist gags," and as "the attempt at a 'black' literature in Germany." I should like to approach his novels primarily as satires and to begin by considering The Tin Drum from the points of view of folklore, myth, and above all of literature. Certainly it is a work of linguistic art…. (pp. 129-30)
Basically the grotesque gnome Oskar Matzerath is an artist, and as such, mainly a satirist. People cannot resist the magic rhythms of his drum: he has the impact of a bizarre Orpheus; his spell is more powerful, though less sinister, than that of the magician Cipolla in Thomas Mann's Mario and the Magician. Further, his own voice has telekinetic power…. Thus Oskar cannot only enrapture the masses; he can destroy and sabotage, and often does. Sometimes he acts out of sheer mischief: he often indulges in satire for satire's sake. Yet in his major performances he destroys, or at least ridicules, the meretricious and corrupt. (p. 131)
Oskar's far-reaching voice makes one think of Apollo; and it should be no surprise that the dwarf combines, in his own scurrilous way, Apollonian and Dionysiac aspects. Needless to say, Grass's use of mythological allusions is not highfalutin. Neither is it obvious, but it is there. For one thing, a writer so steeped in Joyce's work and obviously familiar with Mann's would not be likely to eschew the employment of myth completely. (p. 132)
A destroyer of shams, conventions, or anything else that annoys him, Oskar Matzerath is pretty clearly a miniature Apollo. As we know from the Iliad, Apollo, when angry, is formidable indeed: he slaughters his victims from afar…. Similarly, Oskar directs the music of his drum or his piercing voice against anyone who has incurred his anger or disapproval—whether a relative, a schoolteacher, or a particularly unpleasant Nazi. Only images of Jesus and the Dove prove invulnerable, but Oskar is annoyed, rather than religiously moved, by this circumstance.
His greatest feat, however, is a Dionysiac one. He refused to join the spectators in front of a grandstand where the Nazis are about to stage a political demonstration, for his friend Bebra has told him that "people like us"—artists, that is—belong on the grandstand, not in front of it. But typically, he approaches it from behind—seeing its seamy side, so to speak—and then takes advantage of his tiny stature to slip underneath the stand, drum and all. Here he deliberately sabotages the celebration by striking up "The Beautiful Blue Danube" from his hiding place. There is loud laughter; many of the spectators join in. The color blue suffuses the whole place, Grass tells...
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us; the nationalistic songs of the brown shirts are driven away. When the Nazi leaders (Grass uses their actual names) approach the speakers' stand, Oskar strikes up even bluer music, a Charleston, "Jimmy the Tiger." All the spectators begin to dance; the occasion is ruined, from the Nazi point of view; but the squads of SA and SS men sent to look for socialist or communist saboteurs never suspect that a whistling three-year-old child is the culprit.
Since Oskar's drum is apparently only a toy, few people take it seriously: he is an artist among Philistines. (pp. 132-33)
Whatever his vices, Oskar … is basically concerned with finding and expressing the truth. We recall that, at the age of three, he deliberately arranged the accident which made him a dwarf for life—or so he claims. Better to remain an outsider, a grotesque cripple, than to grow into a Philistine or a Nazi. In fact, there is a hint that Oskar's eventual hospitalization corresponds to his own preference: he would rather retreat into a metaphorical hermit's cell than be involved in the teeming but to him boring activity of the Federal Republic…. (p. 134)
To turn to The Tin Drum as a verbal work of art: one may best characterize it, I believe, as baroque. This long, rich book is full of the violent contrasts, the extreme tensions which we generally ascribe to that style…. While there are scenes and images of great beauty—like the evocation of the January night in the chapter "Show Windows"—the language inevitably tends toward the grotesque. Of course Oskar's presence alone would account for that; his love affairs are particularly bizarre. Grass is addicted to picturing eels in a remarkably repulsive way, and his descriptions of vomit are almost literally emetic. His sense of death and underlying evil resembles that of the seventeenth century or the late Middle Ages. At the very end of the book, a sinister black cook is evoked; she seems to symbolize guilt and may remind us of the black spider in Jeremias Gotthelf's novella of that name. For all his sense of comedy and wit, Oskar is whistling—or rather drumming—in the dark. (pp. 135-36)
Although The Tin Drum is basically a satirical novel, it has another, in a sense tragic, aspect. There is much concern with guilt, with Oskar's loss of innocence, and with related themes. When he changes from a dwarf into a small hunchback, he realizes, perhaps even exaggerates, his responsibility for the deaths of his mother, of Jan Bronski, and of his putative father, Matzerath…. At the end of the novel, Oskar is no longer primarily the satiric genius and rogue, but a man heavily burdened by his past.
In its title, Cat and Mouse (1961), Grass's novella recalls the cat-and-mouse situation typical of Kleist's dramas: the protagonist, like the Prince of Homburg, Alcmene, or the Marquise of O―, is cruelly played with by a stronger power (or person), though he may eventually fight his way to salvation. Further, a central symbol of the novella is the Adam's apple of the protagonist, Joachim Mahlke, which happens to be exceptionally prominent…. I believe that the interwoven, and typically Kleistian, motifs of cat and mouse and Adam's apple provide the key to Grass's story. In the first paragraph of Cat and Mouse one of his schoolfellows encourages a young cat to leap at Mahlke's twitching Adam's apple while he lies resting, apparently asleep, and the characteristic motifs recur consistently.
To turn to the action of the novella: it too is set at the time of the Second World War. Joachim Mahlke is an unusual youth, extremely brave, ambitious to a fault, and rather grotesque in appearance. He is tall and very thin, with an embarrassingly large Adam's apple. (There is said to be a belief among German schoolboys that this protuberance is an index to the sexual powers of its possessor. Although the actually highly sexed Mahlke is the most chaste of his group, the familiar association of apple, sin, and sex is clearly established.) In any case, his Adam's apple stamps the protagonist as a marked man. (pp. 138-39)
Grass has "distanced" the story by making a personal defeat, not some Nazi crime, the occasion of Mahlke's defection. It is nevertheless, I believe, a moral parable. Joachim Mahlke is a person of quite exceptional will power and courage. He also has more than his share of the "old Adam," but generally he keeps it in check: normally, he is downright ascetic. Here of course his devotion to the Virgin is relevant. His greatest strength—and weakness—is his extraordinarily competitive spirit…. Typically, the appeal to competition is responsible for his only indulgence in one of the less attractive forms of adolescent sexual play. An obscure sense of rivalry also leads him to steal the officer's decoration; characteristically, he confesses the theft voluntarily. Clear now about his own motives, he can win a cross of his own. In his eagerness to blot out his disgrace by appearing at his old school, he is abnormally sensitive: the director's refusal amounts to the end of his career. Fate or the era is playing a cat-and-mouse game with him.
Symbolically seen, the Knight's Cross represents to Mahlke a talisman, in fact a sort of "antiapple," which makes the embarrassing "apple" or "mouse" on his own throat irrelevant. When, however, he realizes that the way of life represented by that decoration is false, he throws it—and presumably his life—away. By so doing he saves his soul—to use an expression which Grass might find old-fashioned. Mahlke is the most admirable person in Grass's fiction, and the narrator … is impelled by a persistent guilt complex to write about his friend. We have no way of knowing whether the mouse Mahlke would have survived in a time when the cats were less cruel and vicious. (pp. 140-41)
Equally ambitious and almost equally long, Dog Years is darker in tone than The Tin Drum. It treats the same period, and most of its action takes place in the same areas: the territory of the Free City and the Rhineland. In fact, Oskar and his drum are mentioned several times. Its overall structure is more complex: there are three sections, each with its own narrator.
The other side of the coin is that Dog Years is less sharply focused than its predecessor. For one thing, the dog, or rather the succession of dogs, is not as potent a centralizing symbol as is Oskar with his drum—and with all respect for dogs, one must say that the dwarf is much more interesting than they. The second novel is harsher and less distanced than The Tin Drum. At times, the satire is heavy-handed, as in the account of the rumors circulated about Hitler's dog Prince after the Führer's inglorious demise. Yet Dog Years is a rewarding, many-faceted, and important book. (p. 142)
The plot of Dog Years is basically simple: we read of boys growing up in and around Danzig, of the impact of Hitlerism and of the war, and of the postwar period. Perhaps the most interesting figure is Walter Matern, who protects his gifted, half-Jewish friend Eddie Amsel from bullies, but later betrays him. After the war, Matern, filled with guilt and anger, takes grotesque revenge on all the former Nazis he can reach. Amazingly enough, Eddie Amsel survives; his nickname in the third part is Gold Mouth: Nazi bullies, including his ambivalent friend Matern, have knocked all his teeth out.
The most striking aspect of the book is Grass's phenomenal virtuosity of style. Adroitly rotating his narrators, and repeatedly shifting the time of the narrative from around 1960 to the days before the war and back again, Grass revels in parody, puns, and other Joycean devices. (p. 143)
Usually exuberant, sometimes excessively wordy, Grass's style can be concentrated and nervous. At times, to avoid banality, he breaks off a sentence before its end, leaving the reader to infer the rest…. Grass is indeed a man of many devices, and often his verbal arabesques and baroque flourishes obscure the narrative line.
Often fantastic though he is, Grass includes realistic, even naturalistic touches. To recreate the atmosphere of the Danzig region, he brings in local history, mythology, and superstitions. Frequently he has recourse to dialect. He names actual persons and firms…. (p. 145)
Yet, as in The Tin Drum, it is the major symbols which really take us to the heart of the matter. The first important one arises from Eddie Amsel's hobby of constructing grotesque scarecrows…. Although Amsel's creations do actually frighten away the birds, they are essentially artistic renderings of his own experiences: he portrays in them people he has met and even records in scarecrow form an incident in which his schoolmates, already anti-Semitic, beat him cruelly. Surrealistic though these unusual mobiles are, they are based on nature: he feels that they are part of nature. Amsel's most important constructs, however, are images of SA men…. While the ordinary, obedient Germans appear as dogs, the Nazis are scarecrows, monsters. Amsel also plans to build a giant, phoenix-like bird which will always burn and give off sparks but never be consumed—a symbol of the creative artist, and perhaps of his own survival.
As the strength of the Nazi movement increases, in the second part of the story, so does the number of swastika flags along the Danzig waterfront. Eventually the war breaks out. The dog motif becomes more important: nasty little Tulla, so called after a mythical figure … repeatedly sets the dog Harras on an inoffensive piano teacher. Prince, the puppy Harras has sired, is trained by the Danzig police and then presented to the Führer. For her part, Tulla, shocked by a swimming accident, regresses for a time into sheer animality: she spends a week in Harras' kennel, sleeping there and sharing his rations. Dog years indeed! (pp. 146-47)
The symbol of the prophetic meal worms—they live in a bag of flour belonging to Matern's father—is of a farcical sort. These worms can foretell the future, so leading industrialists and intellectuals make pilgrimages to the house of old miller Matern, who becomes more and more prosperous as the "economic miracle" continues. Finally the East Germans kidnap the remarkable little animals. All this may seem—or be—excessively farfetched, but I believe that Grass is satirizing a vein of superstition which still persists in Germany. (p. 147)
The most successful symbol … is the magic spectacles which play a decisive role in the radio program…. These eyeglasses, produced in great quantity by the mineowner Brauxel—as Eddie Amsel now calls himself—enable young people to see exactly what their elders did in the Nazi years. Thus when the ten-year-old Walli sees Matern through the spectacles he has just bought her, she screams and runs away—and Matern is by no means the worst of his generation. Such eyeglasses are indeed easily available in Germany today—in accounts of the trials of Eichmann and other criminals, in movies, in dramas like The Diary of Anne Frank and The Deputy, and of course in innumerable books. The chasm between the generations could hardly be wider and deeper. It is a bitter but inevitable situation. (pp. 147-48)
Henry Hatfield, "Günter Grass: The Artist as Satirist," in The Contemporary Novel in German: A Symposium, edited by Robert R. Heitner (copyright © 1967 by the University of Texas Press), University of Texas Press, 1967 (and reprinted in a different version as "The Artist as Satirist: Günter Grass," in his Crisis and Continuity in Modern German Fiction: Ten Essays, Cornell University Press, 1969, pp. 128-49).
Günter Grass's Die Blechtrommel may be read as a novel which proclaims the death of Faust as a hero in literature by showing the degeneration of the Faustian ethos. Such an interpretation is based on Grass's point of view and style in the novel, on the life of Oskar Matzerath and, most significantly, on the novel itself as a social document.
Grass's point of view remains largely consistent in that everything is seen from the obverse side, from the perspective of insanity, and from below. (pp. 174-75)
Grass's tale is … told from "below", from the perspective of a midget looking at giants, of a child looking at adults. This point of view is the Froschperspektive…. The saint seated on a pillar sees everything from above with an Olympian—one is tempted to say Goethean—detachment. Oskar, like a frog, is small enough to hide where others cannot see him or catch him and he thus turns his small stature to good advantage, accurately seeing and judging the adult life around and above him….
Oskar's behaviour is thus exactly the opposite of that of the Faustian individual, who wishes to break out into the open. (p. 175)
Grass's style is also energetically concrete and often scatological. His obsession with things leads him towards minute descriptions, towards long, rhythmic catalogues of objects, towards animating the inanimate (cf. the statues of the Christ Child or even of Niobe, or the vibrant scars on Herbert Truczinski's back). Following Grass's own lead, critics have attributed the source of Grass's Dinglichkeit to the influence of Melville's Moby Dick. This is true enough, but Grass's concreteness seems to me to stem from a more pervasive intent. Dinglichkeit is Grass's reaction to a German tradition of abstract thinking and writing, whose most notable practitioners in the modern German novel are writers like Mann, Musil or Broch, and whose most notable practitioner in the realm of thought would be a philosopher like Hegel. Hegel, of course, with his convoluted syntax, extremely abstract vocabulary and relentless drive towards totality, towards the synthesis of the infinite and the finite, could be called a Faustian philosopher par excellence. Grass is concerned to fight against this heady brew, for he believes that such "romantic" idealism might become twisted into dogmatic ideology—as was the case with National Socialism.
An important characteristic of Faustian literature in general, … is its relative humourlessness. A hero so initially dejected and so dominated by the high seriousness of his quest, by such matters as the transcendence of human knowledge, the drives towards an infinite variety of human experiences, and later the frightening prospect of eternal damnation, is not likely to joke about it all. National epic heroes like Faust are not likely to be comic heroes. This is why the tone of Grass's novel is so important an index of its meaning. Humour and parody in Die Blechtrommel turn the novel into a mock-epic, or an anti-epic; and since Die Blechtrommel is a profoundly German novel, it attacks the epic hero of the German nation, Faust. However, instead of directly attacking the literary figure of Faust himself, Grass criticizes both the notion of the hero upon which the Faust story itself is based and the cultural ethos behind Faust. Furthermore, not only does Grass write a novel with definite characteristics of the picaresque …, but he also parodies the mythic cycle of the hero, the Bildungs- and Künstler-roman, the Aryan hero of the Nazis, Hitler himself, and certain aspects of German life and behaviour during the Nazi era. (pp. 176-77)
Oskar's search for inner space and for the underside of tables and rostrums also indicates a desire to realize his infinity inward and downward since attainment in the outer realm seems impossible. In this regard, he resembles Kafka's heroes, who live under the compulsion of getting inside something, of striving, for instance, to get either into castles or into courtrooms. A crucial difference, however, between Kafka and Grass is that while Kafka's heroes (and perhaps Kafka himself) still take the Faustian world seriously and are oppressed and depressed by it, Grass's heroes assume a stance of irony and mockery towards it.
The life of the Faustian hero—indeed in Goethe it ensures his salvation as well—is governed by Streben. But soon after birth Oskar decides to reject the petite bourgeoisie and a life in which striving to succeed is fully expected. At the age of three he implements his decision with a remarkable triumph of the will: he simply stops growing. This kind of omnipotence as the result of will-power is a central feature of the Faustian hero. And yet, Oskar's act also represents an Anti-Faustian triumph over time. Whereas the Faustian hero may wish to transcend the limitations of time, Oskar simply chooses, between the ages of three and twenty-one, to stop time. Whatever else Faust would wish, he would not wish to stand still. Since Oskar remains a three-year old child, and since without growth he cannot become an epic hero, Grass's use of the heroic and epic tradition has a parodic effect.
Like the Faustian hero, who is tempted and guided by Mephistopheles, Oskar is also tempted by Satan as well as by others. Satan, however, is not as ever-present in Die Blechtrommel as he is in Faustian literature. Other guides for Oskar might include his sexual mentors, among them Maria, Roswitha Raguna and Mrs Greff, or the midget Bebra, who is a parody of the guides and tutors in the Bildungsroman and perhaps of Mussolini also. Most important in a discussion of the Anti-Faustian in Die Blechtrommel are two men, Goethe and Rasputin, whose works and lives comprise the entirety of Oskar's reading material when young. These two, Oskar recognizes, represent respectively the Apollonian and Dionysian elements in man (the echo of Nietzsche cannot be missed here). (pp. 178-79)
The uncertainty of Oskar's national identity recalls that of Hitler, who, born in a border town between Austria and Germany, felt pulled by both countries…. At times, Hitler was even directly associated with Faust, and Oskar may be considered a parody of him. Oskar's parentage, like Hitler's lineage, was uncertain. Oskar's height exaggerates the difference between Hitler's short stature and the height of the ss troops around him. Of course, the dwarf's blue eyes and yellow hair mock the ideal image of the Aryan Superman. Perhaps the most striking detail, however, linking Oskar and Hitler is that throughout much of the 1920s and '30s Hitler was referred to as "the drummer". (pp. 179-80)
There is more to the analogy of Hitler and Oskar as drummers, for they are both, in their own ways, artists, and Die Blechtrommel is thus a parody of the Künstlerroman. Oskar drums, sings, sculpts gravestones (in itself an art of death and degeneration), and in one sense "drums up" Die Blechtrommel itself. As an artist manqué and a frustrated architect, Hitler loved the designing and creation of imposing, wide-open spaces and of gigantic stadiums which dwarfed the common man and yet made him feel part of the vastness of space and of an army of humanity. Equally important was a public attitude which viewed Hitler as an artist who somehow combined the lofty qualities of Poet, Faust and Messiah…. If Hitler can be seen as a Faustian Messiah, then Oskar's numerous parodies of the Christ Child can be considered Anti-Faustian. Grass's attack on the abuses of religious language and ritual can thus be viewed in this context as part of his portrayal of the degeneration of the Faustian. (pp. 180-81)
Michael Palencia-Roth, "The Anti-Faustian Ethos of 'Die Blechtrommel'," in Journal of European Studies (copyright © 1979 Seminar Press Limited), Vol. 9, No. 35, September, 1979, pp. 174-84.
With the deaths of Thomas Mann in 1955 and of Bertolt Brecht and Gottfried Benn in 1956, a major era in the history of German literature comes to an end. These three are not only the greatest writers of their age, they are also its witnesses. Each of them worked in a different genre…. Yet the questions they ask have a family likeness; and the answers they offer remind us forcibly that theirs was an age of terror.
Any author whose literary gifts and moral disposition lead him towards this contemporary turmoil and who tries to come to terms with it creatively, with the best that is in him, is bound to have to face very special formal and compositional problems. These problems are likely to be different for a writer like Günter Grass, who faces the same world at one remove, reporting on the way the dead buried their dead. This is our first premise. The other is that, quite irrespective of that era, the German novel at its most characteristic has not been renowned for its contributions to the 'Great Tradition' of European realism…. Realism as we know it from Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy onwards entered German literature relatively late in the day and has been powerfully challenged by other modes of writing….
Thomas Mann's use of the Bildungsroman … [in Felix Krull] is radicalised to a point of fantasy and farce.
The pattern from which Krull evolves is the picaresque novel which, in German literature, goes back to the 17th century … when Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen published his Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, a novel which, in sharp contrast to the contemporary courtly novel, is set among soldiers, actors, servants, beggars, robbers and whores. There are characters exemplifying the Christian virtues, but the notion of moral and spiritual development recedes behind a rich and colourful series of adventures on the pattern of 'one damn thing after another'. Purposeful teleology gives way to the rule of fortune, spiritual uplift goes hang, cunning for the sake of mere survival is the order of the day, and when salvation does come, it comes in as untoward and unmotivated a manner as do the temptations of the flesh and of the devil. All this, as we shall see, is grist to Günter Grass's mill. The picaro he will create from some of the elements of the traditional rogue novel is as radical a response to Thomas Mann's genteel Felix Krull as Krull is to Grimmelshausen's Simplicius. Very strong affinities of atmosphere connect the Germany of the Thirty Years War, which Grimmelshausen portrayed, with the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s which is the obsessive concern of Grass's 'Danzig Trilogy'. These are affinities which are not encompassed by Mann's imagination, or by the imagination of many writers of Mann's generation apart from Brecht….
[Like] Charles Dickens, Jan Neruda, James Joyce, Theodor Fontane and his acknowledged exemplar Alfred Döblin, [Grass] places his native city at the centre of his creative imagination. Grass's best work so far is given over, again and again, to its evocation: a very special piety ties him to the streets and places of Danzig, its beaches, its inhabitants and their desperate, murderous national conflicts. For even more than the London, Dublin, Berlin and Prague of the authors I have mentioned, Grass's Danzig is an intensely political city….
To paraphrase a sentence of Brecht's Galileo, happy is the country that has no land frontiers. With the conflict of Ulster in the forefront of our minds, we now find it less difficult to imagine the protracted bitterness and violence of the Polish-German relationship that is epitomised in the history of Danzig—the intensity of the passions, the internecine strife of centuries, which come to a head and lead directly to the outbreak of the Second World War in the first days of September 1939, and to the city's death in the last week of that war. The rhythms of the threnody which the narrator-hero of The Tin Drum chants for the city illustrate that special pietas loci which informs Grass's prose, and give us a first idea of its innovatory energy….
The fate of the city and its surrounding countryside becomes, for a boy born of a German father and a Cashubian (Slav) mother, a part of his intimate personal history. As a member of the German lower middle class that was particularly receptive to the new racist and nationalist ideas, at the age of ten he entered the 'Jungvolk', from which he was promoted to the Hitler Jugend, joining a tank regiment as a gunner when he was barely 17. When, at the end of the war, on being wounded, he was taken prisoner-of-war by the Americans, he still felt, as he says, 'that our war was all right.' Then came the shock of a guided tour through the concentration camp at Dachau and the gradual realisation 'of what unbelievable crimes had been done in the name of my … generation and … what guilt, knowingly and unknowingly, our people had brought upon themselves'….
Yet [Grass] acknowledges, in his major works, the need to separate his fiction, not from politics, but from political advocacy. A strong political concern goes through his novels, a deep, mature and tolerant understanding for the predicament of the little man at the mercy of huge political forces. But his understanding goes further, beyond this sort of tolerance, to major satirical sorties against the trimmers and fellow-travellers and profiteers, culminating in that very special grotesque presentation of the horrors of war, and of totalitarian regimes, which yields the most remarkable passages of his prose so far and is his outstanding contribution to post-war German literature. The tolerance that informs his portraits of the lower middle classes must not obscure the fact that he is not content, as many of his contemporaries are, to present the predicament of the individual man as though it were caused by a stroke of fate: it is part of his purpose to show the political sources and consequences of that predicament. (p. 11)
Both [his] interest in the visual arts and the unfussy, easy way in which he moves from genre to genre—creating pictorial patterns and shapes in his literary fictions and complex literary allusions in his drawings—all this ease of transition between different kinds of creativeness is reflected in his prose. Not only that. These transitions have their parallel in the movement of his novels from the present to the past and back again, from the historical to the political, from the concrete to the abstract; and in the disconcerting and apparently arbitrary way in which he is apt to slip from the first- to the third-person narrative, from the point of view of one character to that of another, as though all men, even in their solitude, even in their moments of murderous enmity, were yet unable to deny the fact that they are made of one flesh, consubstantial, and as though the world of things, too, were solid yet not inanimate, an extension of the living substantiality of men. And all this, which I present here as though it were an abstruse, excogitated aesthetic doctrine, is of course nothing of the sort; it is, for him, a literary practice, extensively reflected on, which enables him to match and make his vision of the world. He was 17 1/2 when the war ended in May 1945. The compulsion exerted on him comes, not from the events of the past, but from a recollection of those events. In Grass's early novels it is converted into a prose which turns out to be the only major source of liberation from an unmanageable literary past that post-war German literature has known.
The past as time and life irretrievably lost, and the past in the light of the present; the grand guignol of history and the actuality of its politics; the complex relationship of eros and food, and the special place of the disgusting and the sentimental in the recesses, the oubliettes, of consciousness; the religious and the blasphemous, the pious and the obscene; things, animals and men, concrete objects and conceptual abstractions—all these parts of an acute sense of life are set out in Grass's prose, not, however, in some ghastly Hegelian dialectic of antitheses and radical contradictions, but in continuities and prismatic rainbow patterns.
More than one critic has called Grass a humanist. I am not sure the word has much meaning left. He is one in the sense that there is no human experience too odd, too alien, to be made a part of one of his prismatic patterns. But he seems, as the author of certain substantial fictions, too diverse, too uncompromisingly interested in the fate of these fictions and in the process that gives rise to them—in short, too free—to be classifiable under any -ism or ideology. Literature is made of many different brews and dispositions, in freedom and in bondage, by the most doctrinaire no less successfully than by the least attached. But in his time and place—our assessment has the wisdom of hindsight—in that moment of defeat and dishonour, of shame and the posturing that tried to hide the shame, in that moment when the past could be neither forgotten (though it was denied) nor allowed to paralyse the present, a man without ideology was what was wanted, and Grass was and has remained that man. I mean here not Grass the political man and responsible Bürger of what has become one of Europe's exemplary democracies, but Grass the author of the most passionately contended books in post-war German literature, books which were attacked, not just on moral grounds (like Ulysses or Lady Chatterley's Lover), but also on political and patriotic grounds (like the works of Sinyavsky and Daniel): I mean the author of 'The Danzig Trilogy'. (pp. 11-12)
There are a good many story-lines one might follow through [The Tin Drum, the first novel in the trilogy], but a better way of conveying its extraordinary achievement, and the formal difficulties that lie in the way of that achievement, is to concentrate on a single episode. Before doing that, though, the most obvious objection to the novel … must be faced.
The reader may have gained the impression that here is a fictional monster—or a monster fiction—of six or seven hundred pages where anything goes—heedless fantasy let loose on unresistant material, with no discernible unifying meaning or coherence of any kind. Or else he may suspect that, German fictions being notorious for their highflown metaphysical messages, the critic will now pull the rabbit out of the hat and demonstrate the transcendental meaning of it all.
There is (as far as I can see) no such transcendental meaning or message, and yet the novel is much more than a series of self-indulgent or author-indulgent images and random episodes. Its meaning is to be wrested from its compositional difficulties, and they in turn may best be approached from the perspective of another great favourite of Grass's, Melville's Moby Dick. In the very deeps of that other monster creation you may stumble across a rumination in which the narrator anticipates the charge of self-indulgence and of excessive preoccupation with the customs and the bits and pieces of the whaling craft: 'So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints [!] touching the plain facts, historical or otherwise, of the fishery, they might [scoff] at Moby-Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.' Grass is in a similar predicament. The story he is writing is deeply, irreversibly steeped in the history of its time—or rather, not in that history, but in the crude and gory facts of the past from which such a history will have to be fashioned. These facts are notorious for offering the utmost resistance to interpretation of whatever kind. This is both the experience of readers of a different generation or culture and the understanding which Grass himself has of his national past and which he shares with his own generation of readers. Yet his impulse to write a historical fiction is clearly every bit as strong as the impulse to understand and come honourably to terms with that impossible past: in the creative act the two are to be united.
The work, therefore, is threatened by two difficulties. On the one hand, there is the danger of creating a sequence in which one 'monstrous fable' follows another and the whole ends up as little more than a series of metaphors gone wild. The other, 'still worse and more detestable', is that the impossible past gets swallowed up by 'a hideous and intolerable allegory'.
Again and again, we are likely to return to the question: can the unspeakable obscenity that called itself the Third Reich be fictionalised at all? Clearly, such an undertaking will require a certain imaginative freedom from the past—a freedom which was not available to Thomas Mann and his contemporaries, and which many critics may not be willing to grant. Yet 'unspeakable' is itself a descriptive adjective and a legitimate part of the critic's vocabulary; and it is one thing to say (as some critics have said) that the novel cannot be interpreted, that it is incapable of yielding a meaning, and another to say that its meaning is hedged in with meaninglessness, with the grave difficulty of making sense of apparently senseless horror. True, we cannot interpret the story that is told in its fantastic episodes in simple, unambiguous terms, but this isn't due to some degeneracy of its author's sensibilities (as was predictably claimed by its indignant right-wing critics), but, on the contrary, to the immense difficulty he is bound to face when devising the underlying strategy of his novel. For what it aims to convey is the paradox that the daily practice and horrors of the Third Reich went on side by side with the daily practice and horrors of the ordinary world; that these things were and are and always have been a part of the human situation; and that this knowledge—I mean that monstrosities are human and that humankind is monstrous—must be grasped to the full, undiminished by the lethargy that comes from repetition and familiarity, yet without allowing it to destroy both the feeling of outrage and the capacity for interpretation, the capacity for giving a fictional account of it all. What Grass's novel in its own blasphemous way aims to convey is the paradox (whose supreme illustration is the death of Christ) that everything is ordinary and everything is special.
The two dangers that beset the work may now be restated: it is threatened either by a trivialisation of its material or by a demonisation of it. On the one hand, there is the risk that the metaphors, set out to convey the terrible, 'unspeakable' evil, will turn out to be of an intolerable obscurity, incomprehensibly transcending all mundane experience…. And there is the opposite risk—of the story slopping over into a mood of ghastly tolerance, a mood in which we are asked to accept every infamy as part of the human condition, for no better reason than that (as the great Hegel observed in one of his less great moments) in the night all cows are black, boys will be boys, men will be men and that's how it's always been. These are the two dangers attending Grass's prose when things go wrong. They are reflected in his readers' reactions—a sudden switching over from blank incomprehension to bored déjà vu.
But of course, at its best—as in 'Faith, Hope and Love', the last chapter of the first book of The Tin Drum—the narrative emerges from those twin dangers with supreme success. (p. 13)
[Grass juxtaposes] the horrendous side by side with, but undiminished by, the practices of the ordinary world.
'Ask my pen,' says Tristram Shandy, when questioned about the design of his strange book: 'Ask my pen; it governs me; I govern not it.' What is being undertaken in Grass's equally strange book is something very new but also, going back to Laurence Sterne, very old. However different the mood of the two novels, they both disdain narrative order and live by extravagant metaphor.
We are accustomed to think of word games, situational games, and the detailed working out of bizarre images, as the conceits of humorous novels. But they are not necessarily and exclusively so. Tristram Shandy is certainly a humorous novel, but so, in parts, is The Tin Drum; where the humour of the one shades off into sentimentality, the other veers into tragi-comedy; and where Tristram Shandy is concerned to guy and illustrate causal propositions and absurd inferences from Locke's philosophy, The Tin Drum guys causality and replaces it by verbal association. Its humour and its seriousness are not polarised in some inhuman Hegelian dialectic: they are made continuous with each other, as the everyday and the monstrous are continuous in our experience.
Our conventional terminology, which moves within the squirrel cage of symbols and allegories, won't quite do. Oskar isn't the symbol of anything, just as Uncle Toby or Corporal Trim aren't the symbols of anything. Oskar is what he is, a freak, because freaks alone (according to the logic the author compels us to accept) can be brought into some sort of meaningful relationship with this world—and that relationship is one of metaphors, puns, and of the logic that is built from metaphors and puns. The word-game on faith-hope-love, on the Spirit (pneuma) and gas, Santa Claus and the holy gasman, may suggest elements of satire (German love of Christmas, the Church's comforting concern for the spirit of everyone except those who were gassed, Hitler's role as self-appointed Saviour, etc), but the satirical element is subsidiary to the main undertaking of the novel, which is to match an almost unbelievable, inexplicable past with almost unbelievable and inexplicable metaphors, and thus to make it believable and explain it without reducing its tragic pathos and without explaining it away. And it is an added grace that all this is done without succumbing to that ghastly tendency (so characteristic of post-Nietzschean Germany) to justify and vindicate everything by adverting to a 'tragic view of life'.
There are traces and analogies of a Christian concern in the novel. At their most obvious, these traces are to be seen in the negative religiousness of blasphemy, such as the exegesis of 'Faith, Hope and Love', or the repeated scenes of Oskar Matzerath's imitation of the Christ Child. It is as if blasphemy were the only form of social religiousness available to blasphemous times. But there are also analogies pointing to a religious meaning. The precarious stylistic balance I mentioned, between the obscurity of demonisation and the triviality of 'all's grist to the human mill,' involving a full acknowledgement of the horrors of the past which the creative conscience prevents from turning either into complacent tolerance or annihilating despair—this balance is surely seen at its clearest within such a framework as is provided by St Augustine's exhortation, often quoted 'with particular relish and sadness', as Christopher Ricks observes in his introduction to Tristram Shandy, by Samuel Beckett: 'Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.' If, in post-war literature, other literary ways were devised of coming to terms with the past, without presumption and without despair, I have failed to notice them. So far, Grass's achievement is unique. (pp. 13-14)
J. P. Stern, "Günter Grass's Uniqueness" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, February 5 to February 18, 1981, pp. 11-14.
The term "universal man" has acquired bombastic overtones, but if any of our contemporaries deserves the appellation, it is Günter Grass: novelist, poet, draftsman, sculptor, public speaker and "politician of the good." He has been known as an essayist for many years; it is good to have these literary pieces [collected in Aufsätze zur Literatur]. As was to be expected, he often leaves the realm of belles lettres, especially in "Wie sagen wir es den Kindern?" (How Shall We Tell the Children?), a piece on the persecution of the Jews and its toleration by respectable German citizens.
Again expectedly, Grass combines seriousness with humor and an often biting wit. Thus he writes that the international "organization" of bureaucracy ranks above even the most militant nations…. His style is sharp and rapid, but he is not afraid of going into extensive detail, as in his essay comparing the Coriolanus dramas of Shakespeare, Brecht and himself….
Grass specialists surely know his brief "Looking Back at the Tin Drum" (1974), but it should interest those who may have missed it. It is pleasant to know that the model for Oskar Matzerath was indeed a three-year-old boy fascinated by his toy drum. The essays on Döblin and Kafka and the excursus on Heine are also genuine contributions—fermenta cognitionis. Grass is not a "great critic," but he is extraordinarily intelligent, informed and fair.
Henry Hatfield, "'Aufsätze zur Literature'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 309.
[The Meeting at Telgte,] in Grass's hands, is a novel without dialogue that aspires to instant literary embronzification as the poets squabble in dactyls, mock in metaphor, and surrender to the divine spirit of language in a kind of discourse and triumphal progress of wind instruments through a nutshell. Many pages provoke an Olympian boredom that, in German, may be relieved by the music of language; but in English, too much fades into encyclopediana.
The powerlessness of poets over anything but language and their immortality beside perishable politicians are shown convincingly, with some passages of amusing satire.
Donald Newlove, "'The Meeting at Telgte'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 5, May, 1981, p. 71.
Try to imagine Walter Savage Landor's "Imaginary Conversations" rewritten by John Barth in Restoration English to parody a meeting of the American branch of the PEN club, and you will have a reasonably good approximation of Günter Grass's strange new production [The Meeting at Telgte.]
In early September 1947, a German writer named Hans Werner Richter invited some 15 colleagues to a two-day meeting at an acquaintance's estate in the Bavarian Alps, an occasion that rapidly assumed legendary status in the lore of postwar German literary history…. This informal discussion group, which soon became widely known as Group 47, grew during the next 20 years to be one of the most powerful forces on the literary scene in Germany. Reputations could be made and, more rarely, destroyed at its meetings. The recipients of the annual Group 47 Prize can now be seen to constitute a roll call of many of the finest names among contemporary writers.
Günter Grass, too young to have attended the early meetings of the group, first sat in the so-called "electric chair" and presented his works for critical appraisal in 1955….
For the occasion of Richter's 70th birthday in 1978 Grass wrote the present work, which is not so much a historical novel (or novella) as a celebration of Group 47 in the form of a fictional historical analogy. (p. 7)
Grass has chosen his historical analogy with brilliant precision. In both cases—1647 and 1947—the writers came together out of the rubble of a Germany shattered by a long and devastating war and occupied by troops of several foreign powers….
And the powers seated at the negotiation tables used the occasion for territorial aggrandizement, dismembering in the one case the Holy Roman Empire and in the other Hitler's Third Reich.
The writers who observe these negotiations—the 17th-century poets as well as their counterparts from Group 47—argue about tradition versus innovation in poetry, about the claims of artistry versus political engagement in literature. Both generations of writers are motivated by the need to purify their language—from the foreign words that bastardized 17th-century German and from the crudities of Nazism that corrupted the German of the 20th century. On both occasions the writers, obsessed with reshaping Germany's future, are aware of their relative powerlessness. But Grass suggests that Group 47 was a more effective force because it survived to play a role in postwar German society, whereas the 17th-century poets futilely disperse after the conflagration at the inn destroys their political manifesto….
All in all, however, the story remains a lifeless literary construct. The author, whose unerring sense of place put his native Danzig on the literary map …, has not succeeded in giving us a persuasive Westphalian town of the 17th century. With the exception of Dach and the young Grimmelshausen, whose ebullient novels anticipated Grass's own explosive works, none of the literary figures comes alive. Symptomatically, the liveliest figure in the story is not one of the historical personages but a literary creation—the owner of the Bridge Tavern, who turns out to be none other than that Mother Courage created by Grimmelshausen in his novels and coopted for world literature three centuries later by Bertolt Brecht.
Otherwise the book is diverting as a history of 17th-century German literature, liberally sprinkled with quotations from the works and poetic treatises of the period…. The result may be a delectation for those whose idea of a good time is to curl up with an anthology of Baroque poetry, a biographical dictionary of writers, a handbook of literary terms and a history of the Thirty Years' War. But it is likely to be a mystifying disappointment for American readers expecting another powerful creation on the order of "The Tin Drum." (p. 22)
Theodore Ziolkowski, "Historical Analogy," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1981, pp. 7, 22.
Since his seventeenth-century authors are all historical figures [in The Meeting at Telgte],… Mr. Grass has counted on a German audience's familiarity with them to fill out his quick, simplified characterizations. American readers, barring German specialists, may have some trouble distinguishing one of these hymn writers from another but will have no trouble enjoying their activities. Their critical debates are a wonderful muddle of disinterested aesthetics and self-serving maneuver, and there is much comic irony in the contrasts between their high moral principles and the illegal activities that enable them to survive at Telgte. In a short space, Mr. Grass says a great deal about the cultural importance of literature and about its practical limitations. (pp. 101-02)
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Short Reviews: 'The Meeting at Telgte'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 6, June, 1981, pp. 101-02.
The Meeting at Telgte contains none of the ambitious devices of Herr Grass's earlier novels. There is none of the symbolic machinery of tin drum or flounder drawing the strands of the characters and their narrations together. Instead, at the center of the novel there is a featureless, anonymous, timeless "I"—the author as abstract tricentennial witness.
The narration is in appearance a straightforward account of what was discussed, of poems read at meetings. The writers consider form, subject matter, language….
Although this book has a very crowded canvas, no detail seems irrelevant. It is a powerful historic construction built round one piece of historic invention…. Poets are lights signaling to one another across black distances; so the discussions between them which Günter Grass invents are implicit in their consciousness of one another's work. The Meeting at Telgte fits comfortably into what is plausible as history.
The dominating character here is undoubtedly Christoffel Gelnhausen, an undisguised portrait of the poet and fiction writer Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, with a certain degree of self-portraiture by the ebullient Günter Grass himself thrown in. Grimmelshausen was author of the famous picaresque narrative Simplicissimus, about the Thirty Years War….
Gelnhausen is the embodiment of the violence and rhetoric of the soldier-adventurer-troubadour produced by the time; and he rough-hews the circumstances surrounding his fellow poets during the time of their meeting. (p. 35)
The younger poets in their hay loft contrive to bed down with the tavern's maid servants, changing sleeping partners between dreams. And there is always talk of war and its horrors…. On the outskirts of Telgte, corpses, swollen and putrescent, float down the river Ems, sometimes coupled together in grotesque parody of the love-making of the poets with the maids in the hay loft….
Günter Grass tells home truths about poets in their behavior and their personalities, as applicable to 1947 as to 1647. Perhaps the famous vanity of poets lies in their assumption—and their letting themselves be flattered by the same assumption in others—that they display in daily life the same qualities of discrimination and idealism as are revealed in their poems. But of course there is a disjunction between the poet as man in his life and as man in his poems. The fact is that someone who happens to write poems may have the character he realizes there only when actually writing them—if then. He is indeed only intermittently a poet, much less a perambulating personification of his poetry. At other times he may be an insurance executive or a thug….
Yet with all the debates about prosody and other matters going on here one feels more informed than enlightened about the nature of poets and poetry. Oh for a touch of Virginia Woolf, I found myself sighing at intervals, wading through so much clanking of tankards and brawling in taverns and taking of maidens in the straw. I am quite glad not to be a poet living in the seventeenth century.
Nevertheless this is a brilliant entertainment and there is much to be grateful for. In the end we are at any rate reminded that despite the bustling rhetoric of poets, "poetry makes nothing happen." (p. 36)
Stephen Spender, "Elbe Swans and Other Poets," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 10, June 11, 1981, pp. 35-6.
[In The Meeting at Telgte,] Günter Grass has taken the story of a group of writers who set about the task of seeing sharply, but with a sense of humor, and projected it 300 years backwards in time; which of course, Grass being Grass, enables him to tell the tale more humorously….
[We] have been given a marvellously credible portrait of a bunch of bitching, pedantic, devout, bawdy, gloomy and innocent men struggling to build a new world from the flawed fabric of their minds.
At the centre of the book stands Christoffel Gelnhausen, a version of the writer Grimmelshausen, whose novel Simplicissimus is the rumbustious, iconoclastic ancestor of The Tin Drum; riotous, self-taught, amoral, Stoffel is also Grass himself in green doublet and feathered hat. In The Flounder, Grass gave himself the starring role and popped up, disguised as all sorts of folk, throughout German history; in The Meeting, which is a sort of chip off that mighty fish, he is once again his own best character….
To balance Gelnhausen, we have the landlady Libuschka or Courage, veteran of umpteen battles, giver and receiver of the pox, literary know-all and provider of much poorer fare than we're used to in Grass novels…. The explosive relationship of Courage and Stoffel is what breathes genuine, Grassy life into an otherwise astonishingly restrained book.
Because Telgte is Günter Grass in second gear…. Grass—unthinkable thought—is in danger of sounding a wee bit cosy. But enough carping; even in a minor key, he's still one of the few great ones around, and has written a fascinating, entertaining book. You may wish to consider, while reading it, why the rubble of the German cities yielded up the likes of Grass, Böll and Lenz, while British rubble produced only car parks.
Salman Rushdie, "300 Years of Rubble," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2623, June 26, 1981, p. 21.
There is no room for upperclass pretensions or propriety in Gunter Grass's Germany, no matter the century. And, indeed, one imagines his mind as a farraginous cauldron, simmering with a thick bouillabaise of precisely observed detail.
The Meeting At Telgte, held to create a new order, itself devolves into chaos. The readings and arguments grind on, only to abruptly conclude with the book's shattering climax. The parallels Grass draws between the two centuries are pointed, his weighing of the powers and impotence of poets and poetry equally barbed. The characters, as always, are remarkably drawn, and Grass has shown himself again to be a novelist of both charm and conscience. He is a rarity: a satirist and clown with a deep moral sense, and with enough wit and finesse to act the gadfly rather than the sermonizer.
Erik S. McMahon, "Poets & Politics: 'The Meeting at Telgte'," in San Francisco Review of Books (copyright © by the San Francisco Review of Books 1981), July-August, 1981, p. 16.
The Meeting at Telgte is an imaginary conference of German writers toward the end of the Thirty Years War when, as after another disastrous and unbelievably violent 30 years (from 1915 to 1945) every detail of civilization had been raped, mutilated, and dishonored.
Ostensibly, Grass' gathering of literary people is to assess what can be saved from the rubble. Their concern is for the German language: which dialect is most "German," what authors from ancient times are to be used as models, what literary forms best fit their needs. They think in terms of healing a ravaged language. The answer is that literature needs every form it can have, every kind of sensibility. The most unlikely person at the gathering to figure in German literature is the soldier of fortune, swashbuckler, and knave Christoffel Gelnhausen, a rascal out of the woodcuts of Urs Graf or the pages of Rabelais or Thomas Nashe. He finds the writers an inn for their meeting by emptying one of fat businessmen with a trumped-up tale of plague. He butters up the innkeeper, who is none other than Brecht's Mother Courage herself. He steals the fare for their banquets. And yet, innocent of all the talk about classical forms and diction, he is the one who will write (under the name Grimmelshausen) the 17th-century picaresque novel Simplicissimus, about his own exploits and those of Courasche the Innkeeper.
It is clear that Grass sees himself in this fable as Grimmelshausen…. The Tin Drum is our century's Simplicissimus, with its child protagonist Oskar who is wiser in his childishness than the adults of the Nazi epoch whose identity he declines by simply refusing to grow.
Grass, who dropped out of school at 15, became at once the most archaic and the most sophisticated of German novelists. In a real sense he is the first German novelist of modern times….
So The Meeting at Telgte is a fable about Grass' own world. We can match up the concerns of the Renaissance writers in his story with those of modern Germans: they remain curiously the same. A language belongs to everybody who speaks it. It is the one common bond of a society. Its usefulness, its native genius, its expressiveness are always a reflection of the cultural flexibility and clarity of its speakers. Totalitarianism bruises, constrains, and warps a language. Whatever else writers are doing, they are constantly refining and caring for words. Grass' fable is about how this happens….
Grass shows us how the diction of poetry, apt to be mooney about the beauty of the human body, can be scorched by the sight of corpses choking a river; how music from Italy gives religious grace to German hymns; how theology and politics and philosophy must find words in masters of those disciplines; how shoddy and brutal language spawned by violence must be replaced by words born of sense and decency.
Of all Grass' fables, this is the one that has universal application. We live at a time when the film version of The Tin Drum can be banned in North Carolina as "pornographic"—the film itself being a cry against censors, bullies, and dictators. We are ruled by politicians who will not give a straight answer to any question, for whom language is so much noise. Advertising uses language solely to deceive. Voices from all directions—pulpit, stump, soapbox, little magazine—resemble more the gibbering of hysterical monkeys than rational, skilled human discourse. A Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adjectives is what we need, and Gyms for Trimmer Grammar, and a Crusade against Verbal Sludge. Let's all join.
Guy Davenport, "Gunter Grass: Rebuilding a Ravaged Language," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), August 9, 1981.