Günter Grass Grass, Günter (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Henry Hatfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Michael Palencia-Roth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. P. Stern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Henry Hatfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Donald Newlove

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Theodore Ziolkowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…....

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Salman Rushdie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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