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Günter (Wilhelm) Grass 1927–

German novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, illustrator, and nonfiction writer.

Grass is generally regarded as the most significant German writer to emerge in the post-World War II era. He established his reputation with three novels, known collectively as the Danzig Trilogy , which present various reactions of...

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Günter (Wilhelm) Grass 1927–

German novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, illustrator, and nonfiction writer.

Grass is generally regarded as the most significant German writer to emerge in the post-World War II era. He established his reputation with three novels, known collectively as the Danzig Trilogy, which present various reactions of the German people to the rise of Nazism, the horrors of war, and the guilt that has lingered in the aftermath of Hitler's regime. These concerns are evident in his most famous novel, Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum), in which the protagonist Oskar Matzerath willfully stunts his growth, perhaps as a response to the horror and chaos he observes. Grass is especially renowned for his exuberant prose style and creative stylistic techniques. In his novels, he combines meticulously plotted, realistic detail and absurd developments to create startling effects. His works accommodate a playful, childlike tone as well as bizarre and grotesque action. Grass has also gained respect for his poems and plays, but his accomplishments in these genres have been overshadowed by the international success of his novels. In recent years, Grass's focus on contemporary aspects of German culture and society reflects his active interest in German politics.

Grass's creative imagination and his artistic sensibilities are strongly rooted in his childhood experiences. The takeover of his home city Danzig by the Nazis was a major force in shaping his youth. Living under Nazi rule, Grass became a member of the Hitler Youth. He saw combat in World War II and became a prisoner of war while still in his teens. The noted Grass scholar Michael Hollington suggests that one reason Grass's fiction often centers on perversions of youth, such as Oskar's refusal to grow, is that Grass's own childhood was twisted by Nazi indoctrination and war. From his mother Grass learned the superstitions and myths of the Cassubians, an old Slavic race whose folklore deals with people who survive through cunning. This influence is revealed in characters who, like Oskar, rely on wit rather than physical stature. When Grass began writing in the years following the war, these elements fused into an original vantage point from which he could examine the culture and history of his people.

The Danzig Trilogy is partly composed of autobiographical material, as it depicts life in Danzig and the city's experiences with Nazism. The themes of guilt and responsibility figure prominently in these works. The Tin Drum, the first novel of the trilogy, brought Grass international fame. Regarded as a stylistic tour-de-force, this picaresque novel combines fantasy and realism, innocence and terror to capture the wildly erratic personality of its protagonist and the brutal events he witnesses. The Tin Drum is also rich in allusions to the New Testament and various myths and mixes prose and poetry. Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse), set during the war, relates the story of an alienated Danzig youth who seeks social acceptance and personal meaning by becoming an athlete and later a soldier; however, his aspirations end in failure and humiliation. Although some critics assert that the novel's allegorical and symbolic substance are too plain, others praise Grass for sensitively capturing the torment and guilt of his protagonist. Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years) incorporates satire, parody, and an examination of linguistics in relating the story of three young men who each respond differently to the rise of Nazism. Grass also includes autobiographical elements in his later novels; many of these works voice his political beliefs. Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972; From the Diary of a Snail), Der Butt (1977; The Flounder), and Das Treffen in Telgte (1979; The Meeting at Telgte) met with varying degrees of success, and most critics continue to view the Danzig Trilogy as Grass's premier achievement.

Grass's poetry, though it receives less attention that his prose works, is generally well regarded. The tone of his poetry has shifted from exuberance and playfulness in his early work to a more restrained examination of moral and political issues. Critics most often praise his command of the language and his linguistic experiments. Grass has also written several plays which, although they are considered powerful, have met with modest success. Several of them have been linked with the Theater of the Absurd due to their startling imagery, black comedy, and bleak view of existence.

Kopfgeburten: oder Die Deutschen sterben aus (1980; Headbirths or the Germans Are Dying Out) is representative of Grass's novelistic concerns since the Danzig Trilogy. This work, which was inspired by his travels through Asia and by his interest in the German elections of 1980, follows Grass as he imagines the making of a film about a West German couple who debate the pros and cons of bringing a baby into an unstable world. During the course of the book, Grass ruminates on what the world would be like if there were 950 million Germans instead of Chinese. Grass also examines such topics as the reuniting of East and West Germany and various issues pertaining to the elections of 1980. Critical reception to this novel was mixed. Several reviewers objected to Grass's discussion of issues of personal interest within the framework of a novel. Others, however, applauded Grass's attempt to coalesce his interest in politics and literature.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6, 11, 15, 22 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Max Knight

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When Günter Grass's "Tin Drum" was published, Hans Magnus Enzensberger said it was a dish on which reviewers would gag for a decade. Grass's poems, available to Americans for the first time in [Selected Poems] are the dessert. The free-wheeling German romps with gusto through the brambles of his imagination, sticks his tongue out provocatively, or bewilders his audience with an innocence that is only slyly feigned.

The poems are as iconoclastic as the novels, but tamer—they shock by juxtaposition and gaps in continuity rather than by Rabelaisian disregard for sensitive readers' stomachs. Grass's more notorious personal fetishes from the novels (worms, eels, floating corpses) do not appear in this selection, but the more genteel (chickens, cooks) do….

Grass has said his poetry was influenced by Rilke, Garcia Lorca and Ringelnatz; little of Rilke is discernible, but a touch of Lorca's daemonism is there, with a larger dose of Ringelnatz's buffoonery; most of it, however, is Grass. As in the novels, Grass plays hide and seek with his readers, allowing them to understand (or not understand) his poem "on two levels," interlarding them with symbols yet denying symbolic intent.

Freud once said that sometimes even a cigar is just a cigar; are, then Grass's cherries, midges, blackbirds really just cherries, midges, blackbirds? Surely his gold teeth are no ordinary gold teeth, since they are "plucked from the dead" (in Auschwitz?), since caries "long has lurked behind the toothpaste" (of sweet German official statements covering up guilt?), and since one has to "open his mouth" (to admit the Nazi enormities?).

Max Knight, "Romp through the Brambles," in The New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1966, p. 5.

Michael Hamburger

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[This essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in Dimension, Summer 1970.]

When I ask myself what makes Günter Grass so outstanding a phenomenon as a poet, the first answer that occurs to me is: the circumstance that he is so many other things as well, an outstanding novelist, playwright, draughtsman, politician and cook. In an age of specialists such diversity of interest and accomplishment could well be suspect, as indeed it is to some of Günter Grass's critics. Yet the more one looks at Grass's diverse activities the more clearly one sees that they all spring from the same source and centre; also, that the unfashionable diversity is inseparable from his achievement in each of and other, fields, because the whole man moves together, within the area of his dominant tensions and concerns. I am far from wanting to claim that this area, in Günter Grass's case, is unlimited: but it is strikingly and decisively larger than that of most other poets in our time, and that is one reason why Günter Grass's poetry is so difficult to place in terms of literary history, trends and genres.

In the early nineteen-fifties, when Grass was writing the poems collected in his first book, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner, Gottfried Benn was still advocating what he called 'absolute poetry', 'words assembled in a fascinating way' and not subject to moral or social criteria. On the other hand, and on the other side, Bertolt Brecht was still advocating a kind of poetry to be judged by its moral and social usefulness. Benn's emphasis was on self-expression, the enacting of inner states; Brecht's on the rendering of external and communal realities. If we ask ourselves to which of these sides Günter Grass belonged as a poet—and almost all the better poetry written by German writers of Grass's generation follows a line of development that can be traced back to that crucial divergence—we come up against one aspect of Grass's capacity to embrace and balance extreme opposites. Shortly after the publication of Die Vorzüge der Windhühner Grass wrote three short prose pieces which appeared in the periodical Akzente under the title 'Der Inhalt als Widerstand' ('Content as Resistance'), in which imagination and reality, fantasy and observation, are treated not as alternatives but as the generators of a necessary tension. The middle piece, a brief dramatic account of a walk taken by two poets, Pempelfort and Krudewil, presents the extreme alternatives. Pempelfort is in the habit of stuffing himself with indigestible food before going to bed, to induce nightmares and genitive metaphors which he can jot down between fits of sleep; the quoted specimens of his poems place him in the line of development which includes German Expressionism and the Surrealism that was rediscovered by German poets after the war. Krudewil, on the other hand, wants to 'knit a new Muse', who is 'grey, mistrustful and totally dreamless, a meticulous housewife'. This homely and matter-of-fact Muse points to the practice of Brecht, who drew on dreams not for metaphors or images, but moralities. Grass's treatment of these two characters is good-humouredly and humorously impartial. Those who misunderstand Grass's moderation, and moderation generally, as either indifference or weakness, when it is the strength of those who don't lose their heads in a crisis, could regard this piece as an early instance of Grass's equivocation; but Grass would not have bothered to write the dialogue if he had not been deeply involved in the issues which it raises.

Before turning to Grass's poems I want to touch on one other prose piece, published nearly ten years later in the same periodical, when Grass had become a celebrated writer and a controversial public figure. It is the lecture 'Vom mangelnden Selbstvertrauen der schreibenden Hofnarren unter Berücksi-chtigung nicht vorhandener Höfe' ('On the Lack of Self-confidence among Writing Court Fools in View of Non-existent Courts')…. Grass came out in favour of a position half-way between what the radicals understood by commitment—the subordination of art to political and social programmes—and the essential demand of art itself for free play of the imagination, the freedom which Grass identifies with that of the court fool or jester. If a writer is worried about the state of affairs in his country and elsewhere, Grass argues—and there can be no doubt at all that Grass himself cares about it passionately—the best way to do something about it is the way of political action proper—the kind of action which Grass himself has undertaken on behalf of the political party which he supports. (pp. 134-36)

Grass is not only an anti-specialist but an anti-ideologist. Even his theoretical pronouncements are nourished and sustained by his awareness of complexity, an awareness which he owes to first-hand experience. In his imaginative works, including his poems, the mixture has not remained constant. Just as in his prose fiction there has been a gradual shift away from subjective fantasy to observed realities, a shift parallelled in his plays, it is the first book of poems that shows Grass at his most exuberantly and uninhibitedly clownish. This is not to say that these early poems lack moral or metaphysical seriousness, but that the element of free play in them is more pronounced and more idiosyncratic than in the later poems, in which the clown has to defend his privilege of freedom, a special freedom begrudged to him by the moralist and the politician.

It has become something of a commonplace in Grass criticism to note that his imagination and invention are most prolific where he is closest to childhood experience, by which I mean both his own, as evoked in the more or less autobiographical sections of Die Blechtrommel and Katz und Maus or in the more or less autobiographical poem 'Kleckerburg', and childish modes of feeling, seeing and behaving. Almost without exception, the poems in Grass's first book owe their vigour and peculiarity to this mode of feeling, seeing, and behaving. These early poems enact primitive gestures and processes without regard for the distinctions which adult rationality imposes on the objects of perception. They have their being in a world without divisions or distinctions, full of magical substitutions and transformations. To speak of surrealism in connection with those early poems tells us little about them, because they are as realistic as they are fantastic, with a realism that seems fantastic only because it is true to the polymorphous vision of childhood. As far as literary influences are concerned, Grass's early poems are far less closely related to the work of any Surrealist poet than to that of a Dadaist, Jean (or Hans) Arp, whose eye and ear had the same mischievous innocence, giving a grotesque twist to everyday objects and banal phrases. In his later, post-Dadaist work, Arp also adapted his unanchored images and metaphors to increasingly moral and social preoccupations, not to mention the metaphysical ones which, much like Grass, he had always combined with his comic zest.

Most of the poems in Die Vorzüge der Windhühner deal in unanchored images, like the 'eleventh finger' which cannot be tied down to any particular plane of meaning or symbolism, but owes its genesis and function to a complex of largely personal associations. Such unanchored and floating images were also carried over into Grass's prose, especially in Die Blechtrommel, and some of them had such obsessional power over Grass's imagination that they recur with variations in his poems, prose narratives, plays and drawings…. The substitution practised by Grass in these poems also includes drastic synaesthesia, as in the many poems connected with music, orchestras, musical instruments. Sounds are freely transposed into visual impressions and vice versa, as in 'Die Schule der Tenöre' ('The School for Tenors'). (pp. 136-37)

I shall not attempt a lengthy interpretation of this poem which would amount to a translation of it into the terms of adult rationality—terms irrelevant to the poem, in any case. In my context it is enough to point out that its subject—or content, to link up with Grass's early contribution to poetics—is little more than a sequence of kinetic gestures, derived in the first place from a personal response to the singing of tenors, but proceeding by a series of free substitutions and transpositions. These substitutions and transpositions observe no distinctions between one order of experience and another, between aural and visual phenomena, between what is physically plausible and what is not. As in surrealist writing, metaphor is autonomous; but, though one thing in the poem leads to another by associations that are astonishingly fluid, the poem is held together by an organization different from automatic writing in that the initial phenomenon is never quite left behind. (p. 140)

But for the wit and the more ingenious allusions in poems like 'The School for Tenors' they would belong to a realm of clown's and child's play which is amoral and asocial. Yet even in 'The School for Tenors' satirical implications arise from references to historical phenomena like seaside resorts, shrapnel and, above all, to audiences in an opera house. The very short, almost epigrammatic pieces in the same collection present Grass the moralist looking over the shoulder of the clown and child, not least incisively in 'Familiär' ('Family Matters'), which has the additional irony of judging the adult world from a child's point of view—a device most characteristic of the man who was to write The Tin Drum, as well as later poems like 'Advent'. (p. 141)

Very few of Grass's later poems are as exuberantly playful as most of those in his first collection; but just as the moralist was not wholly absent from the early poems, the clowning fantast and the polymorphous sensualist keep popping up in later poems seemingly dominated by political and social satire. The creative tension permits, and indeed demands, a good deal of movement in one direction; but it does not break.

In Grass's next collection, Gleisdreieck, it is the poems that touch on divided Berlin which give the clearest indication of how fantasy interlocks with minute observation in Grass's work. The elaborate documentation that preceded the writing of The Tin Drum is one instance of a development that can also be traced in the poems and the drawings, from the high degree of abstraction in the drawings done for Die Vorzüge der Windhühner to the grotesque magnification of realistic detail in the drawings done for Gleisdreieck, and on to the meticulous verisimilitude of the clenched hand reproduced on the cover of the third collection, Ausgefragt. (pp. 141-42)

The underlying seriousness of Grass's clowning—as of all good clowning—is even more evident in Gleisdreieck than in the earlier collection. Without any loss of comic zest or invention Grass can now write existential parables like 'Im Ei' ('In the Egg') or 'Saturn', poems that take the greater risk of being open to interpretation in terms other than those of pure zany fantasy. One outstanding poem in Gleisdreieck has proved utterly untranslatable, because its effect depends on quadruple rhymes and on corresponding permutations of meaning for which only the vaguest equivalents can be found in another language. Grass himself has a special liking for this poem, the sinister nursery rhyme 'Kinderlied', perhaps because it represents the most direct and the most drastic fusion in all his poetry of innocence and experience. This artistic fusion results from the confrontation of the freedom most precious to Grass, the freedom of child's play which is also the court jester's prerogative, with its polar opposite, the repression of individuality imposed by totalitarian political régimes. (pp. 142-43)

No other poem by Grass has the same combination of simplicity and intricacy, extreme economy of means and extreme wealth of implication. Apart from the taut syntactic structure and the rhyme scheme, the poem is untranslatable because no single word in English has the familiar and horrible connotations of a German word like 'angezeigt'—reported to the police or other official authority as being ideologically suspect—or 'abgeworben'—the bureaucratic counterpart to being excommunicated, blackballed, expelled, deprived of civil rights, ceasing to exist as a member of a corporative and collective order that has become omnipotent. (pp. 143-44)

It is characteristic of the state of West German literature in the late sixties that Günter Grass's third collection of poems, Ausgefragt, gave rise to political controversies rather than to literary ones; and the collection does contain a relatively high proportion of poems that respond directly—perhaps too directly in some cases—to political and topical issues. Some of them, like 'In Ohnmacht gefallen' ('Powerless, with a Guitar'), were bound to be read as provocations or correctives aimed at the radical left…. (p. 144)

Compared with Grass's earlier poems this one gives little scope for playfulness. An almost Brechtian literalness and austerity seem to contradict Grass's resolve to keep the court fool separate from the politically committed citizen. Yet I think it would be wrong to read this poem primarily as a polemic against the radicals. The gravity of its manner suggests that Grass is quarrelling more with himself than with others, that he is rendering a painful experience of his own. The old exuberance re-asserts itself elsewhere in the same collection, even in thematically related poems like 'Der Dampfkessel-Effekt' ('The Steam Boiler Effect') which are primarily polemical…. Perhaps the happiest poem of all in Ausgefragt—happiest in two senses of the word—is 'Advent', since it blends social satire with the freedom and zest which—in Grass's work—appertain to the world of childhood. (pp. 145-46)

Whatever Günter Grass may do next—and he is the most unpredictable of artists—his third book of poems points to a widening awareness; and this means that he is unlikely to take his realism and literalness beyond a certain point. His involvement in the practical business of politics has imposed a very perceptible strain on him, but his essentially unpuritanical temper has ensured that the creative tension between innocence and experience, spontaneity and self-discipline is always maintained. Another way of putting it is that, unlike the ideologists and radicals, Grass does not want to carry politics over into private life or into those artistic processes which have to do with personality. If Ausgefragt is dominated by public concerns, it also contains this short poem, 'Falsche Schönheit' ('Wrong Beauty'):…

  This quiet
  life,
     I mean the period from yesterday to Monday morning,
       is fun again:
  I laugh at the dish of parsnips,
  our guinea pig pinkly reminds me,
  cheerfulness threatens to flood my table,
  and an idea,
     an idea of sorts,
       rises without yeast;
           and I'm happy
            because it is wrong and beautiful.

Ideas that make one happy because they are 'wrong and beautiful' have no place in the austere post-Brechtian verse written by so many West and East German poets in the nineteen-sixties. When he wants to be, Grass can be as realistic as they are; but the court jester's freedom includes the right to be fantastic, playful and grotesque.

Grass's insistence on this freedom has a special importance against the background of a general crisis in West German literature, precipitated by its increasing politicization. While East German poets like Wolf Biermann and Reiner Kunze have been defending the individual against encroachments on his privacy on the part of an all-powerful collective, or of an all-powerful bureaucracy that claims to represent the collective, many West German writers have done their best to deprive themselves of such personal liberty as they enjoy…. Those who have followed critical opinion in West Germany over the years will be familiar with statements about what can no longer be written: love poems, because love is a form of bourgeois self-indulgence; nature poems, because we live in a technological age; confessional poems, or poems of personal experience, because they are poems of personal experience; moon poems, because, as Peter Rühmkorf suggested well before the first moon landing, cosmonauts are better qualified to deal with the moon than poets. Needless to say, all those kinds of poems have continued to be written, even if they have been written in new ways. (pp. 147-49)

Günter Grass, in any case, has not worried too much about what can and cannot be written, according to the latest theoretical appraisal of the state of civilization. He has written what he was impelled to write, with a prodigal energy which—even in poems—has involved the risk of error, of tactlessness, of 'wrong beauty', of bad taste. It remains to be seen whether Günter Grass can maintain his energy and spontaneity as a poet not only in the teeth of the ideological constrictors, to whom he has made no concessions, but also as he moves farther and farther away from childhood and the peculiar imaginative sources of his art. Since there is a limit to the fruitful tension between the politician and the clown, or between any kind of arduous practical involvement and the state of openness which poetry demands, it is my hope that conditions in Germany will soon make it unnecessary for Grass to assume responsibilities that ought to be borne by persons without his unique talents as a writer and artist. The tension, as I have tried to show, was there from the first, even when the clown seemed to have it all his way, and the moralist in Grass had not yet involved him in party politics. There is no reason why it should cease if my hope is fulfilled, since in poets practical experience is transmuted into awareness, and innocence is never lost, but renews itself within the awareness. (p. 149)

Michael Hamburger, "Moralist and Jester: The Poetry of Günter Grass," in his Art As Second Nature: Occasional Pieces, 1950–74, Carcanet New Press, 1975, pp. 134-49.

Michael Hollington

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In approaching Grass as a poet and a dramatist, it is extremely difficult to forget that Grass has gained pre-eminent recognition as a novelist: in what follows I have not attempted to do so. Certainly the most immediate kind of interest that these works are likely to arouse for admirers of Grass's novels lies in the large number of parallels or anticipations of images and themes explored in the prose works. Standing by themselves, they would not have made Grass a significant contemporary writer—the body of lyric writing is too slender….

My own satisfaction in reading these works comes chiefly from the discovery of how closely Grass's work—even when it is at its most 'absurd'—reflects contemporary social and psychological realities. Political themes are apparent from the very start, and while the poems and plays, like the work in general, display a clear development in the direction of increasingly overt political subject-matter, the gain in directness often entails a loss in effectiveness. Certainly in the case of the poems, it seems to me that the most powerful political statements are made through the medium of a symbolic language. (p. 88)

'… Lyric poetry has always offered me the chance or opportunity of taking stock, of putting myself in most particular question.' Grass's familiar existentialist phrasing of the 'challenge' of lyric poetry suggests the difficulty of assessing his poetic output—contained in three volumes published between 1956 and 1967 and collected in … Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems)—in isolation from the work as a whole or more latterly, from his political involvements. The reader confronts a writer with very little interest in the 'purity' of literary genres and a great deal of expressed mistrust or even contempt for 'formalist' writing. (p. 89)

Grass's first volume of poems, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (The Advantages of Windfowl), which appeared in 1956 (it was also his first substantial appearance as a writer), declares its surrealist playfulness in its title. What are 'windfowl?' How can they be said to have 'advantages'? Over what? (p. 92)

There is awkwardness and self-consciousness [in the title poem]—the 'rinds of dreams' are predictably hard, and the 'key of allegory', even if it's a joke cliché, is a ponderous one—but little to suggest indifference to poetic form. Grass follows modernist masters (like Pound and Eliot, for English readers) in using syntactic pattern and repetition as the bolster of free verse … in supporting this structure through assonance…. This shapely syntactical clarity liberates metaphor from the need to respect normal logical categories, dissolves mental props like 'tenor' and 'vehicle', so that the birds are both feeders and food, both perceivers and perceived, both the objects that the poem describes and that description itself ('Feder' provides a pun, meaning both 'feather' and 'pen'). The line of poetic descent, from Symbolism via Surrealism, is manifest.

These images provide an introduction to the mythological system of the volume … a network of recurrent associations that provides the larger unifying structure of the poems. (pp. 93-4)

[Many] of the poems carry Grass's common mythic structuring of recent German history—an idyllic beginning, set in the distant past, is rudely shattered by calamity, and then follows a period of flight and retreat into protective corners from which the lyric subject observes the chaos outside. There is an overall ironic perspective that resembles the novels to follow: the poet's imagery effects a 'making strange' of the familiar objects of everyday life, mocking that desired bourgeois safety and comfort that is designed to separate the interior world of the house from the fearsome forces of nature or history outside. He uses himself as exemplary subject.

Read in this way, the poems of this volume form a coherent sequence with clear affinities to The Tin Drum. The presence of related images—glass-shattering voices, dwarfs, hunch-backs, Polish flags and hairy triangles—is not in itself as significant as the desire to combine these images into something like a coherent narrative. Perhaps Gottfried Benn was right when in 1953 he advised the author of these poems to turn to prose, and Grass may have acknowledged the wisdom of this advice when he published some of the poems separately under the title Short Stories from Berlin. The narrative tricks of The Tin Drum are often to be glimpsed—that initial gambit of involving the reader, for instance, by putting in his mouth a question about the advantages of windfowl and then proceeding to answer it, anticipates the first chapter of the novel (which is obviously more aggressive in its way of grasping our attention). Yet the most obviously narrative poems in the collection are those set in the form of parables, which suggest once again that Grass was not altogether immune to the Kafkaesque fashions of German writing in the fifties. (pp. 95-6)

Grass's second collection of poems, Gleisdreieck (Triangle Junction), which appeared a year later than The Tin Drum, seems to me his finest. The concrete realities that the poems address, reflected only through the code of associative images in The Advantages of Windfowl, now moves forward into prominent focus; the title refers to a Berlin underground station where lines from the two sectors of the city form a triangular junction. Buildings are going up, built over the rubble of wardamage—this is now the Berlin of the somewhat belated postwar reconstruction; with a kind of remarkable prophetic insight in pre-wall Berlin, the opening poem ('five strophes of three lines each') concerns the building of 'fire-proof walls'. These are associated with a kind of whitewashing: they are 'immaculately sawn out', one of them carries Persil advertisements, a boy rueing the loss of his rubble-playground throws a snow-ball…. In a fine parable-style poem with a Brechtian title, 'The Ballad of the Black Cloud', the builders leave behind lime, which is eaten to good effect by an 'immaculate' hen who lays her brood in the builder's sand; the black cloud is an ironic apocalypse threatening the security of the brood in the sand, but passing by—not without disturbing effect:

       And no-one will ever be sure
       What came of those four eggs
       Under the hen, under the cloud,
 
       What happened to them in the builders' sand.

In another powerful conception, 'The Great Rubble Lady Speaks', the lament of the rubble lady is drowned by the sentimental sounds of a Biedermeier society comfortably reinstalled…. (pp. 98-9)

The poetic persona of these poems, however, registers the hollowness of this return to 'normality', the secret anxieties that it attempts to mask and suppress. The everyday world opens up sudden chasms of anxiety: in the poem 'Friday' for instance, the poet brings home fresh herrings to cook (the poem takes as its subject the ritual of composing a poem), unwraps them from their newspaper-wrapping, only to find that the newspaper contains news of crisis and disaster. In ['Saturn'], one of the finest poems in this volume, where Grass is at the peak of his powers, each everyday object or action becomes strange and monstrous…. Once more, the poem's formal structure is tight and economical, setting up a pattern of expectations and working variations upon it (the influence of Brecht is again apparent). (pp. 99-101)

Ausgefragt (Cross-Examined) is Grass's third substantial volume of poems (it came out in 1967). It is the most uneven of the collections, containing some first-rate work, sometimes larger and more ambitious than the earlier successes, and also some less satisfactory and questionable poems. Many of the poems are markedly different in style from those in the previous volumes; at the outset, they announce an aggressive departure to fresh fields and pastures new:

              Enough of similes,
              chewing the cud and splitting hairs,
              of waiting for my gall to write.

There are gains and losses. Gone indeed are some of the more pretentious gestures of The Advantages of Windfowl, the comparings of worries to watches: the language is generally crisper, more natural and conversational. But also gone from some of the poems at least is the kind of taut economy that distinguishes the best poems of Gleisdreieck, the capacity to structure tightly round a single image or group of images. Many of the political poems, of which the most famous are those contained in the section 'ZORN ARGER WUT' ('ANGER VEXATION RAGE') are unconvincing. These poems, attacks on fashionable protests, protestors and protestinq poets, are uncertain in their tone: at times they engage complex and meaningful problems concerning the worth and effectiveness of literary protest, bringing themselves (poems protesting against protests) dynamically into the issue. At other times their sarcasm is crass and their propositions dubious…. (pp. 102-03)

[The] political poems are related to a concern that runs through all Grass's poems, the relation between the writer in the process of formulating his phrases, and the realities he wishes to convey. In Advantages of Windfowl this concern is made apparent in frequent images of the printed text itself, the shape of the type on the page: the pair of poems 'K, der Käfer' ('K, the beetle') and 'V, der Vogel' ('V, the bird') are the most obvious examples, using the shape of the letters as visual emblems of the experiences described, the one about a beetle on its back like the letter K on its side, the other developing its images out of the wedge-shaped letter V and the silhouette of birds in flight:

            V, the bird, a wedge
            tears open an apple, lays bare a brain,
            inserts the gorges of mountains …

In Gleisdreieck poems like 'In the Egg' ask Platonist questions about language, whether we live in a cave of language, and whether words are not about things but merely about other words…. (p. 104)

Grass thus displays his adherence to a modernist myth of language—its mistrust of the abstract written sign and its attempt to concretize words through a maximal use of their physical presence on the page. It is well known that Grass does his writing in a standing position, as if he were wielding a chisel and working at a sculpture as he had done as an art student, and that he writes the first drafts of his works in longhand; his narrative are likewise conscious of the physical act of writing (Brauxel/Amsel disapproves of Matern's habit of writing directly with a typewriter, Oskar equates black marks on white paper with guilt). It is particularly striking that each volume of poems is accompanied with drawings of the animals and objects that are so frequently the subjects of these works. These drawings have an important role in realizing the meaning of the poems, mediating the gap between the abstract signs of language and the concrete realities of experience.

At the heart of Grass's work is a mistrust of language as a deceitful structuring of reality. Harry Liebenau, the budding poet of Dog Years, whose penchant for pretentious metaphor and redundant statement makes him a plausible author of The Advantages of Windfowl, senses the frustration of trying to fit a static verbal formulation to the dynamism of experience: 'In fifth I coined the expression: "The new soloist leaps so slowly a pencil could follow." That is what I still call leaps that are skilfully delayed: leaps that a pencil could follow. If only I could follow leaps with a pencil.'… In the novels, Grass's strategy is to unmask the inadequacy of language by inventing multiple, patently artificial verbal patterns. In some of the best of his poems he adopts an opposite strategy, concentrating on making the language as minimal as possible. (pp. 105-06)

Michael Hollington, in his Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society, Marion Boyars, 1980, 186 p.

ELISABETH FINNE and WES BLOMSTER

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"I'm curious about the 80s," comments Günter Grass in his latest book [Kopfgeburten]. His curiosity is shared by the readers of Grass and of his creative countrymen who currently populate the German literary scene. One aspect of this curiosity regards the role which Grass himself will play within German literature in the decade which has just opened. The observations which follow concern the problem of representation in contemporary German writing: to what degree can a present-day writer represent his nation, and, if the question is of possible validity, who among German writers might serve this representational function in the present decade? Despite the evidence which negates the writer as the representative of a pluralistic society, it is not unreasonable to claim this status for Günter Grass. (p. 560)

Despite these many factors which speak against the assignment of a representative role to any German writer in the 1980s, it is clear that one man will continue in a position of central importance to German society during this decade. Even if his position requires redefinition of representation, Günter Grass seems destined by work and character to be present actively at every intersection of art and politics in his country.

A review of major turning points in Grass's career emphasizes the changing nature of representation. Grass will probably never again know the solidarity with any generation of Germans manifested in his march down Berlin's Kurfürstendamm in January 1967, arms locked with students chanting "Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh." This liaison ended with the police's killing of the student Benno Ohnesorg before the West Berlin Opera in June of that year. (That demonstration, it is recalled, protested the presence of the late Shah of Iran in Berlin.) This began, in turn, the series of macabre and tragic events which continues in Germany today. Terrorism and violence—forces of which Grass disapproved totally—brought to the headlines the names of Rudi Dutschke, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Today Grass lives largely in isolation. His alienation from such organized political forces as the New Left, however, does not contradict his position as a representative writer.

In another sense, Grass is today the victim of his own early popularity. "To become a classic in our time … may involve being condemned to ineffectuality," Michael Hollington has observed [in the foreword to his book, excerpted above]. While Grass, at a previous point in his career, "represented to the intelligentsia … the 'active conscience of Germany,'" he is now "widely mistrusted as a treacherous establishment liberal." One scholar has concluded that "he is no longer of contemporary relevance." His representative position is consequently denied.

Hollington defines two reasons for widespread lack of interest in Grass within Germany. The guilt of the Nazi period, to which Grass devoted so much energy, is a dead issue for a generation of readers totally postwar in orientation: "Liberal democracy has for them no value in itself, as it had for Grass and his generation, brought up in the Nazi period." A more general reason involves "a very widespread deterioration … of the vitality of the liberal humanist tradition."…

The analysis is correct; yet it underscores the necessity that Grass be seen as the representative writer of Germany today. Precisely for the reasons stated above, Grass grows increasingly important as the mediator between Germany past and present. Current lack of concern for these two issues—the Nazi past and the humanist tradition—does not make them unimportant. The current upsurge in neo-Nazi activity in the country, combined with beginning economic troubles, will reaffirm the centrality of these problems and—if there are eyes to read—will focus renewed attention upon Grass's endeavor. Grass is beyond doubt literary Germany's most significant link between past traditions and modernity; he is simultaneously both the roots and foliage of that creative continuity upon which the spiritual well-being of the nation depends….

Grass will remain a controversial figure; the Right will see him as dangerously leftist, and the Left will view him as an impotent intellectual liberal. It is precisely this position, however, which qualifies him as the representative writer of a society torn by contradictions and lacking that common denominator which seemingly validated the representative function of writers in previous epochs. (p. 562)

In the discomfort which he causes, Grass is something of an heir of Heine. For him there are neither taboos nor sacred cows; he permits himself detours around nothing. Indeed, there are some in the troubled Germany of today—haunted by the black myth of professional persecution or Berufsverbot—who assert that open admiration of Grass would involve the risk of unemployment. This suggests that Grass is the representative of an intellectual underground within his own nation; a significant truth might be contained in this assertion.

Two final perspectives demand consideration. Today Grass commands more attention in the rest of the world than any other living German writer. Even if the pluralistic society within which he works is unable to view him as its representative, he certainly is this in the eyes of the world. Looking also at divided Germany, Grass has recently advanced the thesis that modern Germany involves indeed two states; they compose, however, one cultural nation….

Günter Grass's entire mature life has been a translation into reality of the metaphor of the two beer mats—his creative effort and his political involvement—offered late in Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (From the Diary of a Snail; 1972). Grass will continue to juxtapose opposite truths; impossibility will continue to confront impossibility in congenial coexistence. He will weave further personal experience, speculation and the reality of contemporary Germany into an often rough but coherent tapestry out of which the turbulent history of the twentieth century can be read. To saddle him with the designation "representative writer" might well be as unwelcome to him as the concept of the writer as the conscience of the nation once was. Nonetheless, Grass is there; he is beyond doubt the most representative writer of Germany today, and there is reason to assume that he will continue his effort undaunted throughout the eighties. Indeed, it has been suggested that Grass might well be viewed as the Sisyphus of this decade; Grass himself affirms: "I'm not going to quit."… (p. 563)

Elisabeth Finne and Wes Blomster, "The Federal Republic in the Eighties: On German Representation," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 560-64.

Joel Agee

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There are ropewalkers, lion tamers, and clowns among novelists; also bareback riders, trapeze artists, strong men, and illusionists; and once in awhile an impresario will appear who commands a whole circus, as Günter Grass did a few years ago with The Flounder, the three-ring, cymbal-clashing, sawdust-kicking entertainment he gave himself as a fiftieth birthday present. Headbirths is a much more modest performance, a mere juggling act—but let that "mere" not imply any disparagement of the art of juggling, or of Günter Grass's command of it. Anyone who can keep two approximately equal handfuls of real-life and fictional characters smoothly circulating and even conversing in the same narrative space, without giving any impression of artificiality, has earned my respect; and Grass throws in at least a dozen other items of widely disparate bulk and shape—the Christian Democratic and the Social Democratic parties of Germany, for example; the Chinese and the Berlin walls; a novel-in-progress called Headbirths; Orwell's slavish decade (is it ours as well?) and Camus's defiant Sisyphus; hunger in Asia and a vacuum-sealed German liverwurst that survives the combined ravages of time, tropical heat, the probing slice of a border inspector's knife, and Günter Grass's whimsy. Time and time again he considers dismissing the sausage from his plot, just as a master juggler will seem to drop one particularly unmanageable rubber ball, only to cradle it on his foot or in the nape of his neck for a while and toss it back into the general whirl.

The novel (but is it a novel?) begins with a frightening event that took place three years ago in Shanghai, the city where 11 million out of 950 million Chinese live. Günter Grass was walking in the street with his wife, Ute, surrounded by countless identically dressed bicycle riders, when suddenly he was "hit by an idea, a speculative reversal: what if, from this day on, the world had to face up to the existence of nine hundred fifty million Germans…."

The italics are mine, but I believe Mr. Grass would agree that the terrifying implications of such a thought cannot be emphasized strongly enough. (pp. 30-1)

Back in Berlin a month later, after brief stopovers in Singapore, Manila, and Cairo, the Grasses encountered, much to their surprise, precisely the inverse strain of speculation in the political debates of the day: the Christian opposition, led by Franz Josef Strauss, was attacking the Socialist-Liberal government for preventing the Germans from multiplying properly. A sizable portion of the sixty million alleged Germans living on German soil were foreigners, they declared. Discount these foreigners—the only natural and obvious Christian-Democratic thing to do—and the most devastating of all future-shocks will present itself: the Germans are dying out. Five English words sum it up, but who can sum up the consequences?…

Mr. Grass, a committed Social Democrat, thinks the unthinkable with a charm and lightheartedness that seem calculated to irritate the hell out of Franz Josef Strauss and his followers. He even wants to make a movie of it—and a comedy at that! He discusses the idea with Volker Schlöndorff, the filmmaker …; why not incarnate the whole dilemma in the story of two nice blond northern German representatives of the Liberal-Socialist coalition who want nothing more than to produce a baby but are held back by political scruples? Schlöndorff likes the idea: conception has taken place—the headbirth is on its way.

Part of the pleasure of reading this book is watching Mr. Grass's two homunculi take on an ever more human appearance; it's a little like watching a photograph coming to life in a chemical bath. At first we see little more than a gray shimmer of sociopolitical definition: we learn that they are "indefatigably self-reflecting veterans of the student protest movement." That they are teachers, both of them. That they met at a sit-in against the Vietnam War or the reactionary Springer press, or both. That he is a Social Democrat, while she belongs to the FDP (Free Democrats). That they own a cat. That their mutual love is on an even keel. That she takes the Pill regularly. That they want and don't want a child. Individual features begin to emerge, bit by bit: a set of names to begin with—Dörte and Harm, with a common surname, Peters. They walk, argue, plan, and converse: about having and not having a child, naturally, and also about the world's stockpiled dangers and multiplying disasters, which are the principal reason for Dörte's continual popping of the Pill. (p. 31)

So it goes, back and forth, from nowhere to nowhere, while Dörte and Harm, these headbirths, travel to Asia and back with "Sisyphus," an agency that organizes worldwide slumming tours for the socially conscious. Gradually, page by page, we watch Herr and Frau Peters take on the color and feeling of breathing, believable characters. Well, possible characters, since the film hasn't been made yet. Or will it be a book? Günter Grass is not sure. No one's sure of anything any more, with the possible exception of Franz Josef Strauss and his followers. Our young couple's dithering over their possible baby is just one small, private, prototypical instance of an extremely popular Central European parlor game (that's what Grass calls it, but actually it's played on our shores as well), "Ontheonehand-Ontheotherhand."… Harm and Dörte agree that "on the one hand the environmentalists are right; on the other, they'll get Strauss elected." And if Strauss gets elected, what will their child's future be like? On the other hand….

But which other hand? Mr. Grass has at least four, like Shiva. Out of the blue, another theme has arisen. Actually, it's been there all along, more or less unnoticed—a theme that doesn't concern Harm and Dörte at all, or Franz Josef Strauss, for that matter, though it does prick him into some furious remarks (in real life, not fiction) about "rats and blowflies." He means writers and, by extension, those who take them seriously. There are no two ways about this subject, as far as Günter Grass is concerned, and this despite the East-West frontier; there is, he says, only one German culture, one single German literature written by East and West German rats and blowflies "who gnaw at the consensus and shit on the newly laundered table-cloth." (pp. 31-2)

Günter Grass is a vigorous and colorful stylist; he is as inventive in his use of words as he is in his manipulation of themes; his sentences sparkle with puns and wordplay, they delight with satirical feints and stabs. (p. 32)

Joel Agee, "950 Million Germans?!" in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 15, April 14, 1982, pp. 30-2.

Richard Gilman

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Famous writers tend to become institutions, or rather to institutionalize themselves. As designated seers or gadflies, they take on the burden of everyone else's conscience and poke around in all sorts of public business. Tolstoy ended as a writer of this kind; Camus, more subtly and gracefully, was one; Norman Mailer works hard at it. Today there is no writer more swollen with self-importance or, if that's too harsh, more convinced of his responsibility for the whole of his culture than Günter Grass, who has begun to think of himself as identical with the fates of German literature, German politics and German mores.

As his prophet's beard grows longer, Grass becomes duller, quirkier and more self-indulgent…. Grass's latest book has been translated into English: Once again I can imagine its appeal to his zealous adherents at home, but it doesn't travel well.

Headbirths, whose subtitle is The Germans Are Dying Out (an echo of Peter Handke's play about capitalism, They Are Dying Out), is an exceedingly odd book—short, haphazard, erratic in theme and tone; it suggests something thrown together between blockbusters, just to keep the old hand in. Superficially, it has to do with a trip Grass and his wife took to China and India in 1979 with Volker Schlöndorff, the director of the film version of The Tin Drum…. Grass and Schlöndorff used the occasion to plan a movie about a young German couple, both schoolteachers, who make roughly the same trip in the interest of "broadening" their sense of the underdeveloped world.

Grass's invented couple, two of his "headbirths," came of age in the 1960s, members of "a generation that had committed itself to the principle of refusal: resolved to throw off all sexual and social restraints." But since that time "they have found themselves knee-deep in prosperity-determined consumerism and pleasureless sex," so that, Grass implies, all that's left to them are the rhetoric and empty gestures of liberalism. In their ambivalence about having a child—"yes to baby/no to baby" is the way Grass describes it—they represent, literally, the sterility of liberalism or rather … the sterility of the fashionable, intellectually pretentious liberalism of Helmut Schmidt's ruling coalition.

Grass uses the couple and the projected movie as pretexts for a wide, rambling, unwitty, at times nearly incoherent attack on a great many things German. He hates the new interest in "culture" and religion. The Germans, he writes, "rummage about for spiritual values which, to exclude intellectual refinements, they call fundamental values. Ethical concepts on clearance. Every day a new idea of Christ is thrown on the market. Culture is in. Readings, lectures, exhibitions are taken by storm. Perpetual theater festivals. Music ad nauseam. Like a drowning man, the citizen grasps at books."

Well, here's another book for him to grasp at. It is a little graceless for this writer who has been piling things onto the culture to complain now that there's too much of it. But Grass has become so much an institution that he operates on automatic pilot. The "headbirths" keep coming: literary notions, extraliterary notions, political critiques, social cavils, proposals of every kind. (pp. 502-03)

Occasionally Grass shows an awareness of how unproductively irritating he can be, as in the section where he defends his literary career while at the same time acknowledging some of its peculiarities. And there are a few moments of genuine feeling, in particular his mourning the death of a friend, the writer Nicolas Born, who died at 45 just after Grass's return to Germany. But the lofty, hectoring tone predominates. And what are we to do with a passage like this: "good old capitalism and good old communism … thanks to their tried and true enmity, they are becoming … more and more alike; two evil old men whom we have to love because the love they offer us refuses to be snubbed"? Strained, unfunny, the passage is a typical "headbirth," advancing neither the cause of literature nor that of political understanding. (pp. 503-04)

Richard Gilman, "On the One Hand …," in The Nation, Vol. 234, No. 16, April 24, 1982, pp. 502-04.

John Sutherland

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Headbirths is a novelist's diary or quarry, unprocessed working materials published long before their time….

Grass is fashioning a new discourse and claiming (or repossessing) new territories for modern fiction. It's evidently not easy, and may indeed be impossible. A dominant myth alluded to is that of Sisyphus's sterile labour, and the main plot of Headbirths ostensibly chronicles an ambitious novel-film collaboration which never got off the ground, and of which the present book is the meagre relic.

The title indicates Grass's principal conceit: that of the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus. This stands for the creation of new material forms, social, political or artistic. The idea is twisted ingeniously this way and that in the course of the work. Headbirths, for instance, is dedicated to Grass's admired fellow novelist Nicolas Born, who apparently died during its writing from a tumour of the brain (head death)….

The overarching—and, presumably, historical—event in the novel is a business tour by Grass and Volker Schlöndorff (director of The Tin Drum) to various Third World locations. Seething India, Java or China are preferred for the film they have vaguely in mind. If the project comes off, it must, however, be shot in July-August 1980, after the election contest between Schmidt and Strauss in which they are both interested….

Grass devises a film scenario for Schlöndorff, and plays with it in the provisional form of what might perhaps become a novel instead. It centres on a model German teacher couple, Harm and Dörte Peters, from Itzehoe, Holstein. They worry their heads perpetually about whether or not they should have a baby….

These creatures of Grass's mind carry with them (as Grass himself did) a one-kilo, lightly smoked, coarsely cut, liver sausage. This sweaty talisman has no 'deeper meaning', Grass notes. It is merely anchorage, a nod towards the Brechtian rule that 'Man ist was er isst.' Besides which, no head ever invented or gave birth to a liver sausage. By contrast with their cargo of delicatessen concreteness, Grass's couple exist only in potentia—'unjelled', as he puts it, half-way between the headbirth of the novelist and that of the film-maker: 'if I neglect the features of Harm and Dörte Peters, outfitting him with no squint and her with no gap between her front teeth, it's for a reason. Schlöndorff will fill these clearly circumscribed blanks with the facial expression of two actors.'…

Running through the scenarios and digressions of Headbirths is an extraordinarily frank personal essay. 'By a dubious stroke of luck', the novelist was born in 1927. But the current purge of an older, unluckier generation of German writers with Nazi pasts leads him to speculate on his own career had he been born ten years earlier, in 1917. In an eerie bio-bibliography of this tainted self, he provides an oeuvre which runs from the late Expressionist, rhapsodic poetry of his Hitler Youth period, through the post-Stalingrad 'poetry of lasting significance', to the 'fresh start' mode of de-Nazified 1947. All of which pertains to Grass's main literary-historical datum: that the ideology of National Socialism has laid waste the German language as extensively and less reparably than bombing laid waste the country's cities. If the German writer wants a tradition, he has to make it up out of his own head. In this book, Grass manages to do that very well. (p. 18)

John Sutherland, "Nationalities," in London Review of Books, May 6 to May 19, 1982, pp. 18-19.∗

John Updike

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Critics who urge upon American writers more social commitment and a more public role should ponder the cautionary case of Günter Grass. Here is a novelist who has gone so public he can't be bothered to write a novel; he just sends dispatches to his readers from the front lines of his engagement. His latest work, "Headbirths; or, The Germans Are Dying Out" … is topical and political with a specificity that warrants a prefatory Publisher's Note:

Headbirths was written in late 1979, shortly after Günter Grass returned from a trip to China and just before the German elections of 1980. Candidates of the two major parties contending for power were Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democrat Chancellor of the German Federal Republic, and Franz Josef Strauss, Bavarian Prime Minister and head of the opposition party, the Christian Democrats. Günter Grass's commitment was and is to the Social Democrats and their party head, Willy Brandt.

Got that? Then you are ready to take a brief ride on the roller coaster of Grass's mind as it goes clickety-clack, clickety-clack, wheeeee! on the ups and downs of such issues as nuclear plants, the low German birthrate, the early middle age of the protest generation, the union of the two Germanys, the importance of the German language and its writers, and capitalism and its clear inferiority to an ever so dimly apprehended "Democratic socialism"—themes already stirred into such bubbling stews as "The Flounder," "Local Anaesthetic," and "The Meeting at Telgte." The pot this time holds a few dollops of fiction, as Grass shares with the reader his efforts to imagine a movie about the Asian adventures of Harm and Dörte Peters, hypothetical schoolteachers from Itzehoe in Holstein. (p. 129)

It is hard to imagine an American writer of comparable distinction publishing a book so unbuttoned in manner, so dishevelled in content, so ingenuously confident of his readership's indulgence. Saul Bellow, his head as spinning with ideas as Günter Grass's, yet dresses them up in fictional costume, in "The Dean's December," or else presents them straightforwardly as journalism, in "To Jerusalem and Back." These are clean headbirths; Grass gives us pangs, placenta, and squalling infant all in a heap, plus a damp surgical mask and a bent forceps. He tells us about his trip to China, and about the dying of the poet Nicolas Born, an old friend and fellow-participant in unofficial East-West writers' meetings held in East Berlin for four years ending in 1977. He rehearses political speeches for the coming Strauss-Schmidt campaign, he pleads for hopeless causes like a "National Endowment … a place where every German can look for himself and his origins and find questions to ask," he pontificates about the Germans ("They always insist on being terrifyingly more or pathetically less than they are"), he imagines himself as born ten years earlier and turning his pen to pro-Nazi rhapsodies, he proposes that East and West Germany swap systems every ten years ("The Democratic Republic would have an opportunity to relax under capitalism, while the Federal Republic could drain off cholesterol under communism"), he writes cascades of little editorials already dated by their sneers at Carter ("a bigoted preacher in Washington") and their focus on Iran. He spouts off, in short. Like a psychiatrist patiently auditing a stream of free association, the reader listens for the telltale note, the clue to the monologuist's real concerns. (pp. 129-30)

"Headbirths" appears to be really about Turks. The Chinese that Grass visits and admires, the Indians and Balinese that disquiet Harm and Dörte, the millions and millions of them, are Turks of a different color. The Turkish Turks are already in Germany; the eighties will bring the others in. "In the course of the eighties," Harm Peters orates to a frightened crowd of cement workers in Lägerdorf, "Asia will discharge its demographic pressure and flood the European continent. I see them by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, silently trickling in, and here, yes, here in Itzehoe, in our very midst." In Grass's cinematic vision, the beer halls and women's clubs fill with "Indians, Malays, Pakistanis, and Chinese, with Asia's overflow, until Harm and Dörte find themselves applauded by predominantly foreign audiences, while what's left of the native Germans, intimidated, lose themselves in the enthusiastic mass." A mere eighty million industrious, frugal, politically earnest, unprolific Germans cannot possibly survive in such a human sea: "Europe is dissolving into Asia." That is the anxiety, symbolized by the Turks invited into Germany for their cheap labor and now looming as an unbanishable presence…. "Headbirths; or, The Germans Are Dying Out," beneath all its merry guff, holds an authentic pang as Germany surrenders its barbaric old notion of racial purity and sizes up its modest place in a mongrel world. (pp. 130-31)

John Updike, "The Squeeze Is On," in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, June 14, 1982, pp. 129-34.∗

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