Günter Grass Grass, Günter (Wilhelm) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Michael Hollington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Joel Agee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 815 words.)