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.)