Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
Compared to the longer, more monumental works of Günter Grass, The Meeting at Telgte is a short novel. It is the story of a fictional 1647 meeting of major figures of the German literary world who actually existed. Poets, prose writers, preachers, musicians, and publishers travel at considerable risk through a Germany ravaged by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This war was the most destructive in German history prior to World War II. By 1647, the year of the meeting, peace was at hand, but much of Germany was decimated, fragmented, and dominated by a caste of authoritarian princes and nobles. Furthermore, the German language had been corrupted by the invading armies of the European powers and was in danger of descending into hideous jargon.
The original goal of these German intellectuals was to meet in Osnabruck, a site of peace negotiations between the Catholic and Protestant European powers and the rival princes of Germany who had fought the German emperor to a standstill. Since Osnabruck remained occupied by the Swedes, however, the writers hold their conclave in the small town of Telgte, a site of pilgrimage midway between Osnabruck and Munster, the two cities in which the Peace Conference of Westphalia will be held.
The noble goal of the writers is to revive, purify, and strengthen the last remaining bond of the German nation, its language and literature. They also aspire to influence the politicians by issuing a manifesto for peace. They meet in the Bridge Tavern. Room and board are secured by Christoffel Gelnhausen, a regimental secretary and aspiring novelist. His former mistress, Libushka, is the obliging landlady of the tavern. Gelnhausen clears out the tavern for the writers by announcing the presence of the plague (a widespread cause of death at the time).
The writers settle in and embark on their patriotic literary projects. They soon squabble over the proper use of dactylic words, the essence of irony and humor, and the applicability of classical models. They separate into factions: optimists against pessimists, purists against pragmatists, and Catholics against Protestants. Such is the irony of their unifying goal. Their sessions are a combination of serious discussions and the comic, bawdy, grotesque, and chaotic happenings characteristic of Grass’s novels. While the older writers draft their high-flown manifestos, the younger ones fornicate with the serving maids. Then, all settle down to a great feast, forcibly procured by the soldier Gelnhausen.
At the end of this short novel, the writers finally agree on a lengthy statement exhorting peace, religious toleration, the reform of the German language, and efforts at political unity. Though their appeal would have gone unheeded anyway, says the narrator, the tavern catches fire and the declaration is destroyed. The writers set off for their diverse destinations, harboring the dream that their noble words and goals will live on. The novel ends on a note of resignation and ambiguity, for no one, including the omniscient narrator, knows who set fire to the tavern. The results of the best efforts of the writers are left to the imagination of the reader.
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