World Literature

Gunter Grass

 

BORN: 1927, Free City of Danzig, Poland

NATIONALITY: German

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Tin Drum (1959)

Dog Years (1963)

Local Anesthetic (1969)

Peeling the Onion (2006)

 

 

Gunter Grass. AP Images

 

Overview

Both inspirational and controversial, Nobel Prizewinning author Gunter Grass has been called the conscience of postwar Germany. Internationally recognized for novels that grapple with issues of collective guilt and moral ambiguity, Grass is known for saying ‘‘The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open’’—and living up to that motto with work that calls the past, present, and future of Germany into question. Though his work has placed him in the position of moral yardstick and national ethical voice, his own past as a Nazi soldier has been condemned in recent years.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Growing up Under Nazism. Gunter Wilhelm Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) on October 16, 1927. The city, which is historically German, changed loyalties often during European wars and was a center for the German Nazi Party in Poland. Grass himself joined the Hitler Youth as a child, and tried to volunteer for the German navy in the early 1940s as a way of escaping his lower-class Catholic family. Although the name Hitler Youth implies indoctrination into the ideals of Nazism, joining the organization became essentially mandatory in areas under German control, and many of the children involved were indifferent or even opposed to Hitler’s aims. Grass’s family, who were grocers and cabinetmakers, raised him in a mundane environment not usually associated with social evil. However, Danzig and the rest of German-occupied Europe became a breeding ground for Nazism, resulting in the massacre of millions of Jews and civilians during World War II.

Though he served with the Waffen-SS, the elite Nazi army unit, during World War II, this period of Grass’s personal history remains somewhat mysterious due to his long silence on the matter. What is known is that Grass was wounded and sent to an American prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. Once the war was over, Grass was forced to tour the concentration camp at Dachau, an experience that led him to question Nazi philosophies for the first time.

Postwar Experiences. After his release from American custody in 1946, Grass spent time working on a potato farm and in a potash mine. In 1947, he began an apprenticeship to a stonemason, playing drums in a jazz band by night and studying metal sculpture in Berlin after trips throughout Europe and time spent in an arts academy. He married Anna Schwarz, a Swiss dancer, in 1954.

Grass had begun writing years earlier: At age thirteen he entered a ‘‘novel’’ entitled The Kashubians in a contest sponsored by a Nazi school magazine, and was awarded third prize in a poetry contest sponsored by South German Radio in 1955. Some of his poems, short plays, and essays were published in Akzente, a literary magazine, and Grass’s first book of poetry, The Advantages of Windchickens appeared in 1956. His early surrealistic plays Hochwasser (1963; translated as Floor, 1967) and Onkel, Onkel! (1965; translated as Mister, Mister, 1967) and his ballet Stoffreste ( Cloth Remnants) premiered in small and experimental theaters around Germany.

Return to Gdansk. In 1955, Grass read some of his writing at the Berlin meeting of the Gruppe (Group) 47, an informal but extremely influential association of political writers organized in 1947 by writer Hans Werner Richter. Grass’s talent was recognized by the group, who encouraged him to try his hand at a novel. In 1956, he moved to Paris with Anna to work in earnest on his novel, returning to Gdansk in 1958. This trip was partially financed by a prize he won from Gruppe 47 for reading portions of his work in progress aloud. The book, which would be titled The Tin Drum, was published in 1959 and permanently placed Grass among the leading literary figures of the twentieth century. The book uses Grass’s own experiences and insights as the basis for the fictional autobiography of a Danzig boy who decides not to grow up.

By 1963, when The Tin Drum appeared in the United States, Grass had published a second volume of poetry and drawings, Gleisdreieck (Rail Triangle); a novella, Katz und Maus (translated as Cat and Mouse); and another novel, Hundejahre (translated as Dog Years). Cat and Mouse and Dog Years would complete what came to be known as the Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum being the first book in the trilogy), three works that deal with Germany’s past through the warped lenses of artists and outcasts.

Not content to limit his literary production to novels, Grass also composed a number of plays throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising: A German Tragedy met with controversy in 1966, with its portrayal of ‘‘The Boss’’ (commonly thought to represent German playwright Bertolt Brecht) leading to criticism and scandal.

Assessment of Germany. Grass continued to grapple with political issues of the day and his own growing inclinations toward socialism in books like From the Diary of a Snail (1972), a fictionalized account of his involvement with a 1969 political campaign, The Flounder (1977), which deals with radical feminism, and The Rat (1986), a novel about the sad plight of modern civilization. Throughout the 1980s, Grass continued to touch on politics and Germany’s past, culminating in a series of works concerning German reunification around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Grass’s view that, after Auschwitz, the Germans should not be permitted to live together in one nation, proved immensely unpopular, and his 1995 novel on the subject, Ein Weites Feld (translated as Too Far Afield), met with harsh criticism.

Unable to let go of his assessment and reassessment of Germany’s past, Grass published My Century in 1999. The book, which tells one hundred brief stories (one for every year of the twentieth century), met with mixed reviews. Its episodes are told from the perspective of Nazis, working-class people, and other figures; some critics accused Grass’s selection as being too random and arbitrary to hold much meaning, while others praised the technique. In 1999, Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his body of work.

Around this time, Grass became more interested in politics, aligning himself with the Social Democratic movement in Germany and even writing speeches for German politician Willy Brandt. Grass responded to the growing student movement and other political changes in his poetry and drawings, publishing books like Ausgefragt and New Poems during the 1960s. Ortlich betUubt (Local Anesthetic), his attempt to address the political upheaval of the 1960s in novel form, met with poor critical reception and was accused of minimizing the political issues of the day.

Grass again stirred controversy with the release of his 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion, in which he revealed that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Grass's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977): Russian American novelist known for his controversial work Lolita.

Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007): First president of post-Communist Russia.

James Dewey Watson (1928-): Molecular biologist and codiscoverer of the structure of DNA.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): Movie director known for his thrillers and suspense films.

Madeleine Albright (1937-): First female U.S. secretary of state.

Anne Frank (1929-1945): Dutch writer who penned her famous Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl while she hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam.

 

Works in Literary Context

Though he has been praised by critics for his insistence on coming to terms with Germany’s past, Grass was awaited by a new period of controversy in the twenty-first century. In a 2006 interview about Peeling the Onion, Grass revealed his past as a member of the Waffen-SS. This revelation was a huge shock for Grass’s fans and admirers, who had assumed he was part of the generation of people too young to have played a relevant part during World War II. Grass was slammed in the press for his failure to disclose his past and was accused of hypocrisy and cowardice. In September 2006, a variety of authors, poets, and intellectuals stood in solidarity with Grass, praising his work and his contribution to German literature.

To date, Grass still faces questions and controversy over his SS past. Though Grass’s past has partially overshadowed his longtime career as the upholder of Germans’ moral compass, his body of work is more complicated. Ambitious, confused, and often confusing, it embodies the struggles of Germans to come to terms with their checkered past and their current reality.

Magic Realism. Best known for his bizarre and immense novel The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass has become a key figure in the European tradition of magic realism. The story grapples with the origins of World War II, the war itself, and the economic miracle that transformed Germany from downtrodden nation to world power in a matter of years. Reaction to The Tin Drum, which was an immediate best seller in Germany and abroad, ranged from critical acclaim to moral outrage. For example, the book won a prestigious literary prize from the city of Bremen, but the prize was withheld by the city senate on moral grounds.

Magic realism is not limited to German authors like Grass; in fact, it is a literary style practiced worldwide by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie, all of whom have been influenced by Grass in some form.

Depicting Germany. Grass’s work, while touching on broad political movements like socialism and Nazism, is distinctly German and reflects the concerns of postwar Germany. Destroyed by war and a morally bankrupt state, postwar Germans faced a ‘‘stunde Null’’ (zero hour) in which their society was literally forced to begin from ground zero—new currency, new government, new philosophies. The struggle to come to terms with Germany’s violent past has been echoed in the works of Grass’s literary contemporaries, such as Heinrich Boll, Christa Wolf, and filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Grass's novels are enhanced by his use of magic realist elements.

Here are other famous works of magic realism:

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This acclaimed novel tells the story of a one-hundred-year period in the history of the fictional Latin American town of Macondo.

Big Fish (2003), a film directed by Tim Burton. In Burton's film, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, an old Southern man's life story takes on mythic proportions.

The Life of Pi (2001), a novel by Yann Martel. This awardwinning novel tells the unusual story of a shipwrecked boy trapped for months on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

 

Works in Critical Context

Though Gunter Grass’s work has been viewed through the lens of controversy with recent revelations of his Nazi military past, his contribution to postwar German literature is undisputed. As the recipient of some of the most prestigious awards in literature and a central figure of modern German culture, Grass has taken on a role of national conscience despite his uneven reception from critics.

The Tin Drum. Even before the publication of his most famous work, The Tin Drum, Grass received recognition for his literary talent. Gruppe 47 awarded him their coveted prize in 1958, allowing him to complete work on the novel. International response to The Tin Drum was immediate and overwhelming. Shortly before the book appeared in the United States, Time magazine pronounced it ‘‘the most spectacular example’’ of recent German literature, praising Grass as ‘‘probably the most inventive talent to be heard from anywhere since the war.’’ Within Germany, criticism was mixed; Grass’s unflinching portrait of madness and immorality struck a chord with reviewers, some of whom praised Grass’s genius; others condemned Grass’s portrait of Germany as obscene and blasphemous.

Local Anesthetic. Grass’s exploration of radical politics in Local Anesthetic was poorly received. The book, which involves a student’s plot to set a professor’s dog on fire to exhibit the futility of war, was seen as treating too lightly the concerns of the student movement and political radicals. Critics complained that Grass had made his point before and that his work was offensively dismissive; though some American critics praised the book, it was considered to be a popular flop.

My Century. My Century, Grass’s ambitious episodic work about the twentieth century, met with a similarly mixed reception. Some German critics complained that Grass failed to look directly at the perpetrators of atrocities such as the Holocaust; others, such as New York Times book reviewer Peter Gay, noted that Grass’s attempt to address such a broad subject matter “fail[ed] to cohere.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Gunter Grass added magic realist elements to his retelling of the horrors of World War II. Compare this technique to the documentary style of narrative favored in books like Schindler’s List or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. What are the benefits of a magic realist approach? What are the limitations?

2. The Free City of Danzig, now known as Gdansk, Poland, plays a central role in Grass’s novels. Using your library and the Internet, write a brief report on the significance of Danzig in German history during the twentieth century.

3. In his later years, Grass’s past as a Waffen-SS member was revealed to great public controversy. Do you feel that Grass’s service in this elite Nazi military branch affects the significance of his body of work? Why do you think he did not reveal this part of his history earlier? If you were Grass, would you have revealed your past or kept it private?

4. In books like The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse, Grass uses humor and parody to deal with the atrocities of war. Can you think of other examples of humor in books about death or war? Is the use of humor or parody in this context out of place, considering the atrocities committed during wartime?

5. Grass’s work can be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut, an American writer who used elements of magic realism in his own writing about World War II. Using your library and the Internet, write a brief biographical study of Kurt Vonnegut and compare his work to that of Grass. How are their writing styles different and how are their perspectives on their own histories different? How are those differences present in their works?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Brandes, Ute Thoss. Gunter Grass. Berlin: Edition Colloquium, 1998.

Enright, D. J. Man Is an Onion: Reviews and Essays. LaSalle, Ill: Open Court, 1972.

Esslin, Martin. Essays on Modern Theatre. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Hollington, Michael. Gunter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralistic Society. New York: Marion Boyars, 1980.

O’Neill, Patrick. Gunter Grass Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Preece, Julian. Gunter Grass: His Life and Work. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Periodicals

Pryce-Jones, David. ‘‘The Failure of Gunter Grass: Another Nobel Bomb.’’ National Review, October 25, 1999.

Web sites

Nobel Prize in Literature. Bio-Bibliography. Retrieved March 3, 2007, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1999/bio-bibl.html.