Günter Grass: storyteller of imagination and comic panache

Günter Grass changed the way writers wrote fiction and challenged the way we look at the world

 

How to define Günter Grass? All things to all men; novelist, visual artist, witness, 1999 Nobel Literature Laureate, commentator, polemicist, world traveller, poet, a maverick, a tireless chronicler of Germany’s clouded past and custodian of an uneasy present.

At least, of the last mentioned role, that of the custodian, he was until 2007 when he belatedly detailed his wartime membership of the Waffen SS prior to the publication of his autobiography, Peeling the Onion.

Even if his wartime experience has tarnished in the eyes of some his credibility as a moral conscience, there is no disputing Grass’s contribution to our understanding of an impossible episode in human history. His war has always informed his darkly exuberant, experimental fiction. As a boy he had read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and admits that as a 15-year-old bored teenager, he had seen war as exciting.

In Peeling the Onion he wrote: “I kept silent.” He presented himself as neither a hero nor a victim. “As a member of the Hitler Youth I was, in fact, a Young Nazi. A believer till the end. Not what one would call fanatical, not leading the pack, but with my eye, as if by reflex, fixed on the flag that was to mean ‘more than death’ to us. I kept pace in the rank and file . . . I saw my fatherland threatened, surrounded by enemies.”

Early years

In common with Oskar Matzerath, the narrator of his most famous work, The Tin Drum (1959), Grass was a grocer’s son. His sense of culture was complicated from birth. Born in Danzig, now Gdansk, on October 16th, 1927, he always claimed he lost his homeland at 17. His daring, colourful fiction is a search for it. His mother came from Kashubian stock; a member of a minority who at any particular time could be judged insufficiently German, and inequally, insufficiently Polish. He resented this cultural limbo; it filled his waking moments. His beloved mother’s father and two of her brothers had died in the Great War; a third brother had perished during the global influenza epidemic of 1918. She ran the family shop and Grass at the age of 11 displayed a flair for collecting debts.

School did not excite him, but books did. His mother soon noticed this interest and encouraged it. Burly with big hands, he went to train as a stonemason and the process led him to painting and sculpture. His painting tended towards bold images in the style of Picasso and Max Ernst. Similar imagery would emerge in his writing, as did a consistent use of animals as powerful motifs: dogs, cats, snails and rats; to symbolise death and decay he summoned the toad. He was a fabulist who drew on the European fairy tale at its blackest and often most comic, but for all the imaginative panache, the whimsy and the gags, he was remorselessly practical and political; always, very, very political.

His Nobel Lecture in 1999, one of the most candid addresses delivered, had as much to do with practical realities, such as world hunger, as it did about literature: “In 1973, just when terror – with the active support of the United States – was beginning to strike in Chile, Willy Brandt spoke before the United Nations General Assembly, the first German chancellor to do so. He brought up the issue of worldwide poverty. The applause following his exclamation, “Hunger too is war!” was stunning.”

Grass continued: “I was present when he gave that speech. I was working on my novel, The Flounder, at the time. It deals with the very foundations of human existence, including food, the lack and superabundance thereof, great gluttons and untold starvelings, the joys of the plate and crusts from the rich man’s table. The issue is still with us. The poor counter growing riches with growing birth rates. The affluent north and west can try to screen themselves off in security-mad fortresses, but the flocks of refugees from the impoverished south will catch up with them; no gate can withstand the crush of the hungry.”

The speech is so true of Grass, opinionated and certain of his beliefs. He may not have made clear wartime actions made by his teenage self when he joined the Waffen SS at 17 – and many of his admirers, myself included, never understood why people were so quick to attack him except for the fact that Grass was always a pillar of truth and pillars of truth are not allowed to have secrets – but Grass remained and remains a truth-teller.

Storyteller

He concluded his speech by exalting the storytellers, of which he was one: “And if one day people stop or are forced to stop writing and publishing, if books as a means of survival are no longer available, there will still be storytellers giving us mouth-to-ear artificial respiration, spinning old stories in new ways; loud and soft, heckling and halting, now close to laughter, now on the brink of tears.”

There was always something of the wise, slightly exasperated father about Grass, an intimidating, pipe-smoking presence, stocky, very physical even as an older man. Throughout his life, up until his late 70s, he had a daily ritual; he used to stand on his head. In recent years he would say that what most upset him about being old was no longer being able to balance upon his very large skull.

His fiction continues to make readers stand on their heads; particularly his debut, The Tin Drum, a novel which in my opinion shares the honours as the defining novel of the 20th century along with Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955).

The Tin Drum made Grass internationally famous. The reaction in Germany to a burlesque expose of the years spanning 1925-1955 was less enthusiastic. Oskar with the body of a child, the sexual desires of a man combined with a very nasty streak, shocked and repelled. Yet Oskar was the equal to the society that had produced him – which was Grass’s thesis. He followed this great big book, with a great small one, Cat and Mouse (1961), the second instalment of what would become the Danzig trilogy, while the third volume, Dog Years, went further back in history to the Germany of 1917 as three narrators take up the story of a country racing towards disaster.

For his 50th birthday present to himself, Grass wrote The Flounder (1978). Taking as its theme mankind’s communal stupidity, it is a study of feminism filtered through a 4,000-year survey of cooks. The Rat (1986) is an environmentalist polemic, while The Call of the Toad (1992), is the closest in style of all Grass’s work to fellow German Nobel Literature Laureate, Heinrich Böll (1917-1985). For once, Grass’s characteristic comic flourishes are absent; The Call of the Toad takes an evocative and convincing look at post-1989 Europe in the form of a love story.

Then there was his majestic post-unification, Berlin picaresque, Too Far Afield (1995), in which two old men wander the streets of Berlin watching and remembering.

In 1999, the year in which he was finally and deservedly honoured with the Nobel Prize, Grass published My Century, a sequence of 100 stories, one for every year of the battered 20th century, in which he told the story of his country and his relationship with it. In ways it is a salute to Germany.

Love of country

His love of his country would also shape Crabwalk (2002). No doubt taking his cue from a very different and equally singular German writer, W.G. Sebald, Grass acknowledges the long-denied German war grief in what is a remarkable work.

Adopting a deceptively conversational tone, Crabwalk is a dignified memorial which tells the true story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a peacetime cruise ship called into service to transport more than 9,000 civilian refugees and a thousand recruits. It was torpedoed on the night of January 30th, 1945, losing all but a few hundred survivors. Grass maintained that the forgotten episode had had to wait more than 60 years to be recognised as a human tragedy because the victims were German.

Commentators who describe him as stern might well take a look at the wonderfully poignant collection of poems on old age which he wrote and which have been translated into Irish by Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock. Ever open to change, Grass supported a new translation of The Tin Drum which was published in 2009, marking the 50th anniversary of the novel.

A storyteller possessed of imagination and comic panache, Günter Grass was an original, as much a man of the Baltic as he was of Germany. For all his innovation, in Peeling the Onion he wrote an autobiography as bluntly practical as Arthur Miller’s Timebends (1987). Direct, gruff and matter of fact, it is a bit like the man himself, a realist with a long memory, full of irony and with his own ghosts to battle.

He changed the way writers wrote fiction, he changed the readers who experienced it, he challenged the way we look at the world and above all, the way in which everyone, not just Germans, look at history. He gave his countrymen something to ponder; he gave us all something to think about. His legacy is written in stone as solid as sculpture. It is an analogy to make the lugubrious master peer closely before bestowing one of his slow smiles.

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