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|Günter Grass (1927-2015)|
German poet, novelist, playwright, sculptor, and printmaker, who, with his extraordinary first novel Die Blechtrommel (1959, The Tin Drum) became the literary spokesman for the German generation that grew up in Nazi era. Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. The author described himself as "Spätaufklärer", a belated apostle of enlightenment in an era that has grown tired of reason. He once said that writers, by giving us ''mouth-to-ear artificial respiration,'' help keep humanity alive.
"You can begin a story in the middle and create confusion by striking out boldly, backward and forward. You can be modern, put aside all mention of time and distance and, when the whole thing is done, proclaim, or let someone else proclaim, that you have finally, at the last moment, solved the space-time problem. Or you can declare at the very start that it's impossible to write a novel nowadays, but then, behind your own back so to speak, give birth to a whopper, a novel to end all novels." (from The Tin Drum)
Günter Grass was born in the (former) Free City of Danzig (now Gdánsk, Poland), the scene of his several novels. His father owned a grocery and his mother was of Kashubian origin – Slavic people distinct from the Poles both as to language and culture. Grass was educated at Danzig Volksschule and Gymnasium. In the 1930s he joined the Hitler Youth, was drafted into the army at the age of 16, and wounded in a battle in 1945. In an interview from 2006, Grass admitted that he had served in the notorious Waffen SS. "It had to come out finally," Grass said. "It will stain me forever." Grass was imprisoned in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. When he managed to get assigned to work in the United States Army canteen, he was shocked by the amount of food that the soldiers threw away. Freed in 1946, Grass supported himself by working on farms, in a potash mine, and as a stonemason's apprentice.
In 1948 Grass enrolled as a student of painting and sculpture in the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. He studied in West Berlin at State Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin (1953-55) and made journeys to Italy, France, and Spain. In 1954 he married Anna Margareta Schwartz – they were divorced in 1978. In 1979 Grass married Ute Grunert.
Both in Düsseldorf and Berlin Grass had written poetry, some
of which he read before Group 47, an influential circle of writers.
From 1956 to 1960 he worked as a sculptor and writer in Paris. In 1960
he settled in West-Berlin. While staying in Paris in 1956, Grass
started his hugely successful first novel, The Tin Drum. His
other works from the late 1950s were mostly plays, which, like his
verse, achieved only modest public acclaim. The Tin Drum
a furor in Germany because of its depiction of the Nazis. The central
character is Oscar Matzerath, who has refused to grow as a protest to
the cruelties of German history. He communicates only through his toy
drum. The regional government in Bremen refused to grant Grass the
Bremen literature prize on the grounds of blasphemy and obscenity.
Grass said that the Gruppe 47 prize for literature in 1958 meant more
to him because at that point, he was as poor as a church mouse.
Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) was filmed in 1979 by Volker Schlöndorff, starring David Bennent (Oskar), Mario Adorf (Alfred Matzerath), Angela Winkler (Agnes Matzerath), Daniel Olbrychski, Katherina Thalbach, Mariella Oliveri. The story is set in Poland and starts from the early 1900s. A peasant girl gives birth to Agnes. After World War I she marries Alfred, a grocer in Danzig. She has an affair with her cousin Jan, who may be the father of Oskar. At the age of three Oskar resolves not to grow. As a mark of his decision he, becomes attached to his toy tin drum. Fascists take over Danzig. Agnes dies after being forced to eat eels by Alfred, who remarries. Oskar leads Jan to the besieged Polish post office, where he is captured and executed by the Germans. Oskar then joins a circus and returns at the end of the war to Danzig. Alfred is shot as a collaborator and Oskar starts growing again. 12-year-old David Bennent in the role of Oskar produced a startling performance. Volker Schlöndorff later gave up on the idea of a sequel which would follow the rest of the novel.
Danzig was for Grass what Dublin was for Joyce. The Tin Drum was the first part of Grass' 'Danzig trilogy', which continued in the novella Katz und Maus (1961, Cat and Mouse), depicting the experiences on lower-middle-class youth in Danzig from 1939 to 1944. Hundejahre (1963, Dog Years) Grass later regarded as a false start on the third part. The novel focused on the Nazi crimes and the postwar acceptability of former Nazis. From Dangiz Grass turned his attention to Berlin. In the play Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand (1966, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising) Bertolt Brecht appears as the Boss, who declines to leave his theatrical preoccupation to support the East Berlin workers' reformist uprising. The novel Örtlich betäubt (1969, Local Anaesthetic) and the drama Davor, based on the novel, had Berlin as the scene of events.
After establishing his fame with the trilogy, Grass became active in politics, though he did not abandon his anti-ideological scepticism. He worked as a ghost-writer for the leader of the Social Democrats, Willy Brandt (1913-1992), who was elected chancellor from 1969-74. (Collection of speeches and essays: Der Bürger und seine Stimme, 1974 – The Citizen and his Voice).
In the 1970s and 1980s Grass expanded his subjects from recent German history and contemporary politics into other issues, such as feminism, the art of cooking, and ecology. He traveled to India for the first time in 1975 and in the late 1980s he spent some months in Calcutta. Grass' diary, Zunge zeigen (1988), collected his impressions from the visit. Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972, From the Diary of a Snail) Grass invented a 'diary' of his travels as a campaigner for the Social Democrats and Willy Brandt in the 1969 election. Interwoven with the account and views of the narrator and the author, is a story about Hermann Ott, held up as an example of "the good German". He is a collector snails, well known for their slow movement, which in the book becomes a symbol of Social Democratic policy: "Only those who know and respect stasis in progress, who have once and more than once given up, who have sat on an empty snail shell and experienced the dark side of utopia, can evaluate progress." (From The Diary of a Snail, 1972) Otto takes a refuge from the Nazis with a Kashubian, who wants to become a German. W.G. Sebald accused Grass of paying lip service to the crimes of National Socialism.
Der Butt (1977, The Flounder) played with mythology and time, spanning from prehistoric matriarchy to the Gdansk shipyards of the 1970s. Grass portrayed the development of civilization as a struggle between men's destructive dreams of grandeur and female accomplishment. He also explored the historical role of cooks, sexual roles, feminism – there is a talking flounder, from the Grimms' fairy tale 'The Fisherman and His Wife'. Animals appear often in the titles of Grass's books: there is a cat, mouse, dog, snail, rat, toad, and crab, they don't seem to have anything in common, except that they are very ordinary.
In Die Rättin (1986, The Rat) the narrator receives as a present a female rat, who demonstrates in several stories that the rats will inherit the earth. Unkenrufe (1992, The Call of the Toad) is a story about two widows, a German art historian, and a Polish restorer. They go into business together returning the remains of Germans exiled after the war to Danzig. Ein weites Feld (1995) is set in the years of German reunification 1989-91. It was the first major literary work to deal with this historical event after the Berlin Wall was removed. The protagonist, Theo Wuttke, has devoted his life to the study of the 19th-century writer Theodor Fontane, and comments the daily events by searching parallels to them from the history. The book's title comes from Fontane's novel, Effi Briest, which was published in 1895, but the author's most timely work is Jenny Treibel (1892), set in Berlin after the national unification of 1871. The narrative shifts back and forth in time as Wuttke roams through Berlin with his shadow, Ludwig Hoftaller, a mid-level spy, a faithful servant of the Gestapo and then the Stasi. Grass himself opposed the unification of the two German states, and compared it to Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. One of Grass's critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, literally teared the book apart in Der Spiegel.
As an essayist Grass was very prolific. He dealt with several topics often embedded in historical context. However, for an outsider his mockeries of what he sees to be the faults of Germany and German people, is many times hard to understand. oteworthy, Grass opposed in 1989-91 German's hasty reunification. In 1992 he dedicated a public address about the decline of political culture in the United Germany to the Turkish victims of Mölln. In his later essays Grass has criticized contemporary culture and politics. Grass' poem 'What Must Be Said,' published in 2012, asked does "the nuclear power of Israel / threat the world peace?" Soon afterwards, he was declared personan non grata in Israel.
In Über meinen Lehrer Döblin und andere Vorträge (1968) Grass declared his debt to Alfred Döblin, a writer-politician, although in the artistic sense literary influences are not so clear. Grass' comic fantasy is quite distinctive for German literature; he has created narrators who are acutely conscious of their art of storytelling, and in his poems he has approached surrealism. Volker Neuhaus wrote in Günter Grass (1979), that the lyric forms in Grass a universal constant. "Not only is the lyric – together with sculpture and graphics – Grass's earliest form of artistic expression, but right up to the many poems in The Flounder he has never given it up." Grass's novelistic style is often described as baroque. In spite of the fantastic elements, criticism inclines to regard such novels as The Tin Drum as primarily historical or even realistic.
From 1986 to 1987 Grass lived in India, which he has depicted in Zunge zeigen (1988, Show Your Tongue). From 1976 was coeditor of L and from 1980 Verlag L '80 publishers. Between the years 1983 and 1986 he was President of Berlin Academy of Arts. Besides the Nobel Prize, Grass' several awards include Gruppe 47 Prize (1958), Critics' Prize (1960, Germany), Foreign Book Prize (1962, France), Bühner Prize (1965), Fontane Prize (1968), Heuss Prize (1969), Mondello Prize (1977, Palermo), Carl von Ossiersky Medal (1977), Viareggio-Versilia Prize (1978), Majakowski Medal (1977), Feltrinelli Prize (1982), Leonhard Frank Ring (1988). In his Nobel lecture Grass stated: "Once more I open The Rat to the fifth chapter, in which the laboratory rat, representing millions of other laboratory animals in the cause of research, wins the Nobel Prize, and I am reminded how few prizes have been awarded to projects that would rid the world of the scourge of mankind: hunger." Grass had honorary degrees from three colleges and universities.
Grass's later works include Mein Jahrhundert (1999), a running commentary on the the 20th century, and Im Krebsgang (2002, Crabwalk), about the taboo of German guilt. During the war, Grass witnessed instances of German wartime suffering, but it was not until his adulthood that he could form a clear picture of injustices that had unfolded right before his very eyes. Crabwalk took its subject from the sinking of the German liner, "Wilhelm Gustloff", in January 1945, by a Soviet submarine. It has been estimated that 8.000-9.000 passangers, mostly refugees and wounded soldiers, drowned. The book became a best seller and was soon translated into several languages. "For Grass to tell the story at the opening of the new century means something. It may even signal that it is acceptable, appropriate for all the stories of what happened in those terrible years to enter the public arena." (J.M. Coetzee in The New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003)
Häuten der Zwiebel (2006), an account of the
author's first 32 years, Grass revealed that he had served in the SS
for a few months. The confession stirred an international
controversy and questions were raised about his artistic credibility.
However, Grass had been relatively open about his SS membership until
the mid-1960s. He reflected ironically his failure to enter a literary
competition in the Nazi children's newspaper Hilf mit! because
"the premature debut of my literary career would have been
Nazi-tarnished". Grass died in Lübeck of a lung infection on April 13, 2015. The third volume of his autobiography, Grimms Wörter (2010), describes the birth of the Deutsches Wörterbuch
by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and fuses the life of the brothers with the life of the author himself and
his love with German language. Full of wordplays, puns, poems,
and free associations, this work made Grass to believe that it would be impossible to translate it into
For further reading: The Sceptical Muse by Ann L. Mason (1974); The 'Danzig Trilogy' of Günter Grass by John Reddick (1975); Günter Grass: Wort, Zahl, Gott by Michael Harscheidt (1976); Günter Grass: the Literature of Politics by A.V. Subiotto (1978); Günter Grass: Atelier des métamorphoses by Nicole Casanova (1979); Günter Grass: the Writer in a Pluralist Society by M. Hollington (1980); Günter Grass by Ronald Hayman (1985); Günter Grass by Richard H. Lawson (1985); Critical Essays on Günter Grass , ed. by Patrick O'Neill (1987); Günter Grass's Der Butt by Philip Brady et al. (1990); Polyphonie und Improvisation by Klaus-Jurgen Roehm (1993); Günter Grass His Critics by Siegfried Mews (1996); Metaphors in Grass' Die Blechtrommel by Antoinette T. Delaney (1999); Günter Grass Revisited by Patrick O¨Neill (1999); Bürger Grass. Biografie eines deutschen Dichters by Michael Jürgs (2002); Germans as Victims in the Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic, ed. Stuart Taberner & Karina Berger (2009); Günter Grass: Schriftsteller, Künstler, Zeitgenosse: eine Biographie by Volker Neuhaus (2012) - Other writers who combine fantastic element, fabulations, with realistic narrative: Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov. See also: Magic Realism