The German novelist, playwright, and poet Günter Grass (born 1927) is internationally known as one of the most important literary figures of postwar Germany; he is also known as an exemplar of his own saying, "The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open."
Born in the free city of Danzig (Now Gdansk, Poland) on Oct. 16, 1927, Günter Grass was strongly influenced by the political climate of Germany in the era following the disasters of World War I. A Hitler "cub" at 10 and member of the "youth movement" at 14, the boy was infused with Nazi ideology. At 15 he served as an air force auxiliary; he was called to the front and was wounded in 1945. Confined to a hospital bed and then a prisoner of war, Grass later was forced to view the liberated Dachau concentration camp. He left the army at the age of 18, angry about the loss of his childhood, about the fierce and ugly German nationalism which had robbed him of it, and about the almost total destruction of the city of his youth.
Rather than pursue a school-room education, Grass wandered about, working as a farmhand, then miner, then stonemason's apprentice. He became aware of class differences and antagonisms; he developed a dislike for idealists with abstract theories and ideologies and a preference for pluralist skeptics of the non-ideological Left. Everafter, for Grass, in art or in politics, experience was always more significant than theory.
In 1949 he began to study painting at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, at nights supporting himself as the drummer in a jazz band. He also started to write, poems at first, beginning slowly, experimenting with forms, working out his relationship with the past. When he moved to the Academy of Art in Berlin in 1953, he later said, "I came as a writer."
Grass married a ballet student named Anna Schwarz, and (the story has it) it was she who sent some of his poems to a radio station competition; he won third prize, and was then published in the magazine of the "Gruppe 47," a group of writers working to develop a postwar renaissance of German literature. In 1958, Grass again turned to Gruppe 47, this time to read two chapters of his new novel. He won first prize. The novel was published a year later, and brought Grass immediate worldwide attention. It was The Tin Drum.
The Tin Drum's narrator, a complex and self-contradictory drummer named Oskar, a dwarf, leads readers through the events of the war and postwar years through a distorted and exaggerated perspective. The second novel in what came to be known as the Danzig Trilogy, Cat and Mouse (1961), features a hero deformed by his times, playing the cat to the world's mouse, rendered impotent by time's unalterable concern with the trivial. The basic idea of the story is that no single perspective can do justice to a plural reality. The last of the trilogy, Dog Years (1963), deals with the ways in which the past (and its myths) help shape and determine the present. Like The Tin Drum, its structure is circular, ending as it begins, suggestive of Grass's sense of despair. In the Danzig Trilogy and in later novels, the characters are often mythic or folkloric or grotesque (very small and/or very different), in order to make the ordinary and the usual appear in a different perspective.
Grass's work as a poet and playwright would not have established his reputation as a significant contemporary writer. There are foreshadowings of images and themes that appear in later prose works. His poetry has been translated in Selected Poems (1966), In the Egg and Other Poems (1977) and Novemberland: Selected Poems, 1956-93. His most popular and controversial play The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising: A German Tragedy (1965, English translation, 1977) deals with the role of the committed artist in society, one of Grass's constant concerns and one that led in the mid-1960s to his direct involvement in politics as a supporter of Willy Brandt and the Social Democratic Party
An ardent socialist, Grass campaigned actively in German politics and denounced the re-emergence of reactionary groups, and his contemporary political concerns formed the core of his later novels. Local Anesthetic (1969) is an attack on linguistic confusions Grass saw in the slogans of the radical Left, and From the Diary of a Snail (1972), his fictionalized account of his involvement with Brandt's 1969 campaign, he supports gradualism. The Flounder (1977), perhaps Grass's funniest novel, deals with the history of women's emancipation and does not find, in the attitudes of radical feminists, a convincing alternative to the male-dominated past. In Headbirths: or, The Germans are Dying Out (1980), The Meeting at Telgte (1979), and The Rat (1986), Grass shows a world that is going to be worse because it is not getting better.
For a long time, Grass was considered the conscience of Germany's postwar generation, but that time has passed. In the 1990s, Grass still believed in "the literature of engagement" and that "to be engaged is to act," but his readers have changed. When his novel on German-Polish reconciliation The Call of the Toad came out in 1992, it was savagely reviewed in Germany as having nothing new to say. And on the subject of German re-unification, Grass had often said that the experience of Auschwitz was enough to prove that Germans should never again be allowed to live together in one nation; his 1995 novel based on that theme, A Broad Field, provoked harsh literary and political attacks. Nevertheless, at the end of the year more than 175,000 copies were in print and the book was at the top of Germany's best-seller lists.
Further Reading on Günter Grass
An early book in English on Günter Grass is W. Gordon Cunliffe, Günter Grass (1969). Other works on Glass include Ray Lewis White, Günter Grass in American: The Early Years (1981); Richard H. Lawson, Günter Grass (1985); Patrick O'Neil, Critical Essays on Günter Grass (1987); Michael Hollington, Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society (1987); Alan Frank Keele, Understanding Günter Grass (1988).