Authors: Günter Grass

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

German novelist, poet, and playwright

October 16, 1927

Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland)

April 13, 2015

Lübeck, Germany

Biography

Günter Wilhelm Grass was born into a middle-class family in the eastern German city of Danzig. During World War II he had to join the Hitler Youth movement and later entered the German army during the final months of the war. He was wounded in April 1945 and was kept in a prison camp by the Americans until 1946. Grass eventually moved to Düsseldorf and studied art and sculpture. He became a skillful and talented graphic artist, and he published several volumes of his sketches. He married in 1954 and began writing when his wife submitted one of his poems in a contest. His first novel, The Tin Drum, won the first prize at the annual meeting of the prestigious Gruppe 47 in 1958. The book brought him immediate success when published the following year.

The Tin Drum is a literary tour de force and rightly established Grass’s reputation as a master writer. Its ironic and satirical portrait of German society during the period from the 1930s through the 1950s is presented through the eyes of its scurrilous narrator, Oskar Matzerath. Grass’s narrative technique builds, to a degree, upon the dreamlike, surrealistic style established in the early twentieth century by Franz Kafka and is closely related to the magical realism found in the novels of Gabriel García Márquez. Unreal, essentially metaphoric events—such as Oskar’s screaming that shatters glass—are depicted as natural, real occurrences: It is the dramatization of metaphor. The Tin Drum is part of a trilogy that deals with Grass’s native city of Danzig during the war years. The second part, the novella Cat and Mouse, portrays the life and fate of Joachim Mahlke, an awkward adolescent who compulsively conforms in order to gain acceptance and recognition. A Christlike figure who adores the Virgin Mary, Mahlke becomes a war hero so that he might finally win the Iron Cross. The novella represents a scathing condemnation of the perversion of the personality by societal, especially political, pressures. The final part of the trilogy, the novel Dog Years, depicts the lives of Walter Matern, Harry Liebenau, and Eddie Amsel, who serve as very different narrators of the war years. Like the other works, Dog Years presents a highly imaginative and ruthlessly brutal vision of the atrocities and lies of this era in German history.

Günter Grass

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By Florian K (Bild:Grass.jpg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tadeusz Różewicz, Polish poet; Günter Grass, German writer; 51 MTK Warsaw

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By Michał Kobyliński [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Local Anesthetic tells the story of Eberhard Starusch, a history teacher who is undergoing dental work throughout the course of the novel, and Philipp Scherbaum, a radical high school student of the late 1960s. The book represents Grass’s appeal for moderation with respect to the situation of radical politics at that time. It is at once a critique of German society and a rejection of the then-common leftist call for violence—such as with the notorious Baader-Meinhof group—as the only means of unmasking the oppressive nature of capitalist social conditions. During this time, Grass, like other writers such as Heinrich Böll, was becoming more actively involved in the contemporary German political scene. From the Diary of a Snail documents, in the form of a fictionalized journal, Grass’s thoughts and activities during the various German political campaigns of 1969. Progress in social and political terms seems to move at the pace of a snail, Grass suggests, but this is better than the fruitless outbursts of random revolutionary actions.

The Flounder is a meandering novel built upon the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” and presents in part Grass’s reactions to the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1970s. Its various chapters chronicle the interactions between men and women throughout the course of history. Its humor—a feature of all Grass’s writing—is ironic and, at times, scatological, with ongoing references to food, digestion, and elimination. The Flounder provided Grass’s feminist critics an easy target for their attacks of his work. The Meeting at Telgte is a fanciful historical reconstruction of a fictitious meeting of German writers in 1647, near the end of the devastating Thirty Years’ War. This novel is intended as an allusion to the well-known Gruppe 47 literary group that began at the end of World War II. The issue is of the pen versus the sword—that is, the role that art and literature actually play within society, and their seeming impotence before the violence of history.

In the novel Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out, Grass again fictionalizes some of his own diary material. Like many modern authors, including Peter Handke and Christa Wolf, Grass also reflects at times upon the composition of his narrative as he composes it. The work narrates the journey of two Germans, the liberal and socially committed Harm and Dörte Peters, as they travel to Asia in the summer of 1980. It contrasts the political and economic issue of modern, affluent society to the problems and concerns of the Third World. The novel was written to be published at the time of the German parliamentary elections involving the archconservative Franz Josef Strauss and reflects Grass’s concerns about the slow nature of social and political progress within democracies. The Rat, another long, meandering novel, projects a postnuclear holocaust world in which rats are the sole survivors, and it reflects Grass’s pessimism in the 1980s concerning the future of human civilization. Too Far Afield addressed the question of German reunification and, again, was deemed by many critics to be too meandering, including too much exposition and not enough plot. My Century, however, was more favorably received. Structured as one hundred short chapters, each dedicated to a year in the twentieth century, the novel presents a German point of view (a Grassian German point of view) on the history of that calamitous century, from the German view of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion through Kristallnacht and, inevitably, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reunification of East and West Germany. The title of Crabwalk refers to the sideways, back-and-forth course of the narrative, which focuses on three generations of a German family: Paul, a middle-aged journalist who was born on a lifeboat during the sinking of the refugee carrier Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945; his mother, unwed at the time of his birth; and his teenage, right-wing son. This historical incident figures in very different ways in their three lives and their attitudes toward German history and society.

Grass was a liberal and socially committed individual who was highly critical of modern materialistic society. He was active in German politics on behalf of liberal candidates. However, beginning in 1987 Grass encountered increasing criticism from some of his former allies on the political left for two unrelated reasons: his perceived antagonism toward radical feminism and his opposition to German reunification. During the period from 1989 to 1995, several dissertations and theses from American universities criticized Grass’s novels and poetry for the attitudes he expressed in them toward women and feminism. These criticisms eventually led to a symposium on the subject. Concurrently, Germans of all political persuasions criticized Grass in the popular press and intellectual journals for his outspoken denunciation of German unification. Nevertheless, Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, in recognition of his portrayal of “the forgotten face of history.”

Although Günter Grass was primarily a narrative artist, he composed a number of plays and poems, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. These present themes similar to those developed in his novels. He also wrote a number of political essays, and these also inform much of his fictional writing of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s Grass’s attention primarily focused on political issues. His output of fictional works and poetry gave way to politically oriented essays for journals and newsmagazines, one of the most important and controversial being “Don’t Reunify Germany.” In 2012, he published a poem titled “What Must Be Said,” in which he criticized German military support for Israel. Also published in 2012, his poem “Europe’s Disgrace” expressed his abhorrence for the European Union’s treatment of Greece during the sovereign-debt crisis. Grass remained deeply concerned with the social and political issues of modern society throughout his career. He finished writing his final book, Vonne Endlichkait, shortly before his death on April 13, 2015, at the age of eighty-seven.

Author Works Long Fiction Die Blechtrommel, 1959 (The Tin Drum, 1961) Katz und Maus, 1961 (Cat and Mouse, 1963) Hundejahre, 1963 (Dog Years, 1965) Örtlich betäubt, 1969 (Local Anesthetic, 1969) Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke, 1972 (From the Diary of a Snail, 1973) Der Butt, 1977 (The Flounder, 1978) Das Treffen in Telgte, 1979 (The Meeting at Telgte, 1981) Danziger Trilogie, 1980 (Danzig Trilogy, 1987; includes The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years) Kopfgeburten: Oder, Die Deutschen sterben aus, 1980 (Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out, 1982) Die Rättin, 1986 (The Rat, 1987) Unkenrufe, 1992 (The Call of the Toad, 1992) Ein weites Feld, 1995 (Too Far Afield, 2000) Mein Jahrhundert, 1999 (My Century, 1999) Im Krebsgang, 2002 (Crabwalk, 2003) Drama: Hochwasser, pr. 1957, revised pb. 1963 (Flood, 1967) Stoffreste, pr. 1957 (ballet) Beritten hin und zurück, pb. 1958 (Rocking Back and Forth, 1967) Noch zehn Minuten bis Buffalo, pb. 1958 (Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, 1967) Onkel, Onkel, pr. 1958 (Mister, Mister, 1967) Fünf Köche, pr. 1959 (ballet) Zweiunddreissig Zähne, pr. 1959 (radio play) Die bösen Köche, pr., pb. 1961 (The Wicked Cooks, 1967) Goldmäulchen, pr., pb. 1963 (radio play), pr. 1964 (staged) Mystisch-barbarisch-gelangweilt, pr. 1963 POUM: Oder, Die Vergangenheit fliegt mit, pb. 1965 Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand, pr., pb. 1966 (The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, 1966) Four Plays, pb. 1967 (includes Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, The Wicked Cooks, Flood, and Mister, Mister) Davor, pr., pb. 1969 (partial translation as Uptight, 1970; complete translation as Max, 1972) Die Vogelscheuchen, 1970 (ballet) Theaterspiele, pb. 1970 Poetry Die Vorzüge der Windhühner, 1956 Gleisdreieck, 1960 Selected Poems, 1966 (includes poems from Die Vorzüge der Windhühner and Gleisdreieck) Ausgefragt, 1967 (New Poems, 1968) Poems of Günter Grass, 1969 (includes Selected Poems and New Poems; also in a bilingual edition as In the Egg, and Other Poems, 1977) Gesammelte Gedichte, 1971 (includes Die Vorzüge der Windhühner and Gleisdreieck) Mariazuehren, Hommageàmarie, Inmarypraise, 1973 (trilingual edition) Liebe geprüft, 1974 (Love Tested, 1975) Die Gedichte, 1955–1986, 1988 Novemberland: Selected Poems, 1956–1993, 1996 (bilingual edition) Letzte Tänze, 2003 Dummer August, 2007 Nonfiction Über das Selbstverständliche, 1968 (partial trans. Speak Out!, 1969) Über meinen Lehrer Döblin und andere Vorträge, 1968 Der Bürger und seine Stimme, 1974 Denkzettel: Politische Reden und Aufsätze, 1965-76, 1978 Aufsätze zur Literatur, 1980 Widerstand lernen: Politische Gegenreden, 1980-1983, 1984 Zunge Zeigen, 1988 (Show Your Tongue, 1989) Skizzenbuch, 1989 Deutscher Lastenausgleich: Wider das dumpfe Einheitsgebot, 1990 (Two States—One Nation?, 1990) Ein Schnappchen namens DDR: Letzte Reden vorm Glockengelaut, 1990 Schreiben nach Auschwitz: Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesung, 1990 Totes Holz: Ein Nachruf, 1990 Gegen die verstreichende Zeit: Reden, Aufsätze und Gespräche, 1989-1991, 1991 Günter Grass, vier Jahrzehnte, 1991 Rede vom Verlust: Über den Niedergang der politischen Kultur im geeinten Deutschland, 1992 (The Future of German Democracy, 1993) Angestiftet, Partei zu ergreifen, 1994 Die Deutschen und ihre Dichter, 1995 Gestern, vor 50 Jahren: Ein deutsch-japanischer Briefwechsel, 1995 Fünf Jahrzenhnte: Ein Werkstattbericht, 2001 Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, 2006 (Peeling the Onion, 2007 Die Box, 2007 (The Box, 2010) Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland: Tagebuch 1990, 2009 (From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990, 2012) Grimms Wörter, 2010 Vonne Endlichkait, 2015 Miscellaneous Werkausgabe, 1987 (10 volumes) Cat and Mouse and Other Writings, 1994 Bibliography Brady, Philip, et al., editors. Günter Grass’s “Der Butt”: Sexual Politics and the Male Myth of History. Clarendon Press, 1990. Extremely useful collection of critical essays which focus on the representation of sexuality, male-female conflicts, and Grass’s use of history in his controversial novel The Flounder. Individual essays represent a wide range of critical approaches and viewpoints. Some authors discuss the question of Grass’s presentation of women characters, which has caused great controversy in American criticism of the author. Cunliffe, W. Gordon. Günter Grass. Twayne, 1969. Still provides the best introduction to the early Grass works. The chapter “Grass and the Theater of the Absurd,” remains very useful, treating Rocking Back and Forth; Flood; Mister, Mister; Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo; and The Wicked Cooks, with a brief mention of Zweiunddreissig Zähne. Grass, Günter. “How I Spent the War; A Recruit in the Waffen S.S.” The New Yorker, 4 June 2007, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/06/04/how-i-spent-the-war. Accessed 2 May 2017. An autobiographical article, in which Grass describes his wartime experiences, that caused controversy upon its publication for its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen SS during World War II. Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass. Methuen, 1985. An excellent critical introduction to Grass’s writings up to the early 1980’s. Contains notes and a bibliography. Hollington, Michael. Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society. Marion Boyars, 1980. Hollington’s primary focus is on the novels of the Danzig Trilogy, with some discussion of other works. Also looks at Grass’s work as poet, playwright, and political essayist. Horn, Heather. “Gunter Grass’s Controversial Poem About Israel, Iran, and War, Translated.” The Atlantic, 6 Apr. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/gunter-grasss-controversial-poem-about-israel-iran-and-war-translated/255549. This article presents an English-language translation of Grass’s 2012 poem “What Must Be Said” and discusses the controversy surrounding it. Keele, Alan Frank. Understanding Günter Grass. U of South Carolina P, 1988. A text for students and nonacademic readers that provides a good outline of Grass’s major works. Includes a short chapter on the plays and poems. Kinzer, Stephen. “Günter Grass Dies at 87; Writer Pried Open Germany’s Past but Hid His Own.” The New York Times, 13 Apr. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/04/14/world/europe/gunter-grass-german-novelist-dies-at-87.html. Accessed 2 May 2017. An obituary of Grass that describes his life and work and discusses criticisms of the late writer. Lawson, Richard H. Günter Grass. Frederick Ungar, 1985. The detailed presentations of Grass’s novels and poems up to the date of the book’s publication provide useful information. Occasionally Lawson offers more plot information than in-depth critical analysis, but this helps readers to quickly become familiar with Grass’s texts. O’Neill, Patrick. Günter Grass Revisited. Twayne, 1999. Contains a good overview of the author’s life and works and a short chapter on the early absurdist plays Flood; Mister, Mister; and The Wicked Cooks. O’Neill, Patrick, editor. Critical Essays on Günter Grass. G. K. Hall, 1987. A useful collection of previously published work on Grass. Provides a useful biographical introduction by O’Neill and reprints reviews of Grass’s novels before moving to its rich collection of critical articles. Preece, Julian. The Life and Works of Günter Grass: Literature, History, Politics. Palgrave, 2001. An examination of the novelist’s body of work as a response to ongoing German political history. Taberner, Stuart. Distorted Reflections. Rodopi, 1998. Analyzes the importance and function of Grass’s political engagement in his fiction. Also compares Grass’s use of autobiographical elements to the narrative strategies employed by his fellow German-language writers Uwe Johnson and Martin Walser. Weber, Alexander. Günter Grass’s Use of Baroque Literature. Maney, 1995. Convincingly argues that Grass’s novels The Flounder and The Meeting at Telgte utilize sources from Germany’s Baroque era, ranging from 1550 to 1700. Focuses on Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Baroque novel Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912) as a rich quarry for Grass’s two novels, which take place in part during the Baroque age. Grimmelshausen’s original mix of realistic description, satire, social criticism, and rough language is seen as mirrored by Grass’s two texts.

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