On Rereading Günter Grass

Since Günter Grass won his Nobel Prize a week ago, critics have argued that Grass’ political views make him a parody of a left-wing German intellectual: Who can take seriously a man who mourns the lost asceticism of East Germany? But the question the Swedish Academy forces us to address is not whether Grass is a Soviet apologist. The question is, is he now or has he ever been a great novelist?

Pretty much everyone agrees that Grass is not a great novelist now. Nothing he has written since 1963, when he completed his first three novels–The Danzig Trilogy, that is, which is made up of The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years–is memorable, and a lot of it is bad. That includes The Flounder, published in the United States in 1978, an epic disquisition on the perfidy of women (Grass’ leftism does not extend to feminism) that is narrated by a fish and continues through centuries, with asides on matters of sexual and culinary history. Culturebox has not read Grass’$2 1987 novel The Rat, but Ian Buruma has described it as “tales of the end of mankind, with the German chancellor riding through the forest in which concentration-camp victims disguised as mutilated fairy-tale characters were roaming around the poisoned trees.” (“This typically German combination of dark ecology and Nazi trauma found such disfavor,” Buruma continues, “that Grass went off to India to sulk.”) Last week, Culturebox read large chunks of Grass’ latest novel, The Century, to be published in the United States this December, and it seemed like a decidedly minor book–a Ragtime-like fantasia comprising 100 short monologues, each narrated by someone with some connection to one of the past 100 years, none of them with E.L. Doctorow’s wit or affection. In any case, the Swedish Academy has explained why it gave Grass the prize–because of his first novel, The Tin Drum, published in 1959.

The Swedish Academy’s defense of their selection echoes the conventional wisdom on The Tin Drum for the past 40 years: that it made German literature plausible after the Holocaust had made it impossible. Specifically, said the Academy, The Tin Drum brought German literature back to life “after decades of linguistic and moral destruction.” This statement harks back to a famous 1958 essay by the literary critic George Steiner, who asked “whether the German language had survived the Hitler era, whether words poisoned by Goebbels and used to regulate and justify Belsen could ever again serve the needs of moral truth and poetic perception.”

What is it about The Tin Drum that unpoisoned the German language and made it safe for moral truth? The novel tells the story of Oskar Matzerath, who was born in 1928 in Danzig (as Grass himself was), a city on the border between Germany and Poland. Oskar possesses an adult awareness from birth but develops a powerful revulsion against the petit-bourgeois society in which he finds himself, so at the age of 3 he decides to stop growing up. This he achieves by throwing himself down cellar stairs. Thereafter he plays a tin drum in lieu of speaking aloud and, when anyone tries to take it away, screams so shrilly that he shatters glass all around him. Kept home from school, he becomes an unblinking observer of the world around him–his mother’s adultery, the rise of Nazism, Kristallnacht, the invasion of Poland, the ravages of war, and after the war, the “economic miracle.”

Contrary to the popular understanding of the book, Oskar does not provide its moral center. He is not anti-Nazi, nor does his story per se serve as a critique of Nazi-era Germany. Whenever people claim that The Tin Drum is an anti-Holocaust novel, they invariably cite two scenes. In the first, Oskar, sheltered under a rostrum at a Nazi rally, disrupts the proceedings by pounding out the three-quarters-time beat of a waltz and confusing the marching band, so that everyone waltzes off. The second scene occurs during Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when the Nazis destroyed most of the synagogues and many of the Jewish-owned stores in Germany: Oskar discovers that the Jew who sells him his tin drums has committed suicide in his store, while storm troopers rampage around his corpse, poking it with puppets and dropping their pants to shit on the floor.

It soon becomes clear, however, that neither Oskar’s drumming nor his thoughts on the Jewish toy-store owner are politically motivated. He is a perfectly amoral character with the self-absorption of a child; an observer but not a critic, a participant who neither is nor isn’t a responsible party, he’s Grass’ disturbingly neutral allegory of the German people. Later, Oskar will willingly play his drum for Nazi officials. Nor is the Jew a sympathetic character. In an earlier scene, he seemed a figure from a Nazi-era movie: a Jew obsessed with a German woman, in this case Oskar’s mother, whom he begs on bended knee to run away with him to London.

If The Tin Drum has a negative take on Nazism, it is expressed obliquely, through explosive bursts of irreverent language, and by dint of the fact that, in 1959, Grass talks about things such as Kristallnacht–something few other German writers did at the time, at least not so boldly. In the toy-store scene, for instance, Oskar says of a neighbor who also took part in the great national pogrom, though he wasn’t in that particular store: “Meyn was not there,” he says, “just as the ones who were there were not somewhere else”–a swipe at all the Germans who claimed not to have been around whenever Nazi crimes took place. Culturebox has not read the book in German, but those who have say the writing is stuffed with similarly witty phrasing. The German critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger has written of how Grass ranges with masterly skill from high-flown parodies of Catholic litany to the impersonal tone of case histories to slang to dialect and so on.

But does relentless, even brilliant, irony remain an adequate response to the Third Reich, knowing as we do now so much more than we did then? The German scholar Ernestine Schlant (the wife of Bill Bradley) doesn’t think so. She recently published a book called The Language of Silence, about German literature’s relationship to the Holocaust, in which she accuses Grass of a flippant disregard for Germany’s victims: “[T]here is an ingrained obtuseness and insensitivity to those who suffered and died, evident in a language where silence is veiled in verbal dexterity and a creative exuberance rooted in pre-Holocaust aesthetics.” This seems strong–you can condemn a criminal regime through an unsympathetic portrayal of its perpetrators as well as through sympathy for those they killed–but it’s true that in 1999, Grass’ dance of the macabre does come off as weirdly timid. Compare the eeriest passages of The Tin Drum with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s descriptions of the wintry death marches by means of which the Nazis killed off most of the remainder of their concentration-camp prisoners at the end of the war–exercises in pure surrealism, with skeletons moving slowly through a well-fed German countryside–and suddenly even Grass’ fertile imagination seems impoverished.

Grass’ sarcasm is a welcome respite from the heavy-handed literalism of so much contemporary Holocaust narrative, from the 1979 television series Holocaust (another mass catalyst for German self-awareness) to Schindler’s List to the odious Jakob the Liar. And yet, for all of Grass’ rage at Germany’s crimes, the fact that The Tin Drum rarely names those crimes or explores their existence, and seems so focused on the souls of the Germans, with little empathy to spare for their victims, makes the book feel more like a step on the way to something than like the thing itself–whether that thing be a more moral or simply a greater work of literature. A few years after the book came out, George Steiner himself doubted whether Grass really was the savior of German literature that people were making him out to be in Steiner’s name. His quibble was that Grass’ efforts to come up with an adequate description of the brutality of German society had in many ways brutalized him: “Grass,” he writes, “is nearly always too long; nearly always too loud.” But, he concluded, “Totalitarianism makes provincial. … [Grass’] ponderous gait, the outmoded flavor of his audacities, are part of the price German literature has to pay for its years in isolation.” In short, The Tin Drum did restore German literature to the world and the world to German literature. But like Grass himself, what once seemed a masterwork has been overtaken by history.