Citizen Grass and the World’s End

Neal Ascherson

  • On Writing and Politics: 1967-1983 by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
    Secker, 157 pp, £12.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 18773 6
  • Günter Grass by Ronald Hayman
    Methuen, 80 pp, £2.75, September 1985, ISBN 0 416 35490 4

‘In the early Sixties,’ said Grass – he was talking to an audience of Greek intellectuals in Athens, during the dictatorship of the Colonels – ‘I started doing day-to-day political work. The presumptuous élitist notion that writers are the conscience of the nation and should rise above the practical realities of politics has always gone against my grain.’

That last sentence was well taken in Germany. Grass was not attacking the duty of spiritual leadership which poets and novelists took upon themselves during the 19th century, in the age of national-liberal revolutions, and which they still proudly carry in Eastern Europe today. He was condemning the decay of that duty in Germany and Austria into a lofty detachment which became impotence and sometimes collaboration with dictatorship. It is hard to imagine the literary giants of the Romanisches Café in Berlin tramping up and down tenement stairs with election manifestos, or toiling from hall to hall to endorse the candidates of a political party. But this is what Günter Grass has done, on behalf of the German Social Democrats, and done to considerable effect.

The fact of being German has provided another powerful impulse for this engagement. ‘After the Second World War,’ he told the Council of Europe in 1973, ‘hence burdened with the guilt-ridden consequences of German political actions, I was forced in the course of my work as a writer to recognise that (if only marginally) the creative artist’s supposed freedom is a fiction, that the artist not only sets his stamp on society and gives expression to his times, but is in equal measure a product of society and a child of the times – a spoiled child, a stepchild, an illegitimate child, or a ward of the state. I therefore took it for granted that along with my writing I would do the share of the political work that seemed to be incumbent on me as a citizen.’

But the strongest motive of all for Grass’s political activity seems to be to do with his own approach to literature – his violent contempt for a creativity which attempts to keep its hands clean of the mire, of the coarseness and imperfection of the reality he enjoys, of things which smell bad or are deformed or are too thick and rich – he’s a tremendous cook – for the ‘delicate palate’. He assured the Greeks: ‘I know all the arguments against dual activity: a writer should keep his distance. Day-to-day politics with its insipid jargon is ruinous to literary style. And, above all, intellect and power are incompatible.’ He retorts that ‘a literary style cultivated like a hothouse plant may show a certain artificial purity, but it won’t be really pure.’ The polarising of intellect and power is demonstrable rubbish: Grass quotes, in several of these speeches, examples of writers who have wielded power – usually with noxious results. Even Goebbels, he points out, could not quite conceal his ‘intellectual ability’.

I have seen Günter Grass performing ‘the political work that seems to be incumbent on me as a citizen’, and Citizen Grass is impressive. He is a persuasive, often very funny speaker. He concentrates in his political campaigns on the waverers, those who come to his meetings feeling that they are either too leftist or not quite leftist enough to vote for the SPD, and his most telling weapon has been his own detachment from the Party, which he can mock and criticise within the bounds of affection. Its very failures, its reluctance in the Sixties to take a bold and dramatic line, even its boringness, he found endearing – signs that this was an unglamorous and patient party of normal human beings labouring to overcome their own weaknesses. There was an entirely unofficial slogan in those days which did wonders for Willy Brandt: Scheisse – trotzdem, SPD!, which might be translated: ‘Oh, God, not again – but SPD in spite of it!’ Perhaps Grass thought it up.

It shouldn’t be supposed, though, that Grass has made himself universally popular. There has always been a sullen, small-town element which found his novels disgusting and a crime against the sanctity of German Dichtung, who complained that his speeches and pamphlets were making dirty German washing even dirtier under the gaze of the whole world. And on the other flank, Grass – never a revolutionary – got himself into a shouting war with the student left during the late Sixties and early Seventies. I remember one such meeting at which students reduced Grass, never entirely at home with hostility, to apoplexy by chanting: Grass, Du Kröte, Halt Dich nicht für Goethe! (Grass, you toad, stop thinking you are Goethe). This was particularly wounding in that Goethe, in his years as an overworked minister of state at Weimar, provided precisely that image of the writer as active and democratic citizen which Grass has taken for his own.

And, of course, there remains the question of whether a writer should keep a certain distance, and whether ‘day-to-day politics with its insipid jargon’ has indeed hindered Grass’s literary development. The critic Ronald Hayman thinks that it has. His short book on Grass, published in the Methuen ‘Contemporary Writers’ series, provides a careful and fascinating analysis of all Grass’s fiction, but concludes that after The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, the Grass talent enters a steady decline. By ‘allowing himself to be sidetracked repeatedly into political campaigning, he has failed to fulfil the promise that was implicit in his first three fictions ... All his best inventions are centred on a child-based counterworld; as soon as he cantered into the political tilting-yard, with the emblems of the snail and the dentist blazoned on his pennant, his writing became less forceful. None of his later work is sufficiently incisive to exert influence on the younger generation of writers.’ Hayman, in fact, considers that Grass only gave of his best when he was doing what he now condemns: ‘keeping his distance’ by living in Paris, between 1956 and 1960, and devoting all his energy to his art. ‘The author of Headbirths (1980) could hardly be more different from the young writer who spent a year studying the history of the novella before he penned Cat and Mouse.’

This judgment makes me uneasy. It is true that the texture of Grass fiction has changed very greatly over twenty years, and that his later work – Headbirths, and From the Diary of a Snail (1972) – are loose and discontinuous mixtures of fiction, history, travel diary and monologue. It may well be true, too, that young German writers no longer follow his example, although Grass has been in the past at once inimitable (there were a few dreadful efforts) and hugely influential: Salman Rushdie, in his introduction to this collection of lectures and speeches, says that The Tin Drum was one of six works which gave him the ‘passport’ to become the sort of writer he had it in himself to be. But ‘influence on the younger generation of writers’ is not, after all, a critical standard, and the developing curve of Grass’s talent is by no means an obvious decline. There have been novels with weak sections and aspects – though none, I think, to be called bad as a whole – and there have been some hasty books. But it seems to me that Günter Grass – rationing his time very severely these days between periods devoted to public commitments and months spent in almost impenetrable retreat working at his novels – is still doing what he means to do. It would be a mistake to conclude that he has written some relatively lightweight books, interleaving journalism and fiction, simply because he has lost the power to write complex and sustained works of imagination, or needs to keep his publishers happy with a potboiler. Grass, still only in his fifties, is experimenting with new forms, and his imaginative power seems to me to be used more successfully in some of the later novels than in earlier work.

Unlike many readers, I respected but never really liked The Tin Drum, finding something unconvincing in its relentlessly fortissimo pitch. Cat and Mouse and parts of Dog Years showed him a more relaxed and resourceful master of his trade. The most moving and original of all his novels, in my opinion, is From the Diary of a Snail, weaving together a magical tale with a lightly fictionalised history of the Danzig Jews under the Nazis, with the author’s conversations with his children in our own time, and with an elaborate use of the snail as metaphor for the patient, interrupted, gradual and unheroic labour for reform which he finds among the Social Democrats. This book would not have been possible without Grass’s sallies into politics, nor without his insistence upon a writer’s duty as a citizen, just as it would not have been possible if Grass had not retained and steadily refined all that he acquired during his literary apprenticeship in Paris.

One of the deplorable features of the mens Britannica is its episodic, fad-propelled inconsistency, as well displayed in politics as in literature. There was a time when much was written and spoken about détente in Europe, about the need for ‘small steps’ to bring nations in the opposing blocs nearer to one another, about the recognition of a common European plight and identity which required to be asserted against the imperialism of two super-powers whose operations, assumptions and repressions displayed a gruesome resemblance that transcended ideology. Although, as I suspect, this approach remains deeply rooted in British popular thinking, it has long been discarded by the articulate. Only German intellectuals – the boring old Germans – remain stuck with yesterday’s withered flowers of hope, increasingly isolated in a Western Europe which plays, fascinated, with the tin sword of Reaganism.

Günter Grass, as these speeches show, remains stubbornly loyal to his own vision of Europe, to a ‘third force’ notion of a continent which must liberate itself from Soviet and American hegemony and from the burden of their armaments. His sharp hostility to Communism and to (European) revolution once seemed to locate him on the right of democratic socialism; today, his bitterness towards American policies in Central America and his hostility to the deployment of medium-range missiles in Germany seem more like badges of the radical left. But this is more a case of a man whose opinions remain pretty constant, while the political background itself is in motion.

As long ago as 1970, in a speech at Baden-Baden, Grass argued that the resemblance between the Soviet and American systems was as significant as the contrast. He was talking just after Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor, had met Willy Stoph, the East German prime minister, at Erfurt, and he was trying to compare this example of ‘evolutionary change’ to the ‘Erfurt Programme’ adopted by the SPD in 1891, with its illogical combination of revolutionary goals and practical, parliamentary reforms. Grass tried to heroise the personality of Eduard Bernstein, the SPD ‘revisionist’ who believed that capitalism would prove more adaptable than Marx imagined. Grass expounded: ‘Capitalism is as old or young as socialism ... they condition and influence each other.’ When Brandt and Stoph met at Erfurt, ‘they represented not only the historical split in Socialism and the nation, but also the social orders of private capitalism and state capitalism.’ We can see here that Grass, who had so fiercely rejected the New Left rhetoric of the student revolutionaries two years before, was adapting their terminology for his own use. And a few sentences later, he proposed that ‘worker participation ... might be the democratic alternative to the traditional private capitalism of our social order and the traditional state capitalism of the Communist social order’: here, again, was his personal version of one of the ideas of 1968 – the republic of workers’ councils – but put forward as the product of slow Social Democrat reform, not as a spontaneous revolutionary act.

Speaking in Athens two years later, Grass repeated his thesis in more provocative terms. Both blocs, as the Cold War advanced, were ‘groaning under the weight of mounting military expenditure and their resulting inability to finance needed internal reforms ... Both blocs are indeed endangered, but because they are endangered, they are prepared to take ruthless action.’ He then compared the destruction of democracy in Greece, a Nato member, in 1967 to the destruction of democracy in Czechoslovakia, a Warsaw Pact member, in 1968. ‘In both cases, the protagonists of the bloc systems must be held responsible. Without the consent – or indeed, the support – of the United States, basic democratic rights could not have been abolished in Greece; without the imperial will of the Soviet Union the Czechoslovakian attempt to create a human – and that still means a democratic – socialism would not have been crushed ... What the American Government calls “pacification” in Vietnam, the Soviet forces of occupation call “normalisation”.’

Ten years further on still, in 1982, Grass was shouting into the teeth of a rising gale; the renewed arms race and the actions of the Reagan Administration were threatening to blow away all the small gains which Europe had so painfully made. In an article entitled ‘Superpower Backyards’, written for Die Zeit, Grass reported his impressions of Nicaragua, and – inevitably – drew the parallel with the fate of Poland under martial law. The covert ‘hate the Russians’ sentiment in Poland corresponded to the overt ‘hate the Yankees’ sentiment he had encountered in Nicaragua. ‘The United States seeks to undermine the Sandinistas and yet calls itself the protector of Solidarity – and is seen as such by many misguided people in Poland. In Nicaragua, the misinformation spread by Tass, the Soviet news agency, that Solidarity is counter-revolutionary is believed. Voice of America broadcasts tell Poles that Nicaragua will soon be firmly in the orbit of Cuba and the Soviet Union.’

And Grass goes on to make his first unequivocal call for neutralism.

I began to feel ashamed that the United States is an ally of my country. I wish West Germany would renounce that alliance – and not only because of American aggression against Nicaragua. The members of the Atlantic Alliance are expected to accept quietly or even condone every action of their protector ... Because I support both Solidarity and the Sandinistas, I cannot remain indifferent to the wrongs done to them by Russia and the United States.

The Grass ‘Ostpolitik’, as several of these pieces demonstrate, is about democracy and not about détente at any price. A section of West Germany’s liberal opinion-makers disgraced itself in 1981 by its haste to ‘understand’ General Jaruzelski’s ‘patriotic’ action in suppressing Solidarity, imagining that by opposing sanctions against the Polish authorities it was fighting a noble battle in defence of détente. As a child of plebeian Danzig, Grass understood the workers of Gdansk very well, and has never betrayed their cause.

But this collection does reveal the emergence of a pessimism in Grass which was not at all evident in his early writing. His first polemics were robust and sometimes boorish – as Orwell could be boorish – in their scorn for timid intellectuals who could only imagine the worst and did not dare venture out of doors into the richness of the ‘real’ world. But, gradually, Grass himself has become preoccupied with the possibility of the worst. Several pieces here discuss the work of Alfred Döblin, especially his half-forgotten future-fantasy Mountains, Oceans and Giants, which appeared in 1924. Here are visions of Megalopolis and its destruction in fearsome wars which manipulate the elements and liquify the icecaps, in which a human race with ‘oversized heads and frail bodies’ is fed on synthetic ‘Meki food’ and in which ‘pseudo-parliaments’ devise entertainment to keep the idle masses occupied.

In 1978, Grass saw Döblin’s nightmares close to the surface in the Third World, in Japan and India and Indonesia. More recently, fear about the future nearer home has led Grass into violent statements. On the 50th anniversary of Hitler’s accession, in a ceremonial speech in the Paulskirche at Frankfurt, he preached the need for non-violent civil resistance against the spread of ‘transparent democracy’, the electronic surveillance of the security state. Then, turning to the imminent deployment of Pershing II missiles in the Federal Republic ‘in defiance of all reason’, he declared: ‘Of course, the crime for which we Germans bear responsibility cannot be compared with the nuclear genocide with which we are demonstrably threatened. But there is no great difference between the cynical disregard of the basic ethical values by the ill-famed Wannsee Conference, which decreed the “final solution”, and the cynicism that in our own day produces war games simulating nuclear combat with projections of here fifty, there eighty million dead.’

And, finally, this most physical and confident of novelists is brought face to face with the question: is writing – is anything – worth doing if there is to be no future? Milan Kundera has asked the West, with polite irony, to imagine what it is like to work in a culture which may quite possibly be extinguished – its language, its history eradicated. Grass, in more dramatic shock, confronts the possibility that the entire human race will eradicate itself.

In a speech entitled ‘The destruction of mankind has begun’, Grass says:

The history of literature is in part a history of the victory of books over censorship, of writers over potentates. Thus, in the worst of times, literature has always been sure of one ally: the future. Silone and Moravia, Brecht and Döblin outlived fascism, just as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam outlived Stalinism – though it killed them ... This was the case until today, or rather, until yesterday. For with the loss of mankind’s future, the ‘immortality’ of literature, taken as a certainty until now, has ceased to be anything more than wishful thinking.

He intends to go on writing. ‘Yet I know that the book I am planning to write can no longer pretend to certainty of the future. It will have to include a farewell to the damaged world, to wounded creatures, to us and our minds, which have thought of everything and of the end as well.’