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.

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