Günter Grass’s Uniqueness

J.P. Stern

With the deaths of Thomas Mann in 1955 and of Bertolt Brecht and Gottfried Benn in 1956, a major era in the history of German literature comes to an end. These three are not only the greatest writers of their age, they are also its witnesses. Each of them worked in a different genre: Thomas Mann in the convoluted, partly essayistic prose of his novels, Bert Brecht in the drama and narrative poetry of social dialectics, Benn in the lyrical poetry of radical Modernism. Each went through a different political development and reacted differently to the ruling political ideology. Yet the questions they ask have a family likeness; and the answers they offer remind us forcibly that theirs was an age of terror.

Any author whose literary gifts and moral disposition lead him towards this contemporary turmoil and who tries to come to terms with it creatively, with the best that is in him, is bound to have to face very special formal and compositional problems. These problems are likely to be different for a writer like Günter Grass, who faces the same world at one remove, reporting on the way the dead buried their dead. This is our first premise. The other is that, quite irrespective of that era, the German novel at its most characteristic has not been renowned for its contributions to the ‘Great Tradition’ of European realism, which dominated French, English and Russian prose literature throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century. Realism as we know it from Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy onwards entered German literature relatively late in the day and has been powerfully challenged by other modes of writing. Thus Thomas Mann’s very last work, the unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man of 1954, is a picaresque novel whose main narrative devices are a direct challenge to the verisimilitude of realistic fiction.

Chief among the literary and cultural patterns of Thomas Mann’s novels had been the classical German Bildungsroman, the novel of initiation and development, in the course of which a young hero is led from adolescent self-absorption and egocentricity on the margins of the social world through a variety of instructive experiences – often a mixture of the erotic and the aesthetic – to a state of adulthood and responsibility at the centre of contemporary society. True, Thomas Mann’s use of the Bildungsroman and its main theme had never been unambiguous and unproblematic, had always been informed – or undermined – by a spirit of irony: in Felix Krull this is radicalised to a point of fantasy and farce.

The pattern from which Krull evolves is the picaresque novel which, in German literature, goes back to the 17th century: 1668, to be precise, when Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen published his Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, a novel which, in sharp contrast to the contemporary courtly novel, is set among soldiers, actors, servants, beggars, robbers and whores. There are characters exemplifying the Christian virtues, but the notion of moral and spiritual development recedes behind a rich and colourful series of adventures on the pattern of ‘one damn thing after another’. Purposeful teleology gives way to the rule of fortune, spiritual uplift goes hang, cunning for the sake of mere survival is the order of the day, and when salvation does come, it comes in as untoward and unmotivated a manner as do the temptations of the flesh and of the devil. All this, as we shall see, is grist to Günter Grass’s mill. The picaro he will create from some of the elements of the traditional rogue novel is as radical a response to Thomas Mann’s genteel Felix Krull as Krull is to Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius. Very strong affinities of atmosphere connect the Germany of the Thirty Years War, which Grimmelshausen portrayed, with the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s which is the obsessive concern of Grass’s ‘Danzig Trilogy’. These are affinities which are not encompassed by Mann’s imagination, or by the imagination of many writers of Mann’s generation apart from Brecht.

Günter Grass was born in a suburb of the Free City of Danzig in 1927, then under the protection of the League of Nations, and like Charles Dickens, Jan Neruda, James Joyce, Theodor Fontane and his acknowledged exemplar Alfred Döblin, he places his native city at the centre of his creative imagination. Grass’s best work so far is given over, again and again, to its evocation: a very special piety ties him to the streets and places of Danzig, its beaches, its inhabitants and their desperate, murderous national conflicts. For even more than the London, Dublin, Berlin and Prague of the authors I have mentioned, Grass’s Danzig is an intensely political city: the place, from the 12th century onwards, where Prussia and Poland, the Knights of the German Order and Polish patriots, Germans and Slavs encountered each other in rivalry. In 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. At this time, when Danzig was experiencing growing unemployment, a deterioration of its maritime trade and an upsurge of nationalism, the people of the deeply divided city elected a Senate with a National Socialist majority and the local Party Gauleiter as its President.

To paraphrase a sentence of Brecht’s Galileo, happy is the country that has no land frontiers. With the conflict of Ulster in the forefront of our minds, we now find it less difficult to imagine the protracted bitterness and violence of the Polish-German relationship that is epitomised in the history of Danzig – the intensity of the passions, the internecine strife of centuries, which come to a head and lead directly to the outbreak of the Second World War in the first days of September 1939, and to the city’s death in the last week of that war. The rhythms of the threnody which the narrator-hero of The Tin Drum chants for the city illustrate that special pietas loci which informs Grass’s prose, and give us a first idea of its innovatory energy:

After that we seldom emerged from our hole. The Russians were said to be in Zigankenberg, Pietzgendorf, and on the outskirts of Schidlitz. There was no doubt that they occupied the heights, for they were firing straight down into the city. Inner City and Outer City, Old City, New City and Old New City, Lower City and Spice City – what had taken seven hundred years to build burned down in three days. Yet this was not the first fire to descend on the city of Danzig. For centuries Pomeranians, Brandenburgers, Teutonic Knights, Poles, Swedes, and a second time Swedes, Frenchmen, Prussians, and Russians, even Saxons, had made history by deciding every few years that the city of Danzig was worth burning. And now it was Russians, Poles, Germans and Englishmen all at once who were burning the city’s Gothic bricks for the hundredth time. Hook Street, Long Street, and Broad Street, Big Weaver Street and Little Weaver Street were in flames; Tobias Street, Hound Street, Old City Ditch, Outer City Ditch, the ramparts and Long Bridge, all were in flames. Built of wood, Crane Gate made a particularly fine blaze. In Breechesmaker Street, the fire had itself measured for several pairs of extra-loud breeches. The Church of Saint Mary was burning inside and outside, festive light effects would be seen through its ogival windows. What bells had not been evacuated from St Catherine, St John, St Brigit, Saints Barbara, Elizabeth, Peter and Paul, from Trinity to Corpus Christi, melted in their belfries and dripped away without pomp or ceremony. In the Big Mill red wheat was milled. Butcher Street smelled of burnt Sunday roast. The Municipal Theatre was giving a premiere, a one-act play entitled ‘The Firebug’s Dream’. The city fathers decided to raise the firemen’s wages retroactively after the fire. Holy Ghost Street was burning in the name of the Holy Ghost. Joyously, the Franciscan Monastery blazed in the name of St Francis, who had loved fire and sung hymns to it. Our Lady Street burned for Father and Son at once. Needless to say the Lumber Market, Coal Market and Haymarket burned to the ground. In Baker Street the ovens burned, and the bread and rolls with them. In Milk Pitcher Street the milk boiled over. Only the West Prussian Fire Insurance Building, for purely symbolic reasons, refused to burn down.

The fate of the city and its surrounding countryside becomes, for a boy born of a German father and a Cashubian (Slav) mother, a part of his intimate personal history. As a member of the German lower middle class that was particularly receptive to the new racist and nationalist ideas, at the age of ten he entered the ‘Jungvolk’, from which he was promoted to the Hitler Jugend, joining a tank regiment as a gunner when he was barely 17. When, at the end of the war, on being wounded, he was taken prisoner-of-war by the Americans, he still felt, as he says, ‘that our war was all right.’ Then came the shock of a guided tour through the concentration camp at Dachau and the gradual realisation ‘of what unbelievable crimes had been done in the name of my... generation and ... what guilt, knowingly and unknowingly, our people had brought upon themselves’.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in