The genius of Danzig

G|nter Grass' Nobel Prize honors the stalwart leftist who rebuilt the German novel on the literary ruins of the Third Reich.

Published October 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was the perfect grace note, like a bit of opaque symbolism that had leaked from one of his novels. The announcement last Thursday that G|nter Grass had won the Nobel Prize in literature caught Grass on the way to the dentist's -- which, in the context of Grass' work, is something like his disciple John Irving's being fingered for an award en route to an old Viennese hotel full of bears. Grass has been a writer of many ideas but, like Irving, one with a smallish store of recurring images; and a mordant teeth thing has haunted his novels from the first, climaxing in 1969's "Local Anaesthetic," a Proustian novel set in the dentist's chair. There have been no reports to date that the news of Grass' laureation was whispered in his ear by a talking flounder or delivered by a maniacal Nazi dwarf. It probably wasn't conveyed by a deputation of cooks or of scarecrows. But, symbolically at least, one other Grassism animated his selection for this year's prize: the totem animal of 1972's "From the Diary of a Snail," a symbol of progress who "hurries slowly."

Grass' route to the Nobel -- or, rather, the prize's route to Grass -- has not been swift. Until Thursday, we thought of him as we once thought of Susan Lucci, Phil Rizzuto, the pre-"Schindler" Spielberg. He was a perennial bridesmaid, passed over by the Nobel Committee in 1972 for fellow postwar Tr|mmerliteratur novelist Heinrich "Heinrich Who?" Bvll; he had grown gray waiting for the slow Nobel compass to complete its rotation and settle once again on a German author. No other living German novelist approaches his stature.

But then, how many Americans would be likely to know that? In the United States, he's had a different, more ambivalent sort of stature -- that of the most important living novelist to have drifted off the public radar. Now Grass will have what his character Pilenz, in the 1961 novella "Cat and Mouse," calls "the abracadabra," "the trinket," "the all-day sucker": He'll have his medal good and proper. But here he's still pretty much the "Tin Drum" guy -- or, at least, the author of the early "Danzig Trilogy," which comprises "The Tin Drum," "Cat and Mouse" and the 1963 "Dog Years." His latest novel, the epochal "My Century," will be published here by Harcourt Brace in December. And in between those two achievements lies a career -- 36 years of mature work.

Grass was born in 1927 in Danzig, Germany -- now Gdansk, Poland, but always, eternally Danzig in his writings. He joined the expected Nazi youth organizations and volunteered for service in an anti-aircraft battery during the war. The end of his service found him as a tank gunner on the Eastern front, where he was wounded and captured by American troops; his National Socialist convictions crumbled as he was marched through Dachau following the camp's liberation. Danzig, like most German cities, had been bombed halfway to hell, and like many it fell within the Soviet territory of postwar occupation. Grass fell into exile in the Western zone. He worked for a while as a miner, and during this time a nascent Communist worker's group soured him forever on the idea of revolution and helped turn his convictions toward the "snail's path" of the Social Democrats.

Grass entered university in D|sseldorf in 1947, training as a sculptor. He began to write seriously only in the mid-1950s, when he was well into adulthood and making a patchy living as a graphic artist. The bulk of his output during the period was drama, but his first small success -- third prize in a contest sponsored by South German Radio -- was as a poet. This accomplishment helped hook him up with the influential Gruppe 47, a cadre of writers devoted to the idea of a new, postwar German literature. Members of the group, upon hearing him read what would become the first chapter of "The Tin Drum," granted him a cash prize that allowed him to shutter himself in Paris while he finished the novel.

Jan Morris, the travel writer, calls the postwar reconstruction of Danzig/Gdansk "the single most spectacular rebuilding job ever," adding, "I defy any ill-informed stranger to guess that this marvelous city is not in its original incarnation." Grass' first novel did much the same for German literature, standing on old foundations with such confidence and grace that you'd never know it was situated on a gigantic literary bomb crater. Apart from a few determined expatriates, modern German writing had been fairly well killed off under the Third Reich, which promoted a ham-fisted literalism larded with mawkish sentimentality -- an exaggerated middle-American style full of Sieg-heiling Cub Scouts and bosom-clutching Frduleins. "The Tin Drum" was the direct antithesis of the Nazi novel, a literary de-Nazification program steeped in the surreal, the opaque, the sardonic -- all the elements of the prewar modernist tradition that the Third Reich had loathed and, for a quarter of a century, suppressed.

It was also a thoroughly postwar novel that sought atonement for Germany's crimes without retreating into the common "phantom Nazi" fallacy, wherein all the Nazis went away in 1945, leaving nobody but ordinary Germans behind. "The Tin Drum" followed the course of German society from the Third Reich to the Federal period. And it embodied a new, West German sort of Germanness, a looser, more impolite, more ecumenical version that took hold at the same time as the partitioning of the country and the "economic miracle." Grass has called Oskar Matzerath -- the book's amoral protagonist, who wills himself into remaining a child forever -- the Zeitgeist of that era. Oskar (as Germany) begins telling his story in a mental hospital, having been accused of murder. But the age of the Nazi dwarf was ending, helped along to its conclusion by Grass' vision of the adult West German state. Oskar ends the book as shrunken and miserable as ever, but awaiting the horrors of the future rather than enthralled by those of the past.

An anonymous Time Magazine critic wrote in 1970, "It is among Grass' several geniuses to ask the appropriate question at the appropriate time." The previous year's "Local Anaesthetic," the novel centered around the dentist's chair, had asked a pertinent question about the Vietnam War, with all the moral gravity of a onetime Nazi who had been marched through Dachau. It was at about this time that Grass' art and his politics merged. He had long been active as a gadabout and polemicist for the SDP, the social-democratic party of Willy Brandt. (He had even drawn the party's symbol, a crowing rooster.) But it took a spate of radical terrorism to fix his attention on the anti-revolutionary lesson he had learned during his days as a miner. In "From the Diary of a Snail," Grass himself was the narrator, juxtaposing a historical investigation into the fate of Danzig's Jewish population with bits of fiction (including the tale of a schoolteacher who helps the Danziger Jews during the war) and a journalistic account of a grass-roots campaign tour he had undertaken for the SDP. The message is unambiguous: social democracy is the route away from Germany's Nazi past. So is an unforgetting new-German sort of levity -- for "the betterment of the world should not remain entrusted to dyspeptic soreheads."

Grass spent five years doing the duties of a literary eminence and publishing mostly poetry and essays before "The Flounder" appeared in 1977, trailing behind it a wake of baffled critics. They had expected Grass' first big work in 15 years to be the Great German Novel, and what they had gotten was a Rabelaisian fantasia. The novel's dizzying sprawl begins in the proto-Danzig of the Stone Age and winds through a series of parables and non sequiturs about food, the eternal war between the sexes and a magical talking flounder who whispers advice into men's ears, before reaching a cadence in the 20th century, when the flounder is put on trial by a jury of outraged feminists. Morris Dickstein, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it a "slanderous parable of nagging womanhood" (he thought it recuperated in the end), but most American commentators seem not to have called it anything. Grass was becoming a purely Continental figure, and his next two works, "The Meeting In Telgte" (1979) and "Headbirths" (1980) -- both offshoots of "The Flounder" -- did little to restore his stature in the States.

With "The Rat," in 1986, Grass' transformation from a novelist into a free-ranging moral conscience was well under way. He was nearly 60, and he brought out Oskar Matzerath once again, on Oskar's own 60th birthday, to turn his cold gaze on the burgeoning postmodern era -- the period of Reagan, Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, during which modern hypercapitalism became manifest and ran naked through the developing world. Grass had visited Nicaragua by this time and had found that the Sandinistas had much in common with the Solidarity movement of his native Gdansk. "The Rat" is essentially a topical novel concerned with the nuclear threat and possessed of an epic sweep similar to that of the "Flounder" books.

The 1988 "Show Your Tongue" -- a journal of the author's half-year trip to India, with concomitant writings on poverty -- took up the Third World cause more explicitly. In 1992, with "The Call of the Toad," Grass returned to Europe, specifically to Danzig, and to the traditional novel. The book is a wry tale of modern market-capitalist Europe in which a group of entrepreneurs sets up a business to bring the bodies of former Danzigers (Danzig was once 96 percent German; Gdansk is now an ethnic Polish city) back home for burial.

After his long exile, Grass himself should by rights come to rest in Danzig one day. He may be a novelist of gargantuan purview and an essayist and social critic with a global range, but he remains essentially a localist -- a provincial in the highest sense, who in a way never left the city of his birth, yet who can never return. Grass' Danzig, like Jan Morris', is a trick of time and memory, gone forever from the world but still standing as its own living monument. "A writer," Grass once aphorized by way of explaining his historical reconstruction of the city in "From The Diary Of A Snail," "is someone who writes against the passage of time" -- and therein lies the quintessence of Grass the novelist.

The quintessence of Grass the world-spanning local activist shines in a passage in his 1978 essay "Racing With the Utopias." Considering a village physician in Thailand who practices in impossible conditions under a repressive political system, he asks, "Why do I write about this doctor? Because I want to set him off against thousands of Asian and African doctors, who study in Europe or America, stay there, and never go back to their provinces. Doctors on paper, they are lost to their countries. Many claim the right of asylum, when what they've actually done is run out on their jobs." G|nter Grass, citizen of a vanished free city, engagi and arguably the greatest living novelist, is still on the job.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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