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1999 Nobel Prize For Literature Günter Grass
by Thomas Salumets

On September 30, 1999, Günter Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Foundation recognized him as a relentless critic of those who defend ideas at the expense of human beings and their environment. Above all, Grass was singled out for his role as the “great prober of the history of this century”. The award did not come as a surprise. Grass, whose parents were of modest means—his father, Willy Grass (1899-1979), was a lower-middle-class German grocer, and his mother, Helene Knoff (1898-1954), came from a working-class family of Kashubian ancestry—has been an international literary celebrity for decades now. He is among the most recognized winners of the Nobel Prize. As long ago as 1970, Grass appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In 1980, the film version of The Tin Drum (directed by Volker Schlöndorff) was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film. Since then, he has been the recipient of five honorary doctorates and numerous literary prizes from countries such as Denmark, Italy, France, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Worldwide sales of his works have topped the ten million mark. The Tin Drum, his first and still best known novel, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including Chinese and Japanese, since its publication in 1959. Apart from six plays, several collections of poems, and critical and political writings, the painter, sculptor, scriptwriter, poet, and political activist has also published another ten novels, all of them translated into English: Cat and Mouse (1961, English 1963), Dog Years (1963, English 1965), Local Anaesthetic (1969, English 1970), From the Diary of a Snail (1973, English 1974), The Flounder (1977, English 1978), The Meeting in Telgte (1979, English 1981), Headbirths, or The Germans are Dying Out (1980, English 1982), The Rat (1986, English 1987), The Call of the Toad (1992, English 1992), and Too Far Afield (1995). But Grass is also a controversial figure. Although he is known as an ardent advocate of reason, moderation, and common decency, the nonconformist writer has, on several occasions, outraged many of his readers, especially in Germany. As John Irving put it famously, Germany’s greatest living writer has a “longstanding reputation of telling Germans what they don’t want to hear.” For example, he called German unification an illusion, spoke out against the systemic marginalization of foreigners in Germany, criticized the “moral bankruptcy of the Christian West”, made obscene fun of Germany’s war heroes, blatantly merged politics with art, and told Germans that they have yet to grow up as a nation. Above all, however, he wrote powerfully raw and stinging narratives about his nation’s past, greed, and indifference. Because of Grass, it will be more difficult to retreat into the present, to forget the past. None of his work is more grounded in Germany’s National Socialist history than his best-selling The Danzig Trilogy: The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years. At a time when middle-class Germans were retreating into the increasingly comfortable present of postwar prosperity, Grass “had the nerve, the indispensable tactlessness,” as George Steiner put it, “to evoke the past.” And he did so with the “extraordinary ability to surprise his readers with completely unexpected juxtapositions of objects and ideas” (O’Neill). The picaresque Tin Drum covers some six decades of German history, including the rise of Nazism. This monumental novel introduces several central themes in Grass’ oeuvre. We learn through the midget, Oskar Mazareth—still Grass’ most famous character—about the implication of ordinary middle-class Germans in the Holocaust, their guilt and their innocence; the impossibility of overcoming one’s past; the shortcomings of historical narratives that conceal their fictionality; the ultimate unreliability of any account; the difficulty of distinguishing between sanity and madness, fact and fiction. Narrated in an often spellbinding and unparalleled “linguistic superabundance”, The Tin Drum and its grotesque inventions are set in Grass’ native city of Danzig (today, the Polish city of Gdansk). The novel evokes some of the long history of intercultural and political strife that has plagued this city. For centuries, Pomeranians, Brandenburgers, Teutonic Knights, Poles, Swedes, the French, Prussians, 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 hundreth time”. Even today, almost forty years after the novel was published in North America, The Tin Drum, as one reviewer put it, “pursues, dazzles, sinks its claws into the mind”. Cat and Mouse—written in a much more restrained style than The Tin Drum or Dog Years—is primarily concerned with the years between 1939 and 1944. Grass’ focus is again on the ordinary. Despite the war, nothing much appears to change in the lives of Grass’ adolescent characters. While the Second World War rages, violin lessons continue, church services are held, children play at the beach, school is on. Life seems normal—even dull. The novel evokes images of people for whom the war has become part of their everyday routine: Latin language drills and military discipline go hand in hand, as do nature and grenades, warships and play, ballistics and books, military training and literature, fighter pilots and religion, military honours and the need for recognition, school ceremonies and speeches by war heroes. There is, in other words, nothing demonic or extraordinary about the war. There is no single person to blame. Everyone is implicated. No matter how hard one tries to forget, there is no escape from the “dark corners of our everyday political doings”, as Grass explained in a campaign speech in 1965. Stories never really end. This kind of open-ended vision of a past that co-determines our present and future is at the centre of his creative imagination. It informs Cat and Mouse and, in complex ways, all of his subsequent works. The fact that Günter Wilhelm Grass was born in 1927 goes a long way to explaining his stinging questioning of Germans, their nation, and their guilt-ridden history: “Who are we? Where do we come from? What causes us to be Germans? And what the hell is that: Germany?” Haunted by Germany’s National Socialist past, Grass seeks answers to the question: How could this have happened? His birth year was “a dubious stroke of luck”, as he wrote in one leading German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, because it forbids him “to condemn anyone”. He “was too young to have been a Nazi, but old enough to have been moulded by a system, that, from 1933 to 1945, at first surprised, then horrified the world”. Grass grew up in the then German city of Danzig. At the age of fourteen, he joined the Hitler Youth. In 1944, he left his hometown for active duty as a tank gunner. He did so not only because he had to; the teenaged Grass was convinced that Germany fought “the right war” (Time). A year later, shortly before the end of the war, he was wounded. By 1946, after he had been released from an American prisoner-of-war camp in Bavaria, he felt more like an old man, as he put it in a recently published interview (1998), than the teenager he still was. Disillusionment set in: with himself, with his education, with his beliefs, with his country and culture, with his entire past. Grass began to see the guilt; he started to feel the burden and responsibility which were to shape his writing, the “overwhelming horror at the extent of the crimes one had tolerated and directly or indirectly abetted” (Headbirths, or the Germans are Dying Out). Instead of running away from it, Grass makes this past his business as a writer. But writing after the war, as a German and in German, seemed like an impossible task. It was as if neither the Germans nor their language could be trusted anymore. “In 1945,” Grass writes, “Germany was not only militarily defeated. Not only the cities and industrial plants had been destroyed. Worse damage had been done: National Socialist ideology had robbed the German language of its meaning, had corrupted it and laid waste whole fields of words. In this mutilated language, writers, handicapped by its injuries, began to stammer more than write.” But not only Grass’ own generation had and still has to come to terms with Germany’s National Socialist past. As Harm Peters, one of Grass’ fictional characters, puts it: “We were born after that shit. We’re guilty of entirely different shit. But wherever we go they ask us if there are Nazis in Germany again. As if the whole world wished there were. No! We have other worries. Not that everlasting prehistoric stuff.” It is precisely that “prehistoric stuff” that Grass returns to again and again in his work. It is, as he sees it, his responsibility as an author. A writer is someone “who writes against the passage of time” (From the Diary of a Snail). The past, as he put it in a series of recently published interviews entitled About the Adventure of the Enlightenment (1999), cannot be dealt with in any final sense. Instead, a continous effort is needed, especially in Germany, where the principles of the French Revolution—liberté, egalité, fraternité—have yet to be fully realized. Hand in hand with his critique of what has been also marked by a profound concern for the future and a fundamental distrust of ideologies. “Our present makes the future questionable and in many respects unthinkable, for our present produces—since we have learned above all to produce—poverty, hunger, polluted air, polluted bodies of water, forests destroyed by acid rain or deforestation, arsenals that seem to pile up of their own accord and are capable of destroying mankind many times over” (On Writing and Politics, 1985). For Grass, to be human means to be “damaged” and “fragmentary”. Ideologies are based on the opposite assumption and, as a consequence, they put ideas ahead of the human beings they are meant to serve. But a writer’s place, in Grass’ view, is “in society, and not above or outside society” (1969). In a 1977 poem entitled “At the End”, Grass writes: “Men who, as the saying goes,/think a thing to the end,” have always thought a thing to the end. But there is no Truth in the singular, no first principle. Instead, there are “mass graves”. Ever “since the mighty head of the god Zeus was got with child, the head of man has at all times been pregnant: something has always been growing, maturing; concepts have at all times been taking form” (Headbirths). We continue to overestimate our rational capacities; “we point beyond ourselves” (Essays on Literature, 1980). In the words of Charles Taylor, human beings only imagine that they are divided “within themselves, between themselves, and from the natural world”, whereas in reality they are not. That is also why Grass is deeply suspicious of revolutionary changes. We need to change, he argues, but only a bit beyond a snail’s pace (From the Diary of a Snail). Any faster and we run the risk of not seeing the past that helps us understand the present. Grass belongs to those contemporary writers who not only know that we live in an interdependent world, but who are also prepared to act, to deal with the consequences, to share some of the responsibilities. And he is not afraid to get his hands dirty.

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