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Günter Grass: 1927-2015

Deutsche Welle reports that Günter Grass, the German Nobel literature prizewinner most famous for his novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), has died of a lung infection in the northern German city of Lübeck.

Grass was born on October 16th, 1927 into a Catholic family in the city of Danzig, now Gdańsk. His parents ran a grocery store. "A childhood between the Holy Spirit and Hitler" is how biographer Michael Jürgs sums up the environment in which he spent his childhood. He was a member of the Hitler Youth and later joined the Waffen-SS, a Nazi special forces unit.

As a young man he was interested in art, and studied sculpture and graphic design. He played in a jazz band and travelled a lot, settling for a time in Paris with his first wife. His first novel, The Tin Drum (1959) sparked uproar in West Germany before becoming a huge international success. Twenty years later if became a prizewinning film, directed by Volker Schlöndorf.

Grass wrote dramas, poems, and especially fiction. Among the novels are Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, which, together with The Tin Drum, were part of his famous Gdańsk Trilogy; also Local Anaesthetic, The Flounder, The Rat, The Call of the Toad and Crabwalk. Most of his works dealt with political conditions and social upheaval, like the sinking of a refugee ship in the Baltic Sea in 1945, the role of intellectuals in the uprising in former East Germany in 1953, the student protests of 1968, federal election campaigns and political relations between the East and West.



As a native of Danzig, reconciliation between Germany and Poland always remained a particularly important topic to Grass. Some critics thought his books too heavy and too political in nature, but all were successful and sparked heated debates in literary circles.

Grass was a multi-talented artist, sculptor and designer as well as a novelist and poet. Considered by some to be a moral authority and by others just another radical leftist, his political views divided the German nation. Since 1961, he committed himself to the Social Democrats (SPD) without being a party member, and he supported Willy Brandt in his election campaign in 1969. Later on, he did join the SPD ‑ only to give up his membership a few years later in a row over limitations of the right to asylum.

His 2006 autobiography Peeling the Onion, with its revelation that he had served in the Waffen SS, caused a stir both in Germany and abroad, posing a serious challenge to his reputation as a moral authority. Suddenly the man who had always advocated dealing uncompromisingly with his country’s Nazi past was accused of being a hypocrite. Grass however insisted that he had spoken openly about his wartime record previously, in the 1960s, and that he had spent a lifetime “working through” the unquestioning beliefs of his youth through his writing. He also pointed out that although he served in an elite army unit that was known for committing atrocities he did not actually fire a single shot in the war. But his innocence in this regard, he said, was perhaps more fortuitous than meritorious: “If I had been born three or four years earlier I would, surely, have seen myself caught up in those crimes.”

In April 2012 Grass caused controversy again after publishing a text entitled “What must be said”. The text, which he labelled a poem, contained thinly veiled criticism of Israeli policy with Grass warning of an Israeli nuclear strike against Iran and calling the state of Israel, its nuclear capabilities and its occupation policy a threat to world peace. The pamphlet sparked outrage and Grass, accused of anti-Semitism, became persona non grata in Israel.

In a sparkling defence of Grass in the London Review of Books in 1985 (in particular a defence of his decision to combine writing and political commitment against Ronald Hayman’s claim that his political interests had damaged his writing), Neal Ascherson wrote:

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.

13/4/2015

Neal Ascherson on Grass: http://bit.ly/1O6kbCG