How will Günter Grass be remembered? The German Nobel laureate, who died this morning at age 87, was not just a novelist but also a political figure, a voice of conscience, a provocateur. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he was a person of letters in the classic mold, in which literature is defined by its engagement with the world.
Certainly, that was true of Grass, who came to international attention in 1959 with the publication of his first novel, “The Tin Drum.” There, he told the story of Oskar Matzerath, a man who, in the physical and metaphoric sense, refuses to grow up.
“One must always seek out fresh perspectives,” Grass told the Paris Review about the character. “...A dwarf — a child even in adulthood — his size and his passivity make him a perfect vehicle for many different perspectives. He has delusions of grandeur, and that is why he sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, just as young children sometimes do. It is part of his self-glorification. It is like the royal we.”
What Grass was tracing was not just the elusiveness of the line that separates adults and children, but also the way stories can explicate, in some fundamental way, the essence of our circumstance.
Grass, who published more than 30 books, came by this perspective honestly. Born in 1927 in Danzig (now Gdansk), he spent six months in the latter part of World War II as a teenage tank gunner in an SS unit before being wounded and captured by Allied forces.
“In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig,” he wrote in 2007, “I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above.”
As he acknowledged to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, “I was young, and I wanted to leave home.... I considered the Waffen-SS to be an elite unit. If I had been born three or four years earlier I would, surely, have seen myself caught up in [war] crimes.”
That’s an astonishing admission, and coming, as it did, 60 years after the war, it caused an uproar. Why had Grass withheld his relationship with the SS?
The truth, of course, was far more complicated; Grass had long discussed his war experience as a way to address the complicity of German society in its Nazi past, although he had avoided talking about the SS, he acknowledged, because of shame.
Complicity is one of the lessons of “The Tin Drum,” as well as of the other two novels in the so-called “Danzig Trilogy”: “Cat and Mouse” and “Dog Years.”
For Grass, writing, self-expression, was a moral responsibility, regardless of the controversies it might stir.
“[W]riters,” he declared in his 1999 Nobel Prize lecture, “should consider the condition of permanent controversiality to be invigorating, part of the risk involved in choosing the profession. It is a fact of life that writers have always and with due consideration and great pleasure spit in the soup of the high and mighty. That is what makes the history of literature analogous to the development and refinement of censorship.”
Grass spent six decades operating out of such a premise, as a novelist and essayist, a playwright, artist and poet. (His final book, which has yet to appear in English, was a third volume of memoirs.) Beginning in the late 1950s, he wrote speeches for Berlin Mayor and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt; later, he was an outspoken opponent of reunification, arguing that because of its history, Germany had abdicated the right to be “strong and united.”
This sense of commitment unified his work and public posture, his stature as both artist and human being.
Or, as he explained in 1991: “Writers are involved not only with their inner, intellectual lives, but also with the process of daily life. … Both my writing and my drawing are invariably mixed up with politics, whether I want them to be or not.”