Grass, Günter

Grass, Günter günˈtər gräs [key], 1927–2015, German novelist, lyricist, artist, and playwright, b. Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). Writing from his experience in the Hitler Youth, the German army, and as a prisoner of war, Grass deplored fascist militarism. The anguish of war and the social and political problems that West Germany faced before reunification are the principal concerns of his fiction.

His novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; tr. The Tin Drum, 1961, film 1979), which brought him world renown, reveals his bizarre sense of humor and superb linguistic gifts. Related by Oskar Matzerath, a strange dwarf drummer, it aroused controversy in Germany with its idiosyncratic yet clear-eyed portrayal of recent German history from the prewar period, through the Nazi regime, to the Wirtschaftswunder of the postwar era. His second novel, Hundejahre (1963; tr. Dog Years, 1965), is a monumental work that also aroused considerable controversy. Set in Danzig, it deals, often grotesquely, with the Nazi years as it explores Germany's destiny and conscience and the nature of individual flight from reality. Grass's early poems and plays are marked by a sensitivity for imagery and a tendency toward symbolism and ambiguity (see Selected Poems, tr. 1966; Four Plays, tr. 1967; New Poems, tr. 1968).

His later works mainly reflect a period of intense political activism. Student unrest in Berlin and the political “generation gap” are the themes of his novel Örtlich betäubt (1969; tr. Local Anaesthetic, 1970) and a play adaptation, Davor (1970; tr. Max, 1972). Grass's reflections on his life in Berlin and his political activities are the basis for the novel Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972; tr. From the Diary of a Snail, 1973). His highly acclaimed novel Der Butt (1977; tr. The Flounder, 1978), which contrasts the destructiveness of men with the sanity of women, examines such matters as politics, feminism, and the art of cooking.

Grass's major 1990s work, the novel Ein Weites Feld (1995; tr. A Broad Field, 1995; tr. Too Far Afield, 2000) was widely criticized for rambling plotlessness. It also caused controversy because of its implied condemnation of Germany as an inherently dangerous nation forever inclined to authoritarianism, as well as for its suggested disapproval of reunification. Grass returned to nearly universal praise with Im Krebsgang (2002; tr. Crabwalk, 2002), his first 21st-century novel. Hauntingly descriptive, it centers on a real wartime occurence, the 1945 Soviet torpedoing of the German refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff that killed more than 9,000. Mingling tragedy with irony, Grass uses this event, mixed with the fictional story of a single German family, to illuminate various phases in 20th-century German history, creating a story that moves, crablike, backward and forward through the detritus of crime and guilt in Germany's recent past.

Grass's other works include a collection of speeches and open letters entitled Speak Out! (tr. 1969) and the novels Mariazuehren (1973; tr. Inmarypraise, 1974) and Unkenrufe (1992; tr. The Call of the Toad, 1992). In 1999, Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history.” Grass's memoir Beim Haüten der Zwiebel (2006, tr. Peeling the Onion, 2008), which follows his life from childhood to the publication of The Tin Drum, is a sensitive examination of his past, his conscience, and a meditation on the nature of memory. In it, Grass, whom many considered Germany's moral conscience and who had constantly urged his fellow countrymen to face up to the shame of their Nazi history, shocked many Germans and troubled other admirers with his belated admission that as a youth, late in World War II (1944), he had served in the Nazi Waffen SS. Grass described his subsequent years in his autobiographical novel Dunkelkammergeschichten (2008, tr. The Box: Tales from the Darkroom, 2010).

See J. Preece, The Life and Work of Gunter Grass: Literature, History, Politics (2001); M. Hollington, Gunter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society (1980); R. H. Lawson, Gunter Grass (1984); P. O'Neill, ed., Critical Essays on Gunter Grass (1987); A. Frank, Understanding Gunter Grass (1988).

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