The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Grass in 1963

Orrin Judd recycles a 1999 article attacking German author Gunter Grass on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature:

Grass's Tin Drum, published in 1959, flourishes a vivid style, but in every other respect it is a misleading book, whose success has been pernicious.

The central concept in the novel is that Hitler really was a devil and Nazism essentially the spell he cast, a bewitchment. If that was so, then Germans were the victims of a higher power against which they were defenseless, and they cannot be held accountable. The reasons that Germans became Nazis are open to rational analysis, but The Tin Drum instead encourages the mystification that they couldn't really help themselves. The opposite of the Solzhenitsyn truth-telling that enables people to understand their choices and their fates, Grass's approach smoothly converts Germans from active agents of Nazism into passive victims. The cop-out could hardly be more complete.

While German denial of individual culpability is an ongoing problem, this criticism seems to rest on a misreading of Grass's works. In The Tin Drum itself, the main look back at the war years is the Onion Cellar. But in all his works, Grass's theme is not one of forgiveness for passive victims, but an analysis of weakness and denial. The latter is most clearly stated in a poem from The Rat:
And what about the children, what did the children do then?
They asked stupid questions about what had gone before,
and then, and after that.
Well? Did you come clean?
We remembered
the bathing weather in the summer of '39.
And what else?
Hard times after that.
And then, and after that?
Then came the currency reform.
Grass addresses weakness and compromise most tellingly in his masterwork, Dog Years, in some of the most compelling prose ever written. He beings with a philosophical introduction to soap:
And the bones, white mounds which were recently heaped up, would grow immaculately without crows: pyramids of glory. But the crows, which are not pure, were creaking unoiled, even yesterday: nothing is pure, no circle, no bone. And piles of bones, heaped up for the sake of purity, will melt cook boil in order that soap, pure and cheap: but even soap cannot wash pure.
The story is too long to reproduce here -- start at There was once a pile of bones.