Tuesday, September 08, 2015
Nobel laureate Grass's deft new collection of stories thoroughly and intimately marks the passing of the 20th century. Comprising 100 monologues, each named after a year of the century and spoken by characters who represent a broad spectrum of German society, the work becomes the literary equivalent of a choral symphony. The stories include the reminiscences of ex-Nazis about their activities in 1934; a dead woman's perspective on Germany after the crumble of the Berlin Wall (1999); a delirious letter by the turn-of-the-century poet Else Lasker-Sch ler (found by the story's narrator in a used book), in which she imagines herself to be 20 years younger than she is (1901); and the author's descriptions of his beleaguered personal life (1987). Several entries establish some continuity from year to year, while other segments clash brilliantly with each other. The volume progresses less like a narrative than like an argument, each year's oral history advancing the thesis that history and personal identity are inextricably linked. Unlike Grass's earlier politically tinged and more willfully surreal work, this novel is consistently realistic, with only a few exceptions. Although the units are always engaging, some of them are drier than others, based upon abstruse but suggestive information, such as the details of munitions manufacture or obscure battle maneuvers. The effect of the episodic narration is a sort of cacophony, but one that is finally resolved into a complex, multipart harmony. Much like the voices echoing in a train station or airport, this cumulative sound reminds the reader of the rich fabric of humankind's collective existence. Grass (The Tin Drum) concludes with the memories of a 103-year-old woman who has been brought back to life by her novelist son for the purposes of his fiction. As she says: ""I'm also looking forward to the year 2000. We'll see what comes of it... "" (Dec.) FYI: This volume will be published simultaneously around the world.
When Günter Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, many of his faithful readers, including this reviewer, greeted the news with pleasure and relief: at last! For four decades, Grass has been shaking up the German literary establishment with his unconventional poems, plays, novellas, novels short and long -- mostly long. A gifted draftsman as well, he has drawn striking covers and illustrations for his books. Ever since his first novel, ''The Tin Drum,'' exploded over German readers 40 years ago, he has secured a vast audience -- and not just in Germany -- that is often delighted, at times irritated and above all surprised by his playful fictions. At the time, German literary critics, astonished at ''The Tin Drum,'' clearly the most important novel to come out of postwar Germany until then, grasped at adjectives to characterize the story of a malevolent dwarf who literally refuses to grow up as a way of opting out from the hell his countrymen have created around him. They called the book picaresque or surrealist, and indeed, it was a Bosch-like canvas in words. But whatever reviewers settled on, they knew that they had a first-rate talent on their hands.
Since then, Grass has employed his formidable imaginative powers to traverse the literary landscape, but he has always remained recognizably himself, his voice booming, earthy, sexually explicit, often angry. A censor in the antique Roman sense, he has portrayed his countrymen as complicit in the Nazi regime or obscenely indulging themselves in their newly found prosperity after their defeat in 1945. Nor did the so-called German Democratic Republic remain unscathed. In his best-known play, ''The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising'' (1966), he raised some uncomfortable questions about the attitude of Bertolt Brecht, then the big gun of the East German theater, toward rebellious workers.
An eminently political animal, Grass has consistently situated himself on the independent left. But he has never been a slave to any line; not even his favorite political home, the Social Democratic Party, has secured his unwavering loyalty. In the 1970's, he put his credo at its most antiutopian by drawing a snail on a plate, with a caption to suit: ''Progress is a snail.'' In 1990, as the pressure to unify the two German states, East and West, grew overwhelming and irresistible, Grass spoke for a tiny minority of free spirits, objecting to reunification on the ground that after Auschwitz Germany did not deserve to recreate itself as a major European power. His protest was drowned in the general enthusiasm, but he had had his say.