Commentary Magazine


The Nerve of Gunter Grass

Günter Grass is an industry: 300,000 copies of The Tin Drum sold in Germany; more than 60,000 in France; the American edition passed 90,000 in hardcover, well over 100,000 in paperback. In England, the vignette of the little man with the daemonic drum has become a publisher's symbol. Now there is hardly a bookstore window in Europe from which the black dog of Grass's second major novel, Hundejahre,1 does not stick out his red, phallic tongue. But it is not Grass's enormous success that matters most, nor the fact that he has put German literature back on the market. It is the power of that bawling voice to drown the siren-song of smooth oblivion, to make the Germans—as no writer did before—face up to their monstrous past.

A grim fantasy lurks at the heart of Hundejahre. The fable turns on the love-hate and blood brotherhood of Nazi and Jew. Walter Matern, the S.A. man—Eduard Amsel, the Jew; brothers under skin and soul, twin shadows in a weird, ferocious parable of how Germany turned to night.

The neurotic conjecture of some secret, foredoomed relationship between Nazi and Jew, of a hidden fraternity or mutual fascination deeper than the outward show of loathing and destruction, crops up tenaciously. We find it in the suspicion, argued with varying degrees of historical finesse, that Nazism derived from Judaism its own dogma of a “chosen race” and of a millennial, messianic nationalism. It emerges in Hannah Arendt's macabre reading of Eichmann's “Zionism,” and in the persistent belief or allegation that certain eminent Nazis—Heydrich, Rosenberg, Hitler himself—had traces of Jewish descent.

This intimation feeds on two deep-buried sources. Jewish masochism at times inclines to the notion that there was an occult rationale for the catastrophe, a savage yet somehow natural rebuke to the proud hopes fostered by Jewish assimilation into German culture. The German or the outsider, on the other hand, yields to the obscure imagining that German Jewry in some way brought the whirlwind on itself, that the temptations it offered to bestiality were too subtle, too intimate to be resisted. So utter a process of recognition and extermination must have involved some hidden complicity between torturer and victim. For all men kill the Jew they love.

Two boys play and dream by the sedge and mud-banks of the Vistula, in the flat marshes on the Polish frontier and around Danzig which Grass has made uniquely his own. Matern, the teeth-gnasher and miller's son; Amsel, the half-Jew (or is it more, who knows?). The schoolboy pack yelps at Amsel; he is a butterball with a jackdaw tongue, and their fists hammer at him. Matern becomes his strong shield. When he's about, no one clobbers Amsel or screams kike! Butterball gives Matern a penknife. But the river has a strange drag, and one day, finding no stone at hand, Matern throws in the knife. So what? It was only a dime-store penknife, and Edi Amsel is a smart kid. Give him a bundle of rags, a few wood-shavings and scraps of wire. Before you know it, there's a scarecrow (in German, Vogelscheuche has lewd undertones). These are no ordinary scarecrows. They look like people in the neighborhood, and the birds spin above them in affrighted swarms. Put a few gears in their straw gut, and they start moving.

Matern isn't so dumb either. He tries the Communists and finds the beer thin. Down at the club, all the boys are turning brown. And they're nice about it: “We'd rather have one repentant Red than a dozen farting bourgeois.” Matern joins. What the hell. And there's that screwball Amsel begging for all the cast-off S.A. uniforms Matern can scrounge, for the greasy caps and brown shirts torn in the latest street brawl. He drapes them on his scarecrows, and the hollow men, the stuffed men, start strutting. Goose-strutting, eyes right, arms outflung. As if they were legion.

There's snow in Amsel's yard. One day something queer happens. A covey of S.A. boys, their faces masked, comes soft over the fence. The kike is pounded to bloody shreds. Then they roll him in the snow; Amsel the snowman with no teeth left in his mouth. Not one. Who were the hooligans? Jochen Sawatzki, Paul Hoppe, Willy Eggers . . . Names that stretch from Pomerania to the Rhineland and Bavaria. Alfons Bublitz, Otto Warnke . . . Keep counting. Eight names. But there were nine men. It's all so complicated and long ago. Like in a foul dream or attack of nausea. You can't expect a man to remember everything. The snow lay deep and there were thirty-two teeth in it. And eighteen fists pounding Amsel into a bloody pulp. Eight fine German names. There's one missing. Still.

So Matern decides to find out. War is over and the thousand-year Reich lies in a stinking heap. But amid the graffiti in the men's urinal at the Cologne railway station, Matern sees the name and address of friend Sawatzki. He finds other names. Roaming north and south through the moon landscape of rubble and defeat, he tracks them down one by one. He asks for truth and justice. Where were you when the mad carpet-eater led us into the great brown sea? Where were you when they rolled my friend Edi Amsel into a bloody snowball and cleaned their boots on his face?

Matern is not alone. He travels with a large German shepherd. Prinz is Hitler's dog. He has escaped from the Führer's last redoubt, in the Berlin death-bunker. Straying westward, he meets Matern coming out of a P.O.W. camp. Now they're inseparable. While Matern infects the wives and daughters of his old cronies with venereal disease—it's odd how little things get into the German bloodstream and make it all hot and wild—Prinz fattens. But he's now called Pluto. Nice dog; have a biscuit; be a Disney dog.

Matern becomes a radio idol. One day he consents to be interviewed by a chorus of eager, well-scrubbed young folk. But some lunatic firm has been selling them glasses. Put them on and you see mom and dad in a queer brown light. You see them doing all sorts of surprising things—smashing shopwindows, yelling like apes in heat, making old, frightened men wipe latrines with their beards. Is that you, dad? So the bright young things ask Matern: who are those nine masked thugs climbing over the garden fence? Herr Walter Matern, friend of the Jews, anti-Nazi first class, will broadcast their names to the repentant nation. Eight names.

Then he starts running. Eastward. To the other Germany beyond the silent wall. He leaves Pluto safely tied up at the Cologne station. The train is smooth and swift. The Germans are expert at making trains race across Europe. But there's a dog bounding along the track, quicker than a diesel. And just at the border, a shadow steps out of the shadows. An old friend. He has a penknife. And when Matern throws it into the Berlin canal, he doesn't even mind. Canals can be dredged. But certain things can never be lost, never thrown away. Knives, for instance.

The tale ends in a grotesque Walpurgisnacht, a descent into a potash mine which is also the forecourt of damnation. Now we know what we have known all along. That Walter Matern loved Eduard Amsel so well that he had to get his hands on the very heart of him, and see his thirty-two teeth in the snow. That when the right man whistles, German shepherds are the hounds of hell.

_____________

Such a summary is not only inadequate (there are half a dozen novels crowded into this one baggy monster), but it makes the book sound tighter, more persuasive than it is. Before reaching the Materniade—the mock-epic of Matern's vengeful wanderings—the reader has to slog through a morass of allegory and digression. The middle section, some three hundred pages, is cast in the form of letters (at moments a parody of Goethe's Wahlverwandschaften). Through them, we glimpse the chaotic destinies of Matern, of Amsel (who survives the Nazi period under a false name), and numerous minor characters.

There are various welds. Prinz-Pluto is descended from a long pedigree beginning with Perkum the wolfhound. The story of his forebears interweaves with that of the Materns. The two boys played with the dog Senta on the low banks of the river. The birch copse in which the children moiled and listened for owls seems to melt and darken into other groves (Birken-Buchen—put an extra syllable on a German tree and what do you have?). But although Grass plots and ravels with crazy gusto, the book tends to fall apart. What sticks in one's mind is the general statement of chaos and the brilliance of discrete episodes.

The early chapters of boyhood and river, with their meandering, heavy cadence, are an extraordinary feat. Grass wraps himself inside the visceral totality of children. He sees as they do, in slow wakings and abrupt flashes. Like The Tin Drum, Hundejahre conveys the impression that there is in Grass's power a deliberate streak of infantilism, a child's uninhibited, brutal directness of feeling.

The narrative of an S.A. gang-up in a beer hall is unforgettable. Grass brings to light the banal roots of Nazi bestiality. We see the steamy, cozy vulgarity of German lower-middle-class manners, the wet cigar ash, and the slap on the buttocks, twist, by a sudden jerk of hysteria, into the sweating fury of the killers. One comes to understand how the sheer grossness of German pleasures—the bursting sausages and the flowered chamber-pots, the beer-warmers and the fat men in tight leather shorts—was the ideal terrain for the sadistic-sentimental brew of Nazism. Again, one feels that Grass has allowed a certain freedom of vulgarity in himself, in his own talent. That is what gives his plunge into the mind and voice of Sawatzki and his boys its nauseating truth. Only in Rudolf Nassauer's neglected novel, The Hooligan, is there anything that cuts as deep.

Grass is merciless on postwar Germany, on the miracle of amnesia and cunning whereby the West Germans shuffled off the past and drove their Volkswagens into the new dawn. He reproduces, with murderous exactitude, the turns of phrase and gesture, the private silences and the public clichés, through which Adenauer Germany persuaded itself, its children, and much of the outside world, that all those frightful things hadn't really happened, that “figures are grossly exaggerated,” or that no one in red-roofed Bad Pumpleheim really knew anything of what was going on in the woods three miles away. Quite a few fine houses and villas did come on the market in those years (Lieschen and I and little Wolfram are living in one right now, as a matter of fact). But you know how Jews are—always off to Sorrento or South America. The Führer? Now that you mention it, I never saw him. But I did see his dog once. Nice dog. Biscuit, please.

Grass singles out the moment of untruth. In the three years of desolation from 1945 to 1948, there was a real chance that the Germans might come to grips with what they had wrought. “Germany had never been as beautiful. Never as healthy. There had never been more expressive human faces in Germany than in the time of the thousand and thirty-two calories. But as the little Mulheim ferry accosted, Inge Sawatzki said: ‘Now we'll soon be getting our new money.’”

With the currency reform of 1948, and the brilliant recovery of German economic strength (in the very combines and steel mills where slave labor had been ground to death only a little while earlier), the past was declared irrelevant. Prosperity is an irresistible detergent: it scours the old darkness and the old smells out of the house. Grass has captured the whole ambience: the evasions and the outright lies, the cynicism of the little men grown fat on the manure of the dead, and the nervous queries of the young. The shadow of Amsel (or is it the man himself?) is full of genuine admiration for the German genius. Look at all these good folk “cooking their little pea-soup over a blue gas-flame and thinking nothing of it.” Why should they? What's wrong with gas-ovens?

On May 8, 1945, Prinz comes to the banks of the Elbe. Should he head east or west? After mature sniffing, Hitler's dog decides that the West is the right place for him. In that central fable, Adenauer Germany has its mocking epitaph.

Hundejahre confirms what was already apparent in The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse. Grass is the strongest, most inventive writer to have emerged in Germany since 1945. He stomps like a boisterous giant through a literature often marked by slim volumes of whispered lyricism. The energy of his devices, the scale on which he works, are fantastic. He suggests an action painter wrestling, dancing across a huge canvas, then rolling himself in the paint in a final logic of design.

_____________

The specific source of energy lies in the language. Hundejahre will prove formidably difficult to translate (even the title has no just equivalent). In these seven-hundred pages, Grass plays on a verbal instrument of uncanny virtuosity. Long stretches of Baltic dialect alternate with parodies of Hitlerite jargon. Grass piles words into solemn gibberish or splinters them into unsuspected innuendo and obscenity. He has a compulsive taste for word-lists, for catalogues of rare or technical terms (it is here that he most resembles Rabelais). There are whole pages out of dictionaries of geology, agriculture, mechanical engineering, ballet. The language itself, with its powers of hysteria and secrecy, with its private parts and official countenance, becomes the main presence, the living core of this black fairy tale.

In 1958, I wrote an essay, much misquoted and denounced since, asking whether the German language had survived the Hitler era, whether words poisoned by Goebbels and used to regulate and justify Belsen, could ever again serve the needs of moral truth and poetic perception. The Tin Drum appeared in 1959, and there were many to proclaim that German literature had risen from the ashes, that the language was intact. I am not so sure.

Grass has understood that no German writer after the holocaust could take the language at face value. It had been the parlance of hell. So he began tearing and melting; he poured words, dialects, phrases, clichés, slogans, puns, quotations, into the crucible. They came out in a hot lava. Grass's prose has a torrential, viscous energy; it is full of rubble and acrid shards. It scars and bruises the landscape into bizarre, eloquent forms. Often the language itself is the subject of his abrasive fantasy.

Thus one of the most astounding sections in Hundejahre is a deadly pastiche of the metaphysical jargon of Heidegger. Grass knows how much damage the arrogant obscurities of German philosophic speech have done to the German mind, to its ability to think or speak clearly. It is as if Grass had taken the German dictionary by the throat and was trying to throttle the falsehood and cant out of the old words, trying to cleanse them with laughter and impropriety so as to make them new. Often, therefore, his uncontrolled prolixity, his leviathan sentences and word inventories, do not convey confidence in the medium; they speak of anger and disgust, of a mason hewing stone that is treacherous or veined with grit. In the end, moreover, his obsessed exuberance undermines the shape and reality of the work. Grass is nearly always too long; nearly always too loud. The raucous brutalities which he satirizes infect his own art.

_____________

That art is, itself, curiously old-fashioned. The formal design of the book, its constant reliance on montage, on fade-outs and on simultaneities of public and private events, are closely modeled on U.S.A. The case of Grass is one of many to suggest that it is not Hemingway, but Dos Passos who has been the principal American literary influence of the 20th century. Hundejahre is also Joycean. One can hardly imagine the continuous interior monologue and the use of verbal association to keep the narrative moving, without the pattern of Ulysses. Finally, there is the near voice of Thomas Wolfe. Grass's novels have Wolfe's bulk and disordered vehemence. Of Time and the River prefigures, by its title and resort to the flow of lyric remembrance, the whole opening section of Hundejahre.

Where Grass knits on to the tradition of German fiction, it is not the modernism and originality of Broch and Musil that count, but the “Dos Passos-expressionism” of the late 1920's. Technically, Hundejahre and The Tin Drum take up where Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) left off.

This is, in part, because Grass is resolutely “non-literary,” because he handles literary conventions with the unworried naïveté of an artisan. He came to language from painting and sculpture. He is indifferent to the fine-spun arguments and expectations of modern literary theory. His whole approach is essentially manual. But there is a second reason. Totalitarianism makes provincial. The Nazis cut the German sensibility off from nearly all that was alive and radical in modern art. Grass takes up where German literature fell silent in the 1930's (even as young Soviet poets are now “discovering” surrealism or Cocteau). His ponderous gait, the outmoded flavor of his audacities, are part of the price German literature has to pay for its years in isolation.

But no matter. In his two major novels Grass has had the nerve, the indispensable tactlessness to evoke the past. By force of his macabre, often obscene wit, he has rubbed the noses of his readers in the great filth, in the vomit of their time. Like no other writer, he has mocked and subverted the bland oblivion, the self-acquittal which underlie Germany's material resurgence. Much of what is active conscience in the Germany of Krupp and the Munich beer halls lies in this man's ribald keeping.


Footnotes

* Roughly, “The Dog Years.” So far the novel has been published only in German.—Ed.

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