BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Entertainment  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 07:11 GMT 08:11 UK
Guenter Grass: The history man
GŁnter Grass (right) with Salman Rushdie
Grass [R] is known by readers and writers across the world
Mike Linstead

Guenter Grass, who celebrates his 75th birthday on Wednesday, is the best-known living German writer in the world.

The pinnacle of international recognition came three years ago when Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His works include novels, plays, poems, stories, drawings, sculptures, essays and even recipes.


Grass has been a constant commentator on German affairs past and present

But his world-wide fame is based to a large extent on his very first novel.

The Tin Drum, published in 1959, chronicles the life of the young boy Oskar Matzerath in Grass's home town of Danzig.

Oskar experiences the rise and fall of Nazism there, and the immediate post-war years in Germany.

Oskar narrates the story and is a unique observer of events, as he has taken the decision to stop growing. His adult voice in a child's body gives him an unfettered, but also unreliable perspective.

Grass said The Tin Drum was motivated by pleasure, fun, and playfulness

The novel caused an immediate furore in Germany.

It was in complete contrast to the sparse, sober literature of the 50s, when many German authors felt they were writing in a language which had been "polluted" by the Nazis.

Earthy, erotic

Grass has since said the book was motivated by "pleasure, fun, and playfulness", and it certainly bursts with vitality and humour.

The language of The Tin Drum is earthy and direct, its subject-matter political and erotic.

Skyline of Danzig (present-day Gdansk)
Danzig was the backdrop for The Tin Drum
It is a celebration of the joy of storytelling, rooted in a European picaresque tradition stretching back centuries to Don Quixote.

But it was too much for some. Grass was branded a pornographer - accusations which only stopped after he took legal action in 1967.

Whilst his subsequent work has failed to have the same resonance abroad, in his homeland Grass has been a constant commentator on German affairs past and present, through his fiction, essays and speeches, and also in interviews and talk shows.


On many political questions, Grass has been in step with a sizeable number of his compatriots

Grass has publicly supported the Social Democrats (SPD) since 1961, most recently turning out for Gerhard Schroeder just before the elections in September.

But it has not always been an easy relationship. When the SPD lost power to Helmut Kohl in 1982, Grass became a party member.

Ten years later, he turned in his party card in protest at the SPD's support for Kohl's policy of tightening the asylum laws.

GŁnter Grass in 1999
Grass has been described as an "angry old man"

On many political questions, Grass has been in step with a sizeable number of his compatriots.

He has opposed the stationing of American nuclear weapons in Germany; he has spoken out against xenophobia and neo-Nazism; he is sympathetic to green issues and critical of what he sees as unthinking support for technological progress.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 however, he ploughed a relatively lonely furrow. Grass called for a "confederation of two German states", saying that the East could contribute a "non-violent, revolutionary impulse".

He warned that a reunified Germany would want to flex its muscles as a major power. Events have so far proved him wrong.

Grass's latest novel, Crab Walk, takes him into another controversial area.

It deals with the 9,000 German war dead from a refugee ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in January 1945.


History cannot be put to one side

GŁnter Grass
The portrayal of the German victims of the Second World War was avoided for decades by the left in Germany.

It was felt inappropriate, even plain wrong.

But Grass now says this taboo was "self-inflicted".

"It is our right", he says, because "history cannot be put to one side".

Facing up to history was the impulse behind The Tin Drum in 1959 and it is the impulse behind Crab Walk in 2002.

It is a sign of the integrity of purpose of Grass's work down the years - whatever the ups-and-downs of its critical reception in Germany.

See also:

08 Feb 02 | Europe
01 Oct 99 | Entertainment
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Entertainment stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Entertainment stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes