Günter Grass (1927-2015)

Günter Grass was the most prominent author in West Germany until 1990, and then the most prominent author in re-unified Germany for a quarter of a century until his recent death in 2015.

Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. As he acknowledged (see Julian Preece, reading list below, p. 58), his stylistic precursors were Rabelais, Grimmelshausen and Alfred Döblin.

Grass’s exuberant, sensual and disjointed prose quickens and sustains his meditations on German history.

Much of Grass’s fiction is set in Danzig. His Danzig childhood meant that Grass was particularly well-placed to reflect upon German history. The city had been a place of ethnic rivalry for centuries. For centuries (from 1454 onwards) it was a free city of the Hanseatic League until it was incorporated into Prussia in 1793. In 1920 Danzig was a declared a free city under the protection of the League of Nations. In 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Danzig was incorporated into the Third Reich. In 1945 it became part of Poland and it is now known by its Polish name Gdańsk.

The novel which made Grass famous is Die Blechtrommel; The Tin Drum (1959).

This taboo-busting epic delivered a fictional exploration of the National Socialist period at a time when public debate in the Federal Republic of Germany about the Third Reich was minimal. The novel’s distorted narrative is brilliantly suited to the violent events which it recounts. Two further works soon followed in a similar vein:

Katz und Maus; Cat and Mouse (1961)

Hundejahre; Dog Years (1963)

These three texts make up the so-called ‘Danzig Trilogy’ (the term was first coined by John Reddick, see reading list below). Subsequently, two further novels have extended this trilogy to what Katharina Hall (see reading list below) calls a ‘Danzig quintet’:

örtlich betäubt; Local Anaesthetic (1969)

Im Krebsgang; Crabwalk (2002)

Other works by Grass include:

Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke; From the Diary of a Snail (1972)

Der Butt; The Flounder (1977)

Das Treffen in Telgte; The Meeting at Telgte (1979)

Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus; Headbirths or The Germans are Dying Out (1980), in which Grass worries about the declining birth rate.

Die Rättin; The Rat (1986), which examines the danger of nuclear war.

Ein weites Feld; Too Far Afield (1995)

Beim Häuten der Zwiebel; Peeling the Onion (2006)

Die Box; The Box (2008)

Grimms Wörter. Eine Liebeserklärung; Grimms’ Words. A Declaration of Love (2010), a non-fictional celebration of the life and works of the brothers Grimm.

Grass has also published several collections of poetry and several plays.

His poetry includes:

Die Vorzüge der Windhühner; The Advantages of Windfowl (1956)

Gleisdreieck (1960) [=a U-Bahn station in Berlin]

Ausgefragt; Asked Out (1967)

Letzte Tänze; Last Dances (2003)

Lyrische Beute; Lyric Booty (2004)

Dummer August; Clown (2007)

Was gesagt werden muss; What must be said (2012)

Eintagsfliegen; Mayflies (2012), which contains the poem ‘Europas Schande’; ‘Europe’s Shame’, which criticises the European Union’s imposition of austerity in Greece.

Vonne Endlichkait; On Finitude (published posthumously, 2015)

His most famous play is:

Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand; The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (1966), a satire about Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble.

Grass has also produced a significant body of work as a visual artist.

Further Reading

Rebecca Braun, Constructing Authorship in the Work of Günter Grass (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Rebecca Braun and Frank Brunsen (eds.), Changing the Nation: Günter Grass in International Perspective (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008)

W. G. Cunliffe, Günter Grass (New York: Twayne, 1980)

Katharina Hall, Günter Grass's 'Danzig Quintet': Explorations in the Memory and History of the Nazi Era from 'Die Blechtrommel' to 'Im Krebsgang' (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2007)

Alan Frank Keele, Understanding Günter Grass (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988)

Ann L. Mason, The Skeptical Muse: A Study of Günter Grass’ Conception of the Artist (Bern: Peter Lang, 1974)

Siegfried Mews, Günter Grass and his critics: from The Tin Drum to Crabwalk (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008)

Patrick O’Neill, Critical Essays on Günter Grass (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988)

Julian Preece, The Life and Work of Günter Grass: History, Literature, Politics, 2nd edn (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Julian Preece and Nicole Thesz (eds.), Oxford German Studies 48:3 (2019), Special Issue: Günter Grass and International Literature

John Reddick, The ‘Danzig Trilogy’ of Günter Grass (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975)

Stuart Taberner (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Günter Grass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Noel Thomas, The Narrative Works of Günter Grass: A Critical Interpretation (Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: Benjamins, 1982)

Alexander Weber, Günter Grass’s Use of Baroque Literature (London: Maney/MHRA, 1995)

Web Links in English

Nobel Prize citation for Günter Grass (1999)

Obituary in The Guardian

John Irving’s eulogy for Günter Grass, May 2015

Web Links in German

Günter Grass House in Lübeck

An interview (2009)

Grass’s poem ‘Europas Schande’; ‘Europe’s Shame’ (2012), which criticises the European Union’s imposition of austerity in Greece