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The essayistic work of Günter Grass has so far received less critical attention than his novels, early plays, poetry, or graphic art. Yet the 1987 edition of his collected works includes a volume of 138 selected essays, speeches, and commentaries written over 30 years. A decade later, about 50 more essays and speeches can be added to this number.
In marked contrast to his early novelistic style, often described as baroque as it winds its way through lists of objects and grotesque juxtapositions into the surreal, Grass’ voice as essayist exhibits restraint, lucidity, and sober rationality. Rather than indulging in baroque playfulness or rhetoric, Grass develops balanced arguments based on facts embedded in historical context, and on values of openness, honesty, equality, and democracy.
Most of Grass’ essays written after 1963 were first conceived and delivered as speeches or published as “open letters,” addressing political and cultural occasions and including tributes and eulogies. During the election years 1965, 1969, and 1972 Grass delivered hundreds of speeches for Willy Brandt’s Social Democrat party. His political speeches clearly address a broad public, speaking to the concerns of both the older and younger generations, working people, trade unions, pensioners, students, and teachers.
Indeed, with his campaign speeches of the 1960s and beyond, Grass sets a unique example for German writers. Emphasizing his political work as that of a citizen shouldering his public responsibility, Grass enters into dialogue with his audiences with the purpose of raising reasonable doubt. Exemplary campaign speeches appear in four collections from 1968 to 1984. The English collection Speak Out! (1969) comprises examples up to 1968; On Writing and Politics (1985) selects speeches up to 1983.
Grass has also written essays on writers and writing, examples appearing in Aufsätze zur Literatur (1980; Essays on literature) and in the recent Die Deutschen und ihre Dichter (1995; The Germans and their writers), which attempts to collect his essays focusing on literary figures from the historical and the contemporary scene, including writers from world literature. One name recurring in Grass’ essays but missing from this collection is Montaigne, whom Grass designates as “Frühaufklärer” (forerunner of the age of reason).
The grouping of Grass’ essays into the categories of “Writing” and “Politics” seems obvious enough, but finer thematic distinctions apply. For example, essays written in connection with the author’s travels on four continents could, if collected, shed more light on his concerns with third-world and international affairs. Another persistent topic of Grass’ speeches at German and international meetings is the writer’s role in society and politics.
Grass’ essays referring to the mutual elucidation of the arts deserve separate attention.
Having trained in sculpture and graphic arts, he frequently draws inspiration from graphic sources in art history. Three essays in particular illustrate the author’s affinity with some of his models in the arts. His first essay, “Die Ballerina” (1956; “The Ballerina”), is a discourse on an old print in the style of the commedia dell’arte, which portrays the confrontation between a poet and a ballerina who appears late at night poised on the writer’s table. (Grass had married the Swiss ballet student Anna Schwarz in 1954.) By dwelling on the strict regime and discipline of the classical ballet dancer and on the asceticism her art requires, Grass presents her as inspiration and muse to the writer. Just as all ballet expressions require intense control of natural movement, the art of the poet cannot be “natural.” An allusion to Heinrich von Kleist’s essay Über das Marionettentheater (1810; On Puppet Shows) places Grass’ first essay in a demanding aesthetic context. Suggesting that the ballerina and (Kleist’s) marionette might enter into a marriage, this essay aspires to a perfection for art and the artisan which transcends the human condition.
Grass’ address on the Dürer anniversary of 1971, “Vom Stillstand im Fortschritt” (On stasis in progress), draws inspiration from Dürer’s engraving Melancolia I. He pictures the mysterious allegorical figure in a variety of roles in contemporary society: placed at a conveyor belt, she “sits wingless and as though sexless” for eight hours a day. Her utopian side is “Touristica,” as the same ancient deity presides over both Melancholia and Utopia. Melancholy is also embodied in the lonesome suburban wife, and as socialist woman she holds hammer and sickle instead of the compass. Expressing Western overabundance, supply without demand, she sits on a deep freezer, a can opener in her hand. In a corresponding attitude she may refuse food, aspiring to a utopia of stern discipline. Grass attempts to demonstrate that Dürer’s melancholy is a social reality rather than a suspicious eccentricity.
In the essay “Der Traum der Vernunft” (The dream of reason), addressing a 1984 conference at the Berlin Academy of Art, Grass refers to Goya’s etching in aquatint with the inscription El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). Identifying sueño as both sleep and dream, he points out that all ideologies are dreams of reason or terrifying utopian visions. Does this mean, he asks, that reason must never sleep, permit us no mystery, no flights of the imagination including the bat, owl, and lynx of Goya’s etching? In this and other essays of the 1980s, Grass questions humankind’s future: “Die Vernichtung der Menschheit hat begonnen” (The destruction of humankind has begun) he claimed at the reception of the Feltrinelli Prize in 1982. Grass was so demoralized by this vision that he stopped writing fiction for four years.
During and after the changes of 1989–91 in Germany, Grass opposed in 13 essays and speeches the hasty German reunification without appropriate changes in the constitution.
Pleading for a more carefully reasoned procedure, Grass suggested a federation of the two states rather than an emotional unification, which would amount in effect to a takeover by the West of a formerly independent state. In November 1992 he dedicated a public address about the decline of political culture in the united Germany to the Turkish victims of Mölln. In a 1994 speech accepting a prize from the Bavarian Academy of Art, Grass seemed to anticipate the critical uproar that would follow the 1995 publication of his novel Ein weites Feld (A wide field). “Über das Sekundäre aus primärer Sicht” (On the secondary from a primary perspective) presents a skeptical evaluation of the emphasis on secondary concerns in contemporary culture and politics.
As the selected examples show, Grass the essayist tends to be underrated in relation to Grass the popular novelist, who continues to be the main focus of critical attention. More than mere political or theoretical footnotes to his main oeuvre, Grass’ essays constitute a complex genre in their own right. With their formal qualities and varied content, these essays still await critical discovery.
Günter Wilhelm Grass. Born 16 October 1927 in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). Studied at the Volksschule and Gymnasium, Danzig; Academy of Art, Düsseldorf, 1948–52; State Academy of Fine Arts, Berlin, 1953–55; also trained as a stone mason and sculptor.
Prisoner of war during World War II. Married Anna Margareta Schwarz, 1954 (divorced, 1978): one daughter and three sons. Held various jobs; speechwriter for Willy Brandt when he was Mayor of West Berlin. Coeditor, L, from 1976, and Verlag L ‘80 publishers, from 1980. Married Ute Grunert, 1979. Awards: many, including Gruppe 47 Prize, 1958; Critics’ Prize (Germany), 1960; Foreign Book Prize (France), 1962; Büchner Prize, 1965;
Fontane Prize, 1968; Heuss Prize, 1969; Mondello Prize (Palermo), 1977; Carl von Ossiersky Medal, 1977; Viareggio-Versilia Prize, 1978; Majakowski Medal, 1978; Feltrinelli Prize, 1982; Leonhard Frank Ring, 1988; honorary degrees from three colleges and universities. Member, 1963, and President, 1983–86 (resigned), Berlin Academy of Art.
Essays and Related Prose
Über das Selbstverständliche: Reden, Aufsätze, Offene Briefe, Kommentare, 1968; revised and enlarged edition, as Über das Selbstverständliche: Politische Schriften, 1969; as Speak Out! Speeches, Open Letters, Commentaries, translated by Ralph Manheim and others, 1969
Dokumente zur politischen Wirkung, edited by Heinz Ludwig Arnold and Franz Josef Görtz, 1971
Der Bürger und seine Stimme: Reden-Aufsätze-Kommentare, 1974
Denkzettel: Politische Reden und Aufsätze, 1965–76, 1978
Aufsätze zur Literatur, 1980
Widerstand lernen: Politische Gegenreden, 1980–1983, 1984
On Writing and Politics, 1967–1983, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1985
Deutscher Lastenausgleich: Wider das dumpfe Einheitsgebot: Reden und Gespräche, 1990
Ein Schnäppchen namens DDR, letzte Reden vorm Glockengeläut, 1990
Gegen die verstreichende Zeit: Reden, Aufsätze und Gespräche, 1989–1991, 1991
Cat and Mouse and Other Writings, edited by A.Leslie Willson (includes “The Ballerina,” translated by Willson, and speeches), 1994
Die Deutscben und ihre Dichter, edited by Daniela Hermes, 1995
Other writings: many novels (including Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum], 1959; Katz und Maus [Cat and Mouse], 1961; Hundejahre [Dog Years], 1963; 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; Die Rättin [The Rat], 1986; Unkenrufe [The Call of the Toad], 1992.; Ein weites Feld, 1995), eight plays, poetry, books on politics, and many collections of drawings and graphics.
Collected works edition: Werkausgabe, edited by Volker Neuhaus, 10 vols., 1987.
Everett, George A., A Select Bibliography of Günter Grass (From 1956 to 1973), New York: Franklin, 1974
Görtz, Franz Josef, “Kommentierte Auswahl-Bibliographie,” Text+ Kritik 1/1a (1978):175–99
Görtz, Franz Josef, “Bibliographie,” in Günter Grass: Auskunft für Leser, edited by Görtz, Darmstadt and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1984:297–310
O’Neill, Patrick, Günter Grass: A Bibliography, 1955–1975, Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 1976
Arnold, Heinz Ludwig, editor, Text+Kritik issue on Grass, 1/1a (1978)
Ascherson, Neal, “Raw Nerves” (review of Speak Out! by Grass), New York Review of Books, 20 November 1969:16–21
Brady, Philip, Timothy McFarland, and John L.White, editors, Günter Grass’ “Der Butt”: Sexual Politics and the Male Myth of History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990
Casanova, Nicole, Günter Grass: Atelier des métamorphoses, Paris: Belfond, 1979
Görtz, Franz Josef, editor, Günter Grass: Auskunft für Leser, Darmstadt and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1984
Hayman, Ronald, Günter Grass, London and New York: Methuen, 1985
Hollington, Michael, Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society, London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1980
Labroisse, Gerd, and Dick Van Stekelenburg, editors, Günter Grass: Ein Europäischer Autor?, Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1992
Lawson, Richard H., Günter Grass, New York: Ungar, 1985
Leonhard, Irene, Günter Grass, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974
Mason, Ann L., The Skeptical Muse: A Study of Günter Grass’ Conception of the Artist, Berne: Lang, 1974
Mews, Siegfried, editor, “The Fisherman and His Wife”: Günter Grass’ “The Flounder” in Critical Perspective, New York: AMS Press, 1983
Miles, Keith, Günter Grass, London: Vision Press, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975
O’Neill, Patrick, editor, Critical Essays on Günter Grass, Boston: Hall, 1987
Osterle, Heinz D., “An Orwellian Decade? Günter Grass Between Despair and Hope (with a Campaign Speech of 1983),” German Studies Review 8, no. 3 (October 1985):481–507
Reddick, John, The “Danzig Trilogy” of Günter Grass, London: Secker and Warburg, and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975
Tank, Kurt Lothar, Günter Grass, New York: Ungar, 1969 (original German edition, 1965)
Updike, John, “Snail on the Stump,” New Yorker, 15 October 1973:182–85
Vormweg, Heinrich, Günter Grass mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1986
Willson, Leslie A., editor, A Günter Grass Symposium, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971
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