Günter Grass on American Vagaries: Boxing, Dancing, and Creating Art

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German poet, novelist, playwright, and graphic artist Gunter Grass smokes a cigarette  on a city street corner in March 1979.

In May 1965, the Overseas Press Club hosted the German novelist Günter Grass, who had arrived in New York to teach a seminar at Columbia University. 

The author of The Tin Drum, in what sounds like his first visit to this country, amusingly recounts watching the previous evening's Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight, which he sees as a "Greek grotesque demonic dance of the American way of life." After some additional reflections on "this very rich and crazy and unhappy land," he takes questions from the audience. Subjects range from the reception of his work in East Germany (where forbidden copies of his novel, distributed to a hotel's cooks and waiters, resulted in there being no service in the dining room that night) to his take on American literature ("America needs a new Whitman!"). He also weighs in on Chancellor Ludwig Erhard's chances in the upcoming German election. 

Born in Danzig (now known as Gdansk) in 1927, Grass fought during the waning months of World War II. He was wounded in April 1945 and spent the remainder of the hostilities in an American POW camp. Upon his release, he studied sculpture and graphic art. He became associated with Group 47, an organization of writers determined to encourage writing about Germany's recent past and current situation, in opposition to what it saw as the romanticized escapist strain of writing then prevalent in the country's literature. With what would become known as The Danzig Trilogy, consisting of The Tin Drum (1959), Cat and Mouse (1961), and Dog Years (1963), Grass emerged as the most widely read and representative novelist of his generation. The books deal with the guilt, horror, and absurdity of Hitler's reign by fashioning a kind of European magical realism.

Rather than producing a strict literary accounting of events, he transmutes them into an at times hilarious, at times terrifying, picaresque fairy tale, because, as he has explained:

"Fairy tales generally speak the truth, encapsulating the essence of our experiences, dreams, wishes, and our sense of being lost in the world. In this way they are truer than many facts." 

The impact of this new approach was immediate and far-reaching. Germany had at that time not found a way to face the Hitler years. The books evoked furious reactions, both pro and con. As The Independent put it:

Grass's breathtaking courage and virtuosity in the face of what he now calls "the gestation of German history" that "had brought forth piles of rubbish and dead bodies" resonated far beyond his borders.

With his fame came responsibilities. Grass quickly became a well-known political figure in Germany, supporting Chancellor Willy Brandt (in office 1969-1974) as well as being active in the peace and environmental movements. In 1986-7 Grass and his wife lived for six months in Calcutta, where he advocated on behalf of the Calcutta Social Project, which attempted to educate the children of that city's poorest residents. He opposed the reunification of Germany, fearing that the result would be a return to the aggressive, expansionist country of his youth.  

In addition to his subsequent novels, he has had plays produced, published his speeches, as well as journals, poems, and drawings. Capitalizing on his training in the arts, he created many of his own book covers. 

In 1999, Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection committee lauded him as being:

…a fabulist and a scholarly lecturer, recorder of voices and presumptuous monologist, pasticheur and at the same time creator of an ironic idiom that he alone commands. In his mastery of German syntax and his readiness to exploit its labyrinthine subtleties he recalls Thomas Mann. His writing constitutes a dialogue with the great traditions of German culture, conducted with punctilious affection. 

No stranger to controversy, in 2006 Grass shocked his readers by admitting that he, when very young, had enlisted in the notorious Waffen-SS. Coming from a man who had been considered the moral compass of his time, and who was strenuous in his insistence that  Germany face up to its Nazi past, these revelations stirred up a storm of reaction. His previous statements condemning others for what could be seen acts of complicity were now held against him. In an interview, Grass explained:

…he wanted to dispel the notion that Germans were unwilling victims of Hitler. Germans, he said, were enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi regime. "Of course they were seduced as well, but many were involved with enthusiasm."

In 2009, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, a new English translation of The Tin Drum was released. Breon Mitchell, working with Grass, was able to retain much more of the author's syncopated style, to reproduce his extended (at times page-long) sentences, and even approximate his made-up words. Additionally, several prurient scenes not translated in the earlier version were restored.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.