In Memoriam Günther Grass

Yesterday, German novelist, poet and artist Günther Grass died of a lung infection aged 87. His death caused an outpour of tributes and condolences from writers and politicians worldwide. Deutsche Welle and The Guardian have collected a few of them. The Guardian also shares some of their favourite Günther Grass quotes, while kulturzeit has a wonderful video tribute (in German).

Günther Grass was one of the ten German winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature along with Theodor Mommsen, Rudolf Eucken, Paul Heyse*, Gerhart Hauptmann, Thomas Mann, Herrmann Hesse, Nelly Sachs**, Heinrich Böll and Herta Müller, who with Grass’ death remains the only living German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, for Elfriede Jelinek, the other German language winner, is actually Austrian.

If you grew up in Germany post 1945, Günther Grass was always there in the background of your life, a mustacchioed pipe-smoking presence that looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s lost doppelgangers. You probably read him in school along with his Gruppe 47 fellow travelers Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Martin Walser, Walter Jens, Ilse Aichinger and Ingeborg Bachmann. Or maybe you secretly read him under the covers by night, looking for the good bits, like my Mom. That scene in The Tim Drum with the sherbet power in Maria’s bellybutton blew a lot of minds and probably caused dozens of imitations. And even if you never read The Tim Drum or the Danzig Trilogy, you probably know who Oskar Mazerath, the boy with the tin drum and the shrill voice who wouldn’t grow up, is. Later, you probably either rolled your eyes or nodded along, whenever Grass decided to wade into the hottest political controversy of the day – again. He probably pissed you off at some point, cause he pissed everybody off. You may have quietly gloated when it came out that Grass, then seventeen, had been a member of the Waffen SS for a few months in 1944/45 (Look, the moral paragon has been revealed to have been a bloody hypocrite), and you’re probably just as pissed off today at the obituaries from foreign papers that reduce his life to just these few months and an ill-advised poem.

Like so many, I first encountered Grass and his Gruppe 47 compatriots in school. He was what I used to call a “German textbook writer”, i.e. a German postwar writer likely affiliated with Gruppe 47 whose sole purpose seemed to be to fill German literature textbooks with dull fiction and even duller poetry that for some reason was always about either Poland or World War II or Poland during World War II. Looking back, it’s not surprising that Günther Grass and his Gruppe 47 pals had little to say to West German teens of the 1980s (okay, I kind of liked Heinrich Böll’s Lost Honour of Katherina Blum). We weren’t interested in reminiscences of lost Eastern Prussia or Silesia or Gdansk, places which had been Polish for decades before we were born and were now mostly associated with war and strikes and protests and martial law. The fact that our teachers didn’t properly explain references that couldn’t make any sense to 1980s teens (Don’t know what a potato fire is? You’re stupid and spoiled. So you stopped asking.) didn’t help either. I had to grow up to appreciate Grass and Lenz and the others. And it makes me sad how many teenagers will be turned off these authors for life by incompetent teachers.

I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me reappreciate Siegfried Lenz as an adult. I don’t know what it was that made me reappreciate Günther Grass. Maybe it was the realisation that Grass was an SFF writer, though he probably never saw himself as such. Bruce Sterling famously coopted Günther Grass or more precisely The Tim Drum for his Slipstream manifesto, but The Flounder, a fairy tale retelling written before it was cool, and his apocalyptic novel The Rat, in which Grass destroys the world and nukes Oskar Mazerath to finally get rid of him (Didn’t work. Oskar survives), are much better examples.

But what also made me admire Günther Grass as an adult was his absolute fearlessness. Günther Grass was a man who spoke out what he thought, a man who never met a controversial subject he did not have an opinion on. And he usually didn’t care whom those opinions pissed off. He campaigned for the Social Democratic Party back in the 1960s, when this was still controversial, and later broke up with them, when he disagreed with the pro-business and anti-welfare policies of Gerhard Schröder. He pissed off the Turkish state by criticising their treatment of Kurds, Armenians and other minorities. He spoke out against war and against nuclear power. He wrote a poem criticising Israeli politics and got labelled an antisemite for his troubles. He occasionally seemed to be surprised and disappointed by the backlash his airing of his opinions tended to cause, but I don’t think he really cared.

In the speculative fiction community, there is currently a big debate going on about the place of politics in fiction and about whether authors should be allowed to have opinions at all, let alone speak about them in public. There are rightwing authors claiming that they have been discriminated against and shunned (a curious word that has no German translation) for their political and religious views, though there is currently little concrete evidence for this. And there are leftwing authors who are afraid to speak up for fear of attracting trolls and worse to their blogs.

When I heard that Günther Grass had died, my first thought was, “What a pity! Now we’ll never hear his views on the Hugo debate.” Now I strongly suspect that Günther Grass had no idea what the Hugo are. Nonetheless, he was famous or rather infamous for having an opinion on everything. And he was never afraid to state that opinion.

In the light of the current ugly climate in the SFF community, Günther Grass strikes me as even more amazing. Because here was a writer who was also a highly political person and who was not afraid to speak out, even if it cost him awards and nominations and got him shunned. He was involved in a couple of long running literary feuds without the whole thing descending into abuse and death threats. I think we could do worse than take him as a role model.

By the way, The Tin Drum was published in 1959 and became a worldwide bestseller and as well as a genuine mainstream success. Even my grandmother read it and she usually tended more towards bloated family sagas and fluffy historical fiction. Günther Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, so he only had to wait for forty years to finally receive recognition. Take that, whiny puppies.

Comments closed because I neither feel like dealing with whiny puppies nor people who feel that Grass was a Nazi and nothing else.

*Don’t worry, if you have never heard of Mommsen, Eucken and Heyse. Hardly anybody has, except for German scholars.

**Hesse and Sachs held Swiss and Swedish citizenship respectively, when they were awarded the Nobel Prize, but are usually considered German writers.

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