Being Grass

Günter Grass
From Germany to Germany: Journal of the Year 1990
Translated by Krishna Winston
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

We think of a journal as a private document meant for the reflection and personal records of its author. In its pages, the journal-keeper may annotate the events of his day, attempt the articulation of complex inner truths, vent pressing frustrations, and pose intimate questions. Imbedded in the act of reading someone else’s journal is a strong transgressive taboo, and for good reason: without a secure privacy in which to reflect on our thoughts, we cannot do the necessary work of examining our moral and emotional lives. In certain circumstances, however, it is appropriate and valuable to turn this reflection outward. The diaries of Anaïs Nin and Václav Havel’s Letters to Olga are standout examples of private transmissions made public. In Günter Grass’s newly published journal, From Germany to Germany, the author’s text and context merge in a unique and sustained meditation on the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

I am not one of those people who love keeping a journal. Something unusual must be happening to inflict this ritual on me.

As a popular literary novelist, a key writer in the European magic realism movement, and a public intellectual whose work appears in all and sundry forms, Grass’s personal journal is guaranteed an enduring scholastic interest. Non-academics, however, may enjoy it for the continual contours of human interaction it reveals, as Grass eyes the beauty of his wife on one hand, and the effects of global climate change on the other. From Germany to Germany also chronicles a critical year in geopolitics, including German reunification and the escalation of the Gulf War. Grass is both a major and a beguiling figure, and most of his writing, including the journal at hand, reflects protean, playful, macabre, and caricatured aspects of his artistic temperament.

Construction of the Berlin Wall began in August 1961. The Wall served as an operative tool as well as a powerful, trenchant symbol. It was designed to shutter the human urge for freedom by immobilizing actual human bodies. Those who built the wall, the East Germans along with the Soviets, described its purpose as protective and defensive—its official name was Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or, “Anti-fascist protection rampart.” This distortion of language is typical of those wielding immense power: it presented untruth as truth and enforced this untruth with Panzer tanks, fakir beds, machine guns, and the like. East and West Germany achieved a tense stasis along the Wall for nearly 30 years. The wall’s collapse, in November 1989, carried complex psychological as well as geopolitical ramifications for Germany. The country, suddenly unified, became a massive player in central European political and economic landscape. Not only neighboring countries, such as France and Poland, but the German people themselves were forced to contend with a nation that had last been united under the Third Reich.

Grass began his journal on January 1, 1990, on the coast of Portugal, where he keeps a winter home. The pages are filled with beautiful, tempered writing, endlessly detailing domestic life, cooking, gardening and mushroom picking, drawing, drinking, smoking, convening with other major literary figures, listening to Bach’s Magnificat, and reconfiguring his library. Political rumination and the ongoing working-out of forthcoming novels also figure regularly in the text. Grass uses the journal in particular to outline a course for The Call of the Toad, a sort of mimetic out-playing of his creativity in the context of Germany’s unification and growing pains. The novel is a wondrous fable about a German widower and a Polish widow who meet fortuitously in Gdansk, and go on to found a joint German-Polish cemetery association. As one of the characters, Reschke, smugly describes in his own diary, “The Poles as well as the Germans must recognize the right of the dead to repatriation. It is a human right that knows no frontiers.” In several parts of the journal, Grass goes so far as to script the next several seasons of his life: a drafting process through the fall, and subsequent revisions; a year of solid research before beginning on a five-year novel writing endeavor to be gifted himself on his 70th birthday, much like he did with The Flounder for his 50th. The journal represents a moment in time of concise reflection after a long orgy of tumult, the grappa at the end of the meal.

A typical entry begins with the author planting cactus in the garden with his wife, Ute. Mushrooms are roasting in a pan, when political commentary intercedes with a stray comment:

Reading Der Spiegel, I could see Rudolf Augstein, for decades a confirmed cynic, unraveling into a nationalist. Am getting around only now to reading Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. A fabulous novel, in the true sense of the word. The writing is clever, naïve, masterly. Despite its apparent impudence, a book remarkably pious: by contrast Rushdie’s enemies appear godless. It will be a source of continuing gratification that I resigned from the Academy for this writer’s sake…Back to Augstein. His editorials in Der Spiegel are dangerous, because, like a gifted adolescent, he bases them not on reasoned arguments but on a prevailing mood, partly already present, partly whipped up by him.

As well, Grass demonstrates how a novel grows out of life, not in the sense that his novel writing is autobiographical—it isn’t, and he evinces disdain for Philip Roth’s comparatively “colorless” novel The Counterlife—but how through sleeping, waking, partaking of quiet work in the garden, and spending long hours at the desk in constant contemplation of the structures, motifs, and counter-themes relevant to character, a living, breathing novel emerges:

This evening, the toad in our inner courtyard. As big as a full grown guinea pig, it assumes for me the identity of one of those toads that last autumn could be heard calling from far and near as soon as darkness fell … What is this creature doing in my journal, I wondered, except that it is unfamiliar, incomprehensible, and at best suggests a title—for something, I don’t know what: The Call of the Toad?

Not only do the perennial questions of political philosophy intrude with special interest, but Grass also recognizes a new malady has arisen, one which recurs throughout the journal: global climate change. The motif begins with the late winter hurricanes that swept England, France, and Belgium, killing many dozens, but becomes particularly heated as the author, a devoted gardener, bemoans the early blossoming plants in springtime. Grass’s record of the year maintains a clear, consistent, and appropriately alarmed articulation not only of the throes of German unification, but of the advent of global climate change. This, in 1990.
Grass’s legacy has undergone continual revision since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999. Most pertinently, he has been often and rightly subject to the questioning of his moral authority, after having revealed in his 2006 memoir, Peeling the Onion, that as a young person he was a member of Hitler’s Waffen SS. As he states in that memoir, “What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly…The way we boys saw it, our uniforms attracted all eyes…Finally we were taken seriously.”

What has come to be referred to as Grass’s political naivety by members of Germany’s intellectual, journalistic, and political elite, may be better termed a sort of churlish idealism, a quality not uncommon to novelists. In Grass’s case, we find his idealism heavily influenced by what he calls the continuing farce of advanced capitalism. He refers to his political and social commentary as “toad calls,” sung out as if from the seclusion of a dark wood. He operates not as a politician presenting a platform, but as a trickster and a keeper of cultural memory, prodding his readership to remember the dangers of complacency. The very literary subgenre for which he is the standard-bearer is known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” While Grass’s moral authority obviously and necessarily suffers on account of his participation in the Nazi regime, the quality of his imaginative thinking appears to suffer no lasting impairment. Notably, however, in April 2012, Israel named him a persona non gratafor the writing of a pro-Palestinian poem. Nevertheless, the broad international consensus celebrates him as a cherished storyteller, a conveyor of hidden human paradigms. As Salman Rushdie reminds us in a tweet from early 2012:

Let’s not forget that #GünterGrass is the author of the greatest literary responses to Nazism, The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years [sic].

What Grass’s journal reminds us is that an artist’s life is one of recognizing and being available for those moments when life calls us to art. We think of the Berlin Wall, finally confronted with a sledgehammer—but also an oversized toad in the driveway, calling to us from the darkness of the evening. In late winter 1991, during the escalation of the Gulf War, Grass set down his yearlong journal, having recorded and decoded the first year of the final decade of the first millennium in the common era. West and East Germany had reached a tentative, if lopsided, unity, both economic as well as political, and a newer Germany was beginning the trek towards European leadership that would characterize its role in the early part of the 21st Century. As a record of that year, and as a map of a novelist’s mind, From Germany to Germany stands up as a document of real value and continued interest to students of politics and literature alike. It is a small, but gem-like ornament in his oeuvre and provides deeper context to his many novels. As Grass himself might have put it, after so much red wine, at last the obligatory grappa.

Contributor

Allen Guy Wilcox

ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., and grew up on his parents' farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005

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