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100 Years of Weltschmerz 

Gunter Grass’ century

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
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Photo by Jacques M. Chenet/Corbiss

A few months ago, I asked a New York book editor if there was a new Günter Grass novel coming out. She shrugged and said, "Who cares?"

Although it may seem as if the joke was on her — for Grass went on to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature — the question was not unreasonable. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Grass enjoyed an astonishing literary run, from The Tin Drum and Dog Years through Local Anaesthetic and From the Diary of a Snail, that brought him world fame. But more than 20 years have passed since his last big international success, The Flounder. And though Headbirths and The Rat are terrific books, teeming with ideas about postmodern tourism, the death of fairy tales and a post-industrial future dominated by rodents, he’s largely seen as a writer whose importance disappeared along with the Wall. Grass’ reputation has faded even in his home country, where he’s widely reckoned a ponderous old fart who can’t stop pontificating about Germany’s checkered past and not altogether wholesome national character. These days, he’s mocked for his outdated leftism and his hubris in cranking out all those long, dense novels that preach about the modern world.

At first blush, Grass’ latest book might sound like further ammunition for his critics: It’s rather immodestly called My Century. But while the title is fairly bursting with premillennial grandiosity, this trim volume is surprisingly modest and inviting. Every page is alive with the vivid historical sense that has made him one of the few essential writers of our time.

Grass long ago gave up on straightforward storytelling — he likes fractured storylines — and My Century is less a proper novel than an interlinked collection of 100 short stories, one for each year of the German century, all told in first person like an imaginary oral history. It begins in 1900 with an ex-soldier’s memories of brutally crushing the Boxer Rebellion and returning home with a pigtail lopped from the head of an executed Chinese rebel. But when he puts this imperial trophy on his own head for a laugh, his fiancée chucks it into the fire, saying, "It could’ve haunted the house."

Too late. The house of German history is already haunted, and this century that begins with imperial slaughter gets worse before it gets better. As the years fly by, Grass gives us World War I gas attacks and Weimar’s days of national self-pity, Nazi monstrosity and postwar rubble, the ’50s boom and the Berlin Wall, which eventually succumbs to "falling sickness," leading to the consumerist ’90s, when people take to the streets covered with corporate logos. Along the way, we hear from a range of witnesses, from the ordinary to the well-known: a dance-happy flapper, a mechanic on the first zeppelin, a communist in a labor camp, writers Erich Maria Remarque and Ernst Jünger, a granny made nostalgic by the sight of worthless old Reichsmarks, the Holocaust escapee who built Adolf Eichmann’s glass case and, predictably, the author himself. On June 17, 1953, Grass and his wife, Anna, witnessed the workers’ uprising against the East German government, a rebellion in which ordinary people heroically battled tanks with stones. Although their courage looked futile to him at the time, history reaches a different verdict. "Sometimes," Grass writes, "even if decades after the fact, stone throwers do prevail."

As you might expect, not all the stories are equally compelling, and at first their subject matter may seem dauntingly German to most of us. (Do we really care about the early days of Deutsche Grammophon?) Yet once the witnesses’ memories begin to overlap and echo, the book sucks you in; the stories coalesce in a kaleidoscopic vision of a century in which barbarism keeps playing leapfrog with absurdity. In the 1978 story, two teenagers come home dressed as punks; the sight of them unleashes something vestigial in their grandfather, a banker who has always refused to say what he did during the war. Soon Gramps has a mohawk and safety pins in his earlobes, and is revelling in the neo-Nazi aspects of punk — he talks about Aryanizing business and defending chemical giant I.G. Farben (which built a factory at Auschwitz) against compensation claims. His grandkids are so grossed out by the old man’s antics, they clean up and become strait-laced citizens of the ’80s and ’90s.

When a book is titled My Century, the weight falls on the pronoun. Few writers have ever had a more massive sense of My-ness than Grass, whose books are achingly, inexhaustibly, almost violently personal. This is not a man who pretends to be objective. He flays his bugbears, rides his hobby horses till they drop, and simply ignores the stuff he finds dull — for instance, the suburban adulteries of a John Updike. Grass’ sheer cussedness can make him exasperating, for, like film director Jean-Luc Godard, he pursues only what winds him up, and if you don’t happen to find his eccentricities interesting — too damn bad.

While this new novel is one of his most accessible, it’s shot through with the usual Grass obsessions: love of good food and democratic socialism, disdain for Martin Heidegger and violent student radicals, anger that we’re destroying the ecosystem and all sense of the past. As a man who’s spent his career chasing the ghost of the 20th century, he’s particularly appalled by the historical amnesia cultivated by many postwar Germans. One of the book’s heroes is Herr Hösle, a present-day schoolteacher who gets in trouble for telling his students too much about the terrors of Kristallnacht and pointing out that it happened on exactly the same day, November 9, that Berliners began dancing in pure joy on the Wall. As Grass wrote in Dog Years, "Nothing is pure."

Grass’ devotion to historical memory is easy to understand. He was raised under the big lie of National Socialism and later saw his Germanized hometown of Danzig turn into the Polish city of Gdansk; the world he once knew has been obliterated by war, politics, the slow erosion of time. All that’s left is what he can keep in his head. But it’s a very big head. Grass seems to remember every cornice in downtown Danzig, every gust of wind that tousled his hair, every fib ever uttered by a right-wing politician, every pig knuckle that ever landed on his plate. Although he has always taken pride in living fully in the present — he’s a voracious reader, traveler, mushroom hunter and campaigner for social justice — his imagination has always come most alive in the past. That’s one reason why My Century is his most resonant book in 20 years.

It’s a cruel truth that artists’ early work usually has an imaginative richness unmatched by later, often more polished efforts. This is certainly true of Grass, whose most enduring work is bound to be the "Danzig Trilogy" based on his childhood: The Tin Drum, Dog Years (his finest work) and Cat and Mouse. Tin Drum not only triggered international interest in magical realism (and a stridently banal film), but its premise — using a preternatural child’s story to explore the history of a whole culture — became the template for countless other novels, most famously Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

If Grass has an American analog, it’s probably Kurt Vonnegut, another literary superstar of the ’60s and ’70s who’s fallen sadly (and unfairly) out of fashion. Both went through World War II and could never shake off what they learned there. Both became men of the Left who mistrusted totalizing theories, be it the certainties of the two-headed beast that Grass calls Marxengels or the end-of-history pieties of triumphalist capitalism. Both became writers whose skepticism about the world — and their own unreliable natures! — gave birth to a comic vision that mixes history, fantasy, satire, social commentary and an incurable soft spot for lost causes.

While Vonnegut has always been the more elegant entertainer, Grass is clearly the harder-headed realist. Not for him the consolations of Tralfamadore. Utterly unsentimental in his sense of absurdity, he’s the sort of brash writer who makes you laugh and makes you think, but has a hard time moving you. Perhaps that’s why I was so unexpectedly touched by the final story in My Century, a writerly coup that finds Grass at his sunniest and most magical. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens, but I will say that he manages to end this book about our haunted house of a century on a note of tender optimism, even love. If we survived all this, he suggests, how can we not be eager to find out what happens next?�

MY CENTURY | By GÜNTER GRASS | Harcourt Brace & Co. | 320 pages | $25 hardcover

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