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 These days, he’s mocked for his outdated leftism and his hubris in cranking out all those long, dense novels that preach about the modern world.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.