Gunter Wilhelm Grass, born in Danzig, Oct. 16, 1927, Germany’s prominent contemporary writer, has been called the conscience of his country’s postwar generation. Drafted into the Labor Service toward the end of World War II, he was wounded and taken prisoner in 1945. After the war he moved (1947) to Dusseldorf where he studied sculpture and painting, supporting himself as an apprentice stonecutter and jazz drummer. In 1953, Grass settled in Berlin, where he has since devoted himself to writing, the graphic arts, and, increasingly, to socialist politics. As a committed artist and anti-fascist, he said that “to be engaged is… to act.” Grass’s strong moral convictions are never far beneath the biting irony and grotesque satire of his works.
Grass has written novels, poetry and plays. His first novel The Tin Drum (1959), for which he earned the 1958 prize of the GRUPPE 47, brought him immediate worldwide recognition. An epic work, the novel is characterized by a bawdy exuberance, its author delighting in the ribald parody of a variety of literary styles and traditions. Grass’s complex and self-contradictory narrator, the dwarf drummer Oskar, is an amoral, picaresque hero who narrates the events of the war and postwar eras through a distorted and exaggerated perspective. Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963) have many characteristics in common with the earlier work and, like it, are set in Danzig. Together, the three novels are referred to as the Danzig Trilogy. Grass’s poetry has been collected and translated in Selected Poems (1966), and In the Egg and Other Poems (1977).
Grass’s dramatic works reveal the influence of the theater of the absurd and the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht. They include Mister, Mister, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, The Wicked Cooks, and Flood (all 1957). Yet in his most popular and controversial play, The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising: A German Tragedy (1965) Grass points a critical finger at Brecht. The play concerns the role of the committed artist vis-a-vis society, a question that has continually preoccupied Grass and that led in the 1960s to his direct involvement in politics as a supporter of Willy Brandt and the Social Democratic party.
Grass’s political activities and his sense of commitment inform his later works as well. From the Diary of a Snail (1972) is a fictionalized account of his involvement with Brandt’s 1969 campaign. The Flounder (1977) is simultaneously a novel, fairy tale, diary, political commentary, and a history of women’s emancipation. The satire Headbirths; or, The Germans Are Dying Out (1980), the historical novel The Meeting at Telgte (1979), and the apocalyptic fiction The Rat (1986) all contribute to Grass’s vision of a world that, because it is not better, is inevitably going to be worse.
That theme is repeated again in Show Your Tongue (1989), a collection of journal entries and drawings that are the fruits of Grass’s sojourn in Calcutta. Two States – One Nation? (1990) details Grass’ fears about German unification.