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Culture

A Public Moralist Knows No Rest

Günter Grass: author, poet, painter, sculptor, public moralist and Nobel prize winner. Germany’s best-known living writer celebrates his 75th birthday on October 16 and shows no sign of slowing down.

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75 years young

This week has seen a wave of tributes to the German writer and artist Günter Grass, who celebrates his 75th birthday on Wednesday.

A towering literary figure in Germany for the last four decades, Grass has also used his prominence as a platform for incisive political commentary – most recently speaking out in favor of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s red-green coalition and against military action in Iraq.

A Danzig childhood

The son of a grocer, Grass grew up in Danzig, in present day Poland. He joined the Hitler Youth in the 1930s and served in the German army during World War II. Afterwards, he studied painting and sculpture and wrote verse and plays before publishing his hugely successful first novel, The Tin Drum in1959. A 1979 film version of the novel by German director Volker Schlöndorff was an international success and brought Grass acclaim abroad.

Like the two other works in the so-called “Danzig Trilogy” - Katz und Maus (“Cat and Mouse,”1961) and Hundejahre (“Dog Years,”1963) - The Tin Drum draws on the author’s early life in the German-Polish port city.

“Books don’t just happen,” Grass told the German weekly Die Woche. “They are lived out in advance – and they take much longer to live out than they do to get written down."

The conscience of the German Federal Republic

History and politics are closely intertwined in all of Grass’ works. He frequently refers to himself as a “public moralist,” and the German President, Johannes Rau, has called him “the conscience of the res publica.”

Ein Weites Feld (“Too Far Afield,” 1995) was the first literary work by a prominent author to deal with German reunification, which Grass opposed, referring to it as an “annexation.”

His latest novel, Im Krebsgang, (“Crabwalk,” 2002 – English translation due in April 2003), broke a long-held taboo in German literature by focusing on the suffering of German expellees after World War II. By highlighting a single event in 1945, the sinking of the refugee ship “Wilhelm Gustloff” in the Baltic, Grass is able to trace the history of a few key characters through the generations up to the present-day portrayal of the tragedy on neo-Nazi Web sites. Like Grass’ earlier works, it underlines the author’s preoccupation with the way past and present are connected and perceived.

The man the Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has called “one of the greatest writers of our time and a great patriot” has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and honors, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. This and his uncompromising political stance often detract from his success as a sculptor, graphic artist and painter.

A series of exhibitions covering the author’s activities opens at the "Günter-Grass-Haus," a museum dedicated to the writer’s life and work, in Lübeck on October 20.