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Culture

Literary agent provocateur Günter Grass turns 85

He is a Nobel Prize winner, poet laureate and taboo-breaker, a man who polarizes and provokes. He's a critical, occasionally angry, politically engaged citizen, but above all, a great author: Günter Grass turns 85.

Der Literaturnobelpreistraeger Guenter Grass liest am Sonntag (06.02.11) in Hamburg auf der Buehne des Ernst-Deutsch-Theaters anlaesslich eines Treffens mit dem SPD-Spitzenkandidaten fuer die Hamburger Buergerschaftswahl, Olaf Scholz, aus seinem neuen Buch Grimms Woerter. Grass steht jahrzehntelangen Differenzen zum Trotz fest zur deutschen Sozialdemokratie. Folgerichtig hat sich der 83-Jaehrige am Sonntag im Wahlkampf fuer den Hamburger SPD-Buergermeisterkandidaten Olaf Scholz stark gemacht. Im Anschluss an eine Lesung aus seinem aktuellen Buch Grimms Woerter sprach der Schriftsteller im Hamburger Ernst-Deutsch-Theater mit dem ehemaligen Bundesarbeitsminister ueber die Notwendigkeit des buergerlichen Engagements - zu allen Zeiten der Geschichte und ueberall auf der Welt. Foto: Axel Heimken/dapd

Günter Grass

This life full of highs and lows, magic moments and disavowals, began on October 16, 1927.

Günter Grass comes from the proverbial "humble beginnings." His parents ran a convenience store in Gdansk, the clientele were poor, their apartment was cramped and the local area was Catholic. "A childhood between the Holy Spirit and Hitler," wrote Grass's biographer Michael Jürgs.

At the age of 17, Grass witnessed the atrocities of the Second World War, as an anti-aircraft auxiliary in 1944 and later as a member of the elite Waffen SS. Only decades later would Grass reveal his involvement in the war - causing a sizeable scandal. His main concern during the war itself was to survive.

International breakthrough

German author Günter Grass, left, receives the Nobel Prize for literature from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, right, at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, Friday, Dec. 10, 1999

Günter Grass received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999

In the young post-war Germany, Grass occupied himself with artistic endeavors, studied sculpture and graphics, played in a jazz band, traveled and, in 1956, stopped for a time in Paris.

The life Grass led with his first wife was more modest than illustrious, but it is where his stellar literary career began. Grass wrote his first novel "The Tin Drum," published in 1959, causing a furor in the stuffy German society of the period.

The book went on to be an international success, translated into numerous languages and adapted for film. Exactly 40 years later, its creator would win the Nobel Prize for Literature for the book and his life's work.

Prolific creative output

Günter Grass has written dramas and poems, but mainly fiction - the list of his works is long and illustrious, including famous novels like "Dog Years" and "Local Anesthetic," as well as "The Flounder," "The Rat," "The Call of the Toad," "Crabwalk" and many others.

Grass's literary works are concerned with political relations and societal upheaval, for example the role of intellectuals in the Uprising of 1953 in the German Democratic Republic, the student rebellions of 1968, general elections in Germany, issues regarding the future, East-West politics, the sinking of a ship carrying refugees in the Baltic Sea in 1945. Reconciliation with Poland also remained a matter close to the Gdansk-born author's heart.

His later books never quite met the same level of enthusiasm as the story of the drumming Oskar Matzerath, but they were also successes - and talking points for the literary-loving country. For some, his books were too cumbersome, too polemical and not artistic enough.

Morality and politics

To this day, however, Günter Grass has remained a creative and multi-talented artist - a novelist, poet, graphic artist, sculptor and, occasionally, a book illustrator. He's also intentionally attracted attention for his political interventions; for a long time now he's been regarded as a type of "moral authority" in Germany.

Since 1961, Grass has been involved with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) without being a member of the party. He supported Will Brandt's election campaign in 1969 and later joined the party, only to give up his party membership in protest over reforms to asylum law.

But Grass has remained what he always was: an occasionally blustering, always critical contemporary observer, an independent leftist who, on the strength of his own reputation, powerfully and eloquently voices his opinions, campaigning against the deportation of the Kurds, for former forced laborers of the National Socialist regime, for human rights, for persecuted authors, against wars and for wars.

Then in 2006 he admitted his own failings during the Second World War. When Grass revealed his membership in the Waffen SS as a 17-year-old, it led to a highly charged public debate both within and outside of Germany.

The shadow of silent complicity was cast over his reputation for moral integrity. Grass became resentful. The writer, who had always argued for an unsparing, brutally honest handling of the National Socialist past in Germany, was suddenly considered a hypocrite.

Günter Grass on the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung

The writer's political views and interventions have made him a regular fixture in the headlines

'Multi-faceted dinosaur'

The aged writer and the public at large had become estranged. Günter Grass the moral authority was obviously no longer required. Then in April 2012, Grass published a lyric text entitled "What Must Be Said," causing yet another scandal which went far beyond the borders of Germany.

The text, presented in the form of a poem, was an unveiled critique of Israeli political policy. Grass warned of an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran and labeled the country, its nuclear capacities and occupation policies, a threat to world peace. The poem provoked outrage; the author became persona non grata; accusations of anti-Semitism began to circulate.

But Günter Grass remains a role model - not least for his young, literary colleagues. Uwe Tellkamp described him as one of the "strongest narrative powers in German literature," while Moritz Rinke casually called him the "maybe most interesting multi-faceted dinosaur."

Grass has recently published a book of poetry called "Eintagsfliegen" ("Mayflies"). And he wouldn't Günter Grass if the book did not broach political themes. But the 85-year-old is now concerned with other themes as well, like age, loss and death.

Jazz and cigarettes

That Günter Grass is also a good-humored, witty, sensitive contemporary is a fact best known to the few who know him outside of the literary context. He's still passionate about jazz, for example. Three years ago, Grass and his friend, musician Günter Baby Sommer, gave a celebrated musical-literary performance on the stage at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Insiders also know that Grass also likes to cook, is partial to good red wine, and at 85 refuses to quit smoking. He likes to present himself as a patriarch in the middle of his large extended family. Just as Goethe wrote: "Here I am Man, here dare it to be!"

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