Günter Grass has been perceived as an aging, recalcitrant author with a damaged reputation. His literary achievements have taken a backseat in Germany. Unrightfully so, says Jochen Kürten.
An interesting question: how would author Günter Grass be judged today had he held back with his political statements? And had he admitted his onetime membership in the SS at an earlier point in time? All of Germany would probably have been proud of the novelist who wrote "The Tin Drum," proud of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, of the creator of world-class literature.
Is Germany proud of Grass? Even if the author is being noted in many obituaries, he carries an unpleasant aftertaste for many, and for mainly three reasons.
Provocative with pleasure
First, Grass liked to provoke, repeatedly taking politically daredevil stands. That, of course, was his perfect right, perhaps even the responsibility of a critical writer. But Grass didn't just take a stand on behalf of social democracy and human rights, issues that even those of a different opinion would come to accept sooner or later.
The author milked some issues - artistically and publicly - to an extent that many of his political opponents could only react to with reproach.
On the subject of German reunification, Günter Grass said: too fast, better to keep the status quo of two German states. Grass on the subject of Israel: the country is a warmonger and a danger to world peace - no mention of Iran and various Arab countries. And he described the visit of Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan to the soldiers' cemetery in Bitburg as revisionist history.
Grass positioned himself as the nation's conscience - at least in the perception of many. And because Grass, unlike Heinrich Böll, his literary cohort of many years, was characteristically hot-blooded and always provocative, his statements and stances alienated half of the country.
Secondly: the author's confession - in his autobiographical text "Vom Häuten der Zwiebel" (Peeling the Onion) - that he had entered the SS as a young man proved the ultimate meltdown. Many felt that he, of all people, the preacher of a clear conscience had kept quiet about his past far too long. That was inexcusable! It was of little use that Grass had not kept his membership secret when he was taken prisoner by the Allied forces and had later admitted it to other literati. Pontificating about German history but neglecting his own was his downfall with a broad sector of the public.
Contention with critics
The third reason for the damaged image of the Nobel Prize winner cannot be underestimated in his home country. Grass was in a permanent state of war with domestic literature critics. Their most important representative, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and the newspaper he wrote for, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, which was perceived by many as the nation's foremost intellectual voice, were vehemently critical of Grass. That cast an enduring shadow on the public perception of the writer.
The wounds inflicted by both sides grew too deep to heal. Reich-Ranicki and his disciples judged that apart from "The Tin Drum," the short novel "Cat and Mouse" and perhaps also the literary study "Das Treffen in Telgte" (Meeting in Telgte), he had ceased to produce anything of consequence. Literary scholars and many experts abroad came to a different verdict. But in Germany, Reich-Ranicki had a grip on opinion-making in the literature-reading sector of the public.
View of the literary work
With his arrogant and, with increasing age, truculent manner, Günter Grass certainly contributed to the negative image. His late admission of the earlier SS entanglement was a big mistake. But that doesn't change the fact that, for decades, Günter Grass was one of only a handful of German authors who had a global reach. Important authors like Salman Rushdie, John Irving and several others were inspired by Grass.
So to complete the picture, one should also recall the deceased author's novels, stories and poetry. These make Günter Grass, without a doubt, one of the most important German-language authors of the post-World War II era.