27 April, 2015Issue 28.1FictionHistoryLiteraturePolitics & Society

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On Günter Grass: the Historian of Our Times

Thomas Peak

A personal appreciation of the writer, who died on 13 April

Screaming controversies, radiant brilliance, short-but-much-regretted-careers in the SS, even lifetimes spent as novelist, poet, playwright, and national conscience—all things come to an end. And so has Günter Grass. He was everything that his times were: complicated, fudged, compromised, and robbed of the chance ever really to be whiter-than-white. And his work—the great literary monuments, our cherished Oskarchen, and much more besides—will remain indispensable reading for generations. The epic novels, the short biting poems, the novellas too, will retain the adulation of the reading public as long as such a thing cares to adulate anything. Above all else, though, Günter Grass was His Century’s greatest historian. So daring in its variety, his writing inevitably exposed itself to many interpretations, so many angles from which to be praised or chastised, as dramatist, artist, story-teller, essayist, political commentator. The fact remains, whichever version of Grass you encounter, at heart he is always preserving his moment. Really, this is why Günter Grass is so important.

But what did he do as a historian? Except nag and point fingers, some might ask, how did he add to the abundant knowledge of his years, the stacks in the archives, the acute awareness of historical memory? By bottling up an essence of time, boiling it down to ink and pouring it onto the page, he gave new shape to the details we are oh-so dutifully familiar with. A connection to the meaning of a disappeared world, once established by Grass, grows and evolves with the diligent reader. This is what history is; this is what it should do. Because, for sure, we need to know the past, and we also need to understand. But if history’s impressions and echoes are truly to mean anything at all, we need to feel. And a feeling of the century past is precisely what Günter Grass evokes.

Now, the twenty-first century has become most adept at this, in its way. We remember everything and everybody, or claim to. Novel ways are found to keep the memory alive, to learn from it, to express something of it to new generations, and to perpetuate its lessons into the future. Statues are erected, plaques laid down. Places of horror, of pain, are transformed into sights of enduring commemoration, promising hope. Faces of the suffering, the persecuted and the long dead stare out at us. We were once here too! There might be critiques of this endeavour, those who say that group suffering is routinely commoditised, memorials drawing busloads of tourists packaging the glory of national shame into two-hour walks through galleries of terror, complete with souvenir programmes, and mobile burger bars. With so many pressing demands from history, the European public space may have found as good a way to remember as any.

And, through this process of remembering, we look for the concrete. The past as empirical substance. A thing to be mastered. If it is scrupulously recorded, written and taught, we can tame it, rise above it, or so the feeling goes. There is, though, inevitably, something missing. Is it the everyday? The conception that Luftwaffe Auxiliaries were day dreaming about awkward fumbles with first-cousins in darkened cinemas, as we learn from a freshly engraved skin in Grass’ personal onion? Or is it just the banality of it all? The routineness, the reality, which cradles all things, great and small alike? Perhaps it is the detachment from reality, a regrettable quarantining of the worst episodes of our past, called “events” and taken out from the stream of “history” proper, to be made into something else. Appropriately packaged, we can look back at them and those with no inkling that they might be us and these. In this way the spirit, the essence, and the lifeblood of the past are snatched from our grasp. Evaporating back into the mists of time, any meaning is gone, its essence reforming, always fresh, always anew. Suddenly, when we are not looking, it has become something else. The most we can ever grasp is a sense of something, a trace that remains behind, a feeling of what was. History, in its truest sense, is only to be experienced and felt.

The sense of his age, which Grass teases and contours, provides just such a feeling of history. An intuitive impression of a vanished past’s meaning, vague and intangible meaning at that, and one of infinitely more power than the concrete structure, this steadfast explanation that we unremittingly seek. This endeavour to concretise and control can only be illusory; upon closer inspection the concrete will reveal itself as sand, a structure to be brought low by the first weak tide, washed away along with all those vainly sinking their flag into its walls. Because of all this, and because the past is a wise and measured guide, allowing us only what we need, not what we want, the feeling of Europe’s dark century belongs to Günter Grass.

Now this historian, a reluctant historian, telling only reluctant histories, is gone. But through the repetitive pounding of a mountain of toy drums, posterity is left a journey across the texture of momentous times. How appropriate it is that this greatest of historians was a spirit, a national conscience, a creative artist. This is how it should be and, in keeping with his own guiding lights, the historian’s passing has been marked with few hagiographies. Instead, skeletons are dragged relentlessly from closets, the stains on the bed sheets are held up to the light, and we are reminded that a national conscience, too, can be wrong or even just plain bad. His life, as much as his work, was inflected with all of the turmoil, contingencies, and compromises of the world that once was. Grass was well aware that sainthood was beyond him, beyond his times, a point betrayed by some of the best-remembered sentences from Dog Years:

No idea stays pure. Even the flowering of art isn’t pure. And the sun has spots. All geniuses menstruate. On sorrow floats laughter. In the heart of roaring lurks silence.

Because of, not despite, all of this, the essence of the past, the indispensable meaning of the twentieth-century, will safely remain within the rhythm of his stories.

These stories, page-upon-page, arouse discomfort, even disgust, and draw a vertiginous range of feelings quite different from the static sorrow one experiences from even the most sensitive and expertly constructed exhibition of artefacts. Artefacts are dead. They are the past tense. Even a photograph is an image locked eternally in one space, one moment far away from the viewer. Grass’ words, characters, metaphors, and analogies, fantastical and complex, remain in the present tense. Permeating the reader, there is no escaping them. They allow for no possibility of removal from the everyday, no detachment from the communal we. Not when we understand the cowardice of certain defenders of the Polish post office, the humanity of the thousands who drowned on the former strength-through-joy ship the Wilhelm Gustloff, and the alcoholism of the Russian captain who sunk it. Not when we smell the soil, and feel the urges, familiar and obscure alike, of those decades when modernity finally came to grief. Those decades that will forever belong to Günter Grass.

Thomas Peak completed an M.St. in Modern British & European History at Brasenose College, Oxford in 2013. He is now undertaking research at the Central European University in Budapest.