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"He is a master of evocation," Günter Grass writes in his autobiographical book Peeling the Onion, describing a cook who offers a "cooking course for beginners" at an American POW camp shortly after World War II. Grass goes into strikingly visual, opulent and sensory detail as he describes the specialties the cook serves his hungry students.
Needless to say, there are no actual ingredients, just a linguistic conjuring of tempting dishes to make the course participants’ mouths water. Günter Grass, born in 1927 in what was then the city of Danzig, was himself a master of evocation. He too could contrive something, both real and lyrical, out of virtually nothing with his storytelling. There is a visceral quality to his early works in particular, which were at the same time avant-garde and Baroque, and it is this early work that brought him global fame. The Tin Drum, published in 1959, turned Grass, who had studied to become a sculptor, into an international literary sensation overnight. Grass had already provided a hint of his vitality in 1958 at a reading of Group 47, a loose-knit alliance of postwar German writers, that went down in literary history.
With The Tin Drum, Grass set out to write a picaresque and epochal novel. The result is perhaps the best example of what would come to be known as postwar literature, which picked up the literary trends of the pre-Nazi period – for Grass, that meant a particular admiration for Alfred Döblin – opened up to foreign-language literature and banished the ghosts of the Third Reich. Like his debut novel, Dog Years (1963), the last in his Danzig Trilogy, was an aesthetic confrontation with modernism and the Hitler dictatorship.
In the early years of his career, as Grass emerged as a novelist, poet, playwright and, eventually, also as an illustrator, he became an increasingly public figure. His words carried weight well beyond literary circles, where he already had the power to pull strings. In a role that Grass cherished, he also had clout in West Germany’s slowly forming postwar civil society. His name has long been closely associated with Germany's center-left, labor movement-identified Social Democratic Party. He often spoke at events organized by the party, serving as a sort of moral compass – admonishing, warning and sharing his view of things.
A Brilliant Early Career
But this almost iconographic role ultimately became the greatest problem for Günter Grass as an author. The more he got caught up in it, the more it infected his work. Increasingly, more attention was paid to Grass as a public figure than to his literary output. In works like The Meeting in Telgte (1979), moments of his artistry still managed to shine through, but much of the work he published during the 1970s and 1980s never achieved the standards of his brilliant early years.
German critics were not always kind about the novels of Günter Grass, as illustrated to most telling effect by a 1995 cover of Der Spiegel showing legendary literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki angrily – and literally – tearing the novel Too Far Afield to pieces. But Grass’ readers remained loyal, with almost all his novels making the bestseller lists. His renown as a public figure often outshone the lesser work of his mid and late career.