The Tin Drum | Critical Essay by Michael Hollington

This literature criticism consists of approximately 22 pages of analysis & critique of The Tin Drum.
This section contains 9,346 words
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Critical Essay by Michael Hollington

SOURCE: "The Danzig Trilogy I: The Tin Drum," in Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society, Marion Boyars, 1980, pp. 20-50.

In the following excerpt, Hollington discusses Grass's portrayal of bourgeois values in Nazi Germany.

Since 1964 Grass has repeatedly asked that the three novels on which his fame and reputation as a writer chiefly rest—The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years—be considered as components of a 'Danzig trilogy'; the arrangement has now been formalized by the Luchterhand reissue of the novels under that title. It is not easy to assess the significance to be attached to this grouping. That the novels have important features in common—Danzig as a subject, overlapping characters, events, themes—is self-evident; but it is my view that the search for closer thematic or metaphoric links between them can be misleading. They embody a conception of art that is antipathetic to formal patterning, which seeks instead to render a view of reality as tangled, multiple and incomplete. The 'matter of Danzig', as it emerges in these works, is inexhaustible, not to be confined within the space of three acts….

All three novels are about the rescue of the past from oblivion; the act of narration itself carries the function of memorializing that which for more and less reputable reasons threatens to pass out of collective memory. 'Keeping the wound open' implies … the direct involvement of the reader in the resurrection of what lies buried in his memory; the utilization of the structure of the novel, and the reader's memory-processes as he reads, is part of Grass's strategy for realizing this aim. The prolix, baroque structure of The Tin Drum and Dog Years in particular, designed to perform this function, places those works squarely within a witty anti-classical tradition of formal experiment in the novel.

And what of this new book the whole world makes such a rout about?—Oh, 'tis out of all plumb, my lord—quite an irregular thing!—not one of the angles at the four corners was a right angle.—I had my rule and compasses, etc., my Lord, in my pocket. [Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 1760]

The conception of The Tin Drum developed slowly, over a period of several years. 'The first notes began in the summer of 1953. In February, 1959, the manuscript was completed.' Even before 1953, Grass was working with themes that essentially prefigure those of the novel: in 1950/1 he went on a trip to France and wrote a cycle of poems called Der Säulenheilige (The Saint on the Column), which has never been published. The poems concern a young stone-mason (Grass's occupation in the Düsseldorf period), who withdraws from the world, builds himself a stone column, has his mother bring him food, and describes the world as it appears from this vantage point.

At a later date, Oskar became the reverse of a saint on a column. It developed that the man on the column was too static for me to have him speak in prose, and for that reason Oskar came down from the column. He did not stay at normal height but came a little closer still to the earth, and then had a point of view the opposite of that of the saint on the column. [Grass, quoted by Kurt Lothar Tank, in his Günter Grass, translated by John Conway, 1969]

Despite the change in the conception, the dwarf Oskar Matzerath and the St. Simon Stylites figure have two important things in common. Firstly, they are both removed from the everyday world, and describe it from a standpoint of detachment and non-involvement. Oskar writes his novel from his bed in a mental hospital, resenting intrusions from the outside world upon his securely withdrawn seclusion; likewise up until the end of the war, he takes refuge in his size and ambiguous childishness as a means of evading involvement in the adult world. Secondly, both standpoints imply optical distortions of 'normal' reality: the saint on the column sees the world reduced in size, with distances foreshortened, the dwarf sees the world enlarged and magnified, with distances and dimensions exaggerated. It is this latter point that I shall develop first, for it helps to explain the significant presence of the grotesque, not only in The Tin Drum, but in Grass's work as a whole.

Traces of the St. Simon Stylites conception survive in The Tin Drum itself, for Oskar is addicted, not only to holes and hideaways, but also to heights. In the apartment house where his parents live, he is a frequent visitor to Meyn, the occupant of the attic: from there he sees the monotonous routines of suburban existence, as in a labyrinth of courtyards carpet-beating housewives on Tuesdays and Fridays are multiplied a hundredfold. From there he graduates to the Stockturm towering above Danzig, and later in the scene of the Dusters' trial to a diving platform where the whole of the world is laid out before his feet. Again its monotony is apparent—a tram conductor in Finland is breaking eggs into a frying-pan while a woman in Panama is burning the milk; 'historic' events are made to look insignificant, as the huge elephants of Mountbatten's Burma campaign are taken in with the same glance as a pair of aircraft carriers 'done up to look like Gothic cathedrals' sinking in the Pacific, their planes hovering 'helplessly and quite allegorically like angels in mid-air.' Like God, the amateur cameraman 'who each Sunday snaps us from above, at an unfortunate angle that makes for hideous foreshortening….' Oskar looks down from his heights upon a distorted picture of the world.

Conversely, from his dwarf-perspective Oskar perceives a world magnified to an unmanageable size. On his first day at school, Oskar is unable to reach the water-fountain made for normal-size children, is led by his mother 'up monumental stairs hewn for giants' (a satiric glance, perhaps, at the superman proportions of Nazi public buildings), and is unable to see anything but sky out of the school windows. At coffee in a smart Danzig coffee-house with his fellow-midgets Bebra and Roswitha, Oskar is struck by the disproportion between the company of dwarfs and the waiter who serves them, 'like a tower in evening clothes.'

Such visual distortions are a hallmark of grotesque art. From Rabelais onwards, the tradition of the grotesque (transmitted in England through Swift, Sterne, Dickens, and later Joyce) frequently employs a perspective that monstrously enlarges or diminishes objects of everyday perception, 'making strange' that which is thought to be familiar. In Sterne, for instance, the narrator of Tristram Shandy looks at the world on occasions as if through a microscope, seeing spermatozoa as 'homunculi' composed of 'skin, hair, fat, flesh, veins, arteries, ligaments, nerves, cartilages, bones, marrow, brains, glands, genitals, humours, and articulations' in a comically literal version of Aquinas. In Dickens the world of the city is frequently seen through the eyes of a child, enlarged, out of proportion and frightening. The grotesque in literature owes a great deal to the visual arts; it has its modern origins in the Mannerist artists of the later Renaissance who used the newly discovered 'grotteschi' of antiquity (fantastical cave-paintings combining human and animal forms) as the basis of a reaction against the humanist-inspired rules of proportion adopted in the High Renaissance. Classical art implies symmetrical balance, harmonious proportion, and the limitation of formal elements; mannerist, and later grotesque art, formal imbalance (Tristram Shandy devotes much of its attention to events preceding the narrator's birth), distortion and excess.

In The Tin Drum, Oskar is highly aware of the fact that his physical appearance and view of the world conflict with the canons of classical taste. The embodiment of the classical ideal in the novel is Goethe, one of Oskar's twin mentors: Oskar knows that 'if you, Oskar, had lived and drummed at his time, Goethe would have thought you unnatural, would have condemned you as an incarnation of anti-nature …' Oskar and Herbert Truczinski appraise the Niobe statue with classicist eyes; lengthwise, she conforms to Dürer's proportional system, but as to width, she has the grotesque proportions of a Dutch witch. Ideals of proportion are mocked at the funeral of Oskar's mother: he discovers the perfect classical image of stasis in the shape of her coffin: 'Is there any other form in this world so admirably suited to the proportions of the human body?"

Grotesque representations of distorted forms also challenge our conventional notions of 'normal' reality. The world of everyday reality is 'made strange'; the strange and fantastical is presented in a matter-of-fact way as if it were commonplace. Grass claims to have written The Tin Drum in conscious opposition to the Kafkaesque imitations of German writers of the fifties; nonetheless, the influence of Kafka is felt in the casual introduction of the fantastical into a predominantly realist setting that characterizes The Tin Drum. Kafka's Metamorphosis opens with the calm notation of a fantastical event; Oskar's announcement of his supernatural faculties is equally prosaic: 'I may as well come right out with it: I was one of those clair-audient infants whose mental development is completed at birth and after that merely needs a certain amount of filling in.' Such strategies are designed to confuse and disorient the reader, pre-empting his responses: Oskar presents 'clair-audient infants' as if they were a common category of language. The reader's unfamiliarity with any such category, tends to provoke puzzlement: 'what am I to make of this?'

Readers are likely to suspect metaphor, symbol, or folklore. The fantastic elements in grotesque writers are frequently drawn from fairy-tale or myth. Gogol started his career writing folktales, purveying to the St. Petersburg taste for Ukrainian local colour; when he turned his attention to the city itself, he used the folk-material he had accumulated to highlight the equally fantastical reality of the Russian civil service. Dicken's work draws frequently on fairy-tale motifs, most notably perhaps in Dombey and Son, where the child's unnatural educational force-feeding makes Paul a modern version of the monstrous elf-changelings of folk legend.

This particular example brings us close to the case of Oskar. It seems quite likely that Grass's conception has popular imagery in mind, especially since Cassubian folklore is steeped in stories about dwarfs:

The belief in the dwarfs or goblins (krosnjeta, among the Cassubians in German Pomerania undererczkji, 'gnomes') is still very much alive. These are small beings, about a foot in height, of human shape, and of male and female sex, who lead a perfectly human life: they celebrate weddings and christenings, have names, and die…. They are ruled by a king, who wears a golden crown on his head, and are fond of merry conviviality, music and the dance. They live more than a thousand years, but have no souls …

The vindictiveness of the krosnjeta is much to be feared. If they are driven out of a house by curiosity, the former luck turns into misfortune….

The krosnjeta are extremely dangerous to an unbaptized child, which they like to exchange for one of their own, in order to make it their king or queen, according to the belief of the Cassubians. In order to protect the children against being exchanged in this way, the Catholic Cassubians put rosaries or scapulars round their necks, while the Protestants put a hymn-book in their cradles, or a decoction of consecrated herbs is mixed with their bath-water. Should the exchange nevertheless take place, the mother is sometimes made aware of the fact by the senile, ugly features of the changeling; then she must beat it till the blood runs, whereupon she will get her own child back, though likewise in an injured condition. If she fails to notice the exchange, the child will always remain undersized…. People of short statue are often called changelings. [Friedrich Lorentz, Adam Fischer, Tadeusz Lehr-Splawinski, The Cassubian Civilization, 1935]

Many features of The Tin Drum seem to reflect this material: Oskar's supernatural powers, his vindictiveness towards the house of Matzerath, the feeling of community amongst the dwarfs in the novel, their timelessness, the superstitious fears of the grown-ups about Oskar's relations with his fellow-midgets, etc.

Yet the identification of a possible source in folklore for Oskar's psychic powers does little to dispel the reader's perplexity. In fairy-tales, there is no first person narrative; the strangeness of the fairy-world is acknowledged as such, and presented in an imaginatively distanced way. The strategy of the fantastic as it is used in grotesque art is quite different: there it is embedded in a realistic texture, designed to create familiarity and to promote identification with its characters and setting. Likewise the operation of two equally important functioning opposites in grotesque art, the comic and the horrific; comic devices—like the frequent use of a stylistic disproportion between formal rhetoric and ludicrously mundane subject-matter—distance us from the situation presented (we tend to laugh only at that which does not affect us directly and immediately), while horrific details (which normally affect us very directly) are simultaneously present. In grotesque art, the distancing effects of comic and fairy-tale elements and the immediacy of realist and horrific techniques are combined in disturbing tension: we laugh at what would normally be painful, and we are forced to concede the reality of the conventionally fabulous.

One might take as a paradigm the extraordinary world of Mr Venus in Our Mutual Friend [by Charles Dickens, 1865]. Mr Venus's shop is a quite 'normal' taxidermist's, yet the optical perspective—extreme chiaroscuro, and hence the focusing of the eye upon parcels of light that fragment the scene—succeeds in making it strange and frightening. Objects that rationally can only be dead and still—limbs, stuffed animals, bottled embryos—acquire in the gloom an irrational tendency to spring to life: '… Mr Wegg gradually acquires an imperfect notion that over against him on the chimney-piece is a Hindoo baby in a bottle, curved up with his big head tucked under him, as though he would instantly throw a summersault if the bottle were large enough.' Stylistic imbalance generates comedy—Venus refers to the skeletons as 'the lovely trophies of my art', and puffs his work to the purchaser of a stuffed canary with 'There's animation! On a twig, making up his mind to hop!'—but the laughter is uneasy: the boy departs together with his canary and a missing tooth in his change, and counters Venus's rage with: 'I don't want none of your teeth, I've got enough of my own.' The tooth is not stylized and distanced, as it would be in purely comic art; it might be the boy's, or Mr Venus's, or our own.

Similar techniques are employed in The Tin Drum in the chapter 'Disinfectant.' The characteristic grotesque method of character portrayal in the novel—most of the minor characters are caricatures in the style of Sterne's Uncle Toby, reduced to a very limited number of attributes which are normally eccentric 'hobby-horses' (Vincent Bronski is obsessed with the Queen of Poland, Mrs Truczinski with her husband's death, the nightclub owner Schmuh with the periodic slaughter of a dozen small birds)—is not abandoned for the former inmate of Treblinka Fajngold. Fajngold's hobby-horses are the persistent spraying of disinfectant and conversations with his dead relatives, murdered in the concentration camp. Oskar is ill with the effects of growing, and Fajngold's obsessions are refracted through the optic of Oskar's feverish hallucinations; the nightmarish reality of Treblinka is presented at a double distance. Comic techniques are employed: Fajngold's obsessive disinfecting is rendered ludicrous through the mechanically repeated verbs ('he rubbed … sprayed … and powdered', 'he sprayed, powdered and rubbed', 'he had sprayed, strewn and sprinkled'), and the stylized rhetoric is carried right into the description of Treblinka itself ('… alles was aus den Öfen herauskam, alles was in die Öfen hineinwollte'/'… all that came out of the ovens and all who were about to go in'—Grass's grim irony simultaneously dehumanizes the victims of the gas-chambers and attributes volition to them). Yet minute realist detail counteracts the stylization, placing us in a firm, recognizable historical context (Fajngold must barter rolled oats and synthetic honey for his disinfectant, the world of Treblinka is rendered with painstaking exactitude down to the precise Yiddish spelling of the inmates' names), breaking in upon the reader's detachment. The oscillation between stylization and horror prohibits conventionalized responses that might either mythologize or rationalize away the reality of Treblinka.

The passage thus suggests how grotesque art may be used as the vehicle of radical moral and social criticism: Mr Venus's shop in Our Mutual Friend is itself a fractured image of the trafficking in human bodies that characterizes the social and economic practices portrayed in the novel. Grotesque writing creates a dynamic relationship between text and reader, the latter being denied any unambiguous or preconceived reactions. The aesthetics of classicism, consisting in the mimetic representation of a completed, static segment of reality, are in sharp contrast to those of grotesque art, which challenge our received notions of the real, the ordered and the natural. As the profoundest writer on the grotesque, Mikhail Bakhtin, puts it [in Rabelais and His World, 1965]:

Actually the grotesque liberates men from all the forms of inhuman necessity that direct the prevailing concept of the world. This concept is uncrowned by the grotesque and reduced to the relative and limited. Necessity, in every concept which prevails at any time, is always one-piece, serious, unconditional, and indisputable. But historically the idea of necessity is relative and variable. The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought and imagination for new potentialities.

Or nearer home, there is the testimony of Brecht: 'Seriousness as a way of life is a little discredited at the moment; because the most serious things there have ever been are Hitler and Co. Hitler's one of your serious murderers, because murder is a very serious business. The Buddha, by contrast, has a sense of fun' [Flüahtlingsgespräche, Gesammelte Werke XIV, 1967–69].

The dynamic relation of text and reader that characterizes The Tin Drum is apparent in the novel's first sentence: 'Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.' The first word presupposes an audience, one that is made to be a participant in a conversation, that has made an accusation that the writer attempts to rebut. The implied accusation is sarcastically philistine and the narrator seems to be defending himself by saying: 'All right, I may be a looney, but …' Only there is no 'but'; the narrator doesn't complete his sentence by means of a conventionally correct syntax, but seems to get side-tracked by the mention of his keeper, forcing the reader to participate once more in completing the sense of the sentence. Is the disordered syntax evidence that he is indeed mad? Is he a paranoid insisting on his invulnerability to brown-eyed persecutors? Is he an ex-Nazi priding himself on his Aryan superiority? The with holding of information to satisfy the reader's curiosity compels the reader into active collusion with the narrator.

Grass's aim in The Tin Drum is 'to put the reader in question' about his past, his involvement in and responsibility for the crimes committed by the National Socialists. The audience in mind is specifically that of the German Federal Republic, an affluent society basking in the German 'economic miracle' and ostensibly quite recovered from its traumatic past. That society is essentially pluralistic: journalism, television and radio provide an abundance of conflicting ideas, images and information about the present and the past. History is experienced as something fictional, acted out in front of television cameras by a cast of figures remote in time and space, available to instant replay. The question of the relation between individual actions and historic consequences is buried by abstractions: 'Naive consciousness thinks of the everyday world as a natural atmosphere or as a known, familiar reality, whilst history appears to it as a transcendent reality … the division of life into the everyday and the historical is experienced as fated' [Kosik, in Dialektik des Konkreten].

The writer, the creator of deliberate fictions, is thus beset by severe difficulties in the portrayal of contemporary history. His very medium is suspect, catering to more or to less sophisticated evasions: fictions are used or abused as an escape from the greyness of everyday life, as a 'heightening' of reality, or as the repositories of symbolic abstractions. Grass's approach in The Tin Drum is to use the fictiveness of fictions as an exemplum; by involving the reader, by making him aware that he collaborates with Oskar in the making of the novel, he attempts to awaken a critical consciousness of the process of evasion. The approach to contemporary reality is thus indirect, a negative process of uncovering self-deceptions through strategic irony.

Thus Oskar is constantly concerned about his reader's response to his narrative. He is anxious to please wherever possible: he wants to provide suspense in Chapter Two by withholding the name of the city that is to be his setting (Danzig!) and then divulging it unexpectedly. He wants to avoid digressions, invoking 'our Father in Heaven' at the beginning of Chapter Four to guard him from his 'penchant for the tortuous and labyrinthine'; he wants to spare us from the boredom of descriptions of Danzig's roof-tops which illustrated calendars can do a great deal better. He appreciates the reader's thirst for explanatory information, a common technique being the anticipation of the reader's questions, which Oskar always attempts to answer directly: 'What business took me abroad? I won't beat about the bush …'; where he feels the need to leave gaps in order to advance his narrative, he is polite and apologetic: 'Perhaps, since I am burning to announce the beginning of my own existence, I may be permitted to leave the family raft of the Wrankas….' He is conscious of the readers' appetite for variety, dislike of excessive repetition: 'I still had my voice, which is of no use to you now that you have heard all about my triumphs with glass and is probably beginning to bore the lovers of novelty among you….' As the novel progresses, he increasingly provides aide-memoires in the form of catalogues of former events or images in the novel, in case we've forgotten them; Oskar encourages our memories by distributing compliments when we recognize echoes of previous chapters, 'As you have doubtless noticed by now, I had always, under tables, been given to the easiest kind of meditation …'; '… it is up to you to recognize the sighs and saints' names that were uttered in '99 when my grandmother sat in the rain …'; 'I am referring, as the most attentive among you will have noted, to my teacher and master Bebra….' He tries to avoid frighteningly vivid realist effects, such as the one he fears for the description of Greff's winter dips in the ice: 'Oskar is not trying to send winter shudders running down your spine. In view of the climate, he prefers to make a long story short….'

Clearly, these devices are ironically intended: the concern to spare us from boredom and repetition strikes at a consumer-psychology; the fear of chilling our spines with descriptions of winter landscapes archly suggests that we may perhaps be immune to some of the real horrors in the book. Yet a good deal of the irony looks innocuous enough on the surface, a function of Oskar's consciousness that we expect dwarfs to be entertaining. Some of the jokes at our expense stem from music-hall: 'Do you know Parsifal? I don't know it very well either.' Oskar likes to tease us for our lasciviousness, knowing very well that it's the girl on Lankes's lap that interests us more than Lankes himself: 'Let me speak with the painter first and describe the Muse afterwards', and that we're dying to hear about the man who gets sexually aroused by stepping on his girlfriend's toe: 'Later—this Oskar relates only to satisfy the curious amongst you—Mr Vollmer … did come to our Cellar.' The reader's materialistic values are satirized—'Why so many words about a cheap carpet which might at most have had a certain barter value before the currency reform? The question is justified'—along with any misplaced condescension we might feel about Oskar's bourgeois origins: 'You will say: how limited the world to which this young man was reduced for his education!'

Yet Oskar's insinuated camaraderie with his readership masks fiercer challenges to complacency. These emerge first, perhaps, in the chapter where Oskar attends a Nazi Sunday parade: 'Did it have to be the Maiwiese? you may ask…. even at the risk of being thought a fellow traveller I must admit that I preferred the doings on the Maiwiese to the repressed eroticism of the scout meetings.' The attitudes imputed to the reader are designed to disconcert, not only Oskar's ex-Nazi admirers, but any facile dispensers of the 'fellow-travelling' cliché. When Oskar has described how he disrupted the meeting, he again challenges hypocrisy: 'That word "resistance" has become very fashionable. We hear of the "spirit of resistance", of "resistance circles". There is even talk of an "inward resistance", a "psychic emigration"…. Yes, I did all that. But does it make me, as I lie in this mental hospital, a Resistance Fighter? I must answer in the negative….' Oskar's asceticism aims at provoking the reader to examine the quality of the 'resistance' with which he may have dressed up his own past. Elsewhere, Oskar's guilt for having betrayed his parents drifts disconcertingly towards generalization:

But on days when an importunate feeling of guilt, which nothing can dispel, sits on the very pillows of my hospital bed, I tend, like everyone else, to make allowances for my ignorance—the ignorance which came into style in those years and which even today quite a few of our citizens wear like a jaunty and oh, so becoming little hat.

Such passages now seem moralistic—certainly they give the lie to the pervasive conception of The Tin Drum as a cynical, nihilistic book. The wit is generally sharper, however, constructing sudden pitfalls for the reader, on the 'innocent' topic of fizz-powder, for instance; 'Who started up with the fizz powder? The old old quarrel between lovers. I say Maria started it…. She left the question open and the most she would say, if pressed, was: "The fizz powder started it." Of course everyone will agree with Maria.' The view so swiftly thrust upon us challenges a recognition of our readiness to transfer responsibility to some other 'they' or 'it'. Equally sudden is the deflation of pretension in some of the passages of deceptively dense symbolism:

For quite some time, absorbing and sleep-dispelling images passed before Oskar's eyes. For all the dense darkness between the far walls and the blacked-out windows, blond nurses bent over to examine Herbert's scarred back, from Leo Schugger's white rumpled shirt arose—what else would you expect—a sea gull, which flew until it dashed itself to pieces against a cemetery wall, which instantly took on a freshly whitewashed look. And so on.

A separate come-uppance is reserved for symbol-hunters of a Freudian (or Rankian) persuasion. 'You've guessed it no doubt: Oskar's aim is to get back to the umbilical cord; that is the sole purpose behind this whole vast verbal effort and my only reason for dwelling on Herbert Truczinski's scars.'

The sarcastic hostility towards symbolic interpretation is basic to the conception of the novel. Symbolism is regarded as a reductive and schematic abstraction of the complexity of reality—as if the 'whole vast verbal effort' could be reduced to one 'sole purpose.' Metaphors are regarded as irresponsible evasions or childish word-games: '… I had always, under tables, been given to the easiest kind of meditation: I made comparisons,' or, in the context of the reader's expectation of symbolic and synthetic heightening of the prosaic and everyday:

Nowadays every young man who forges a little cheque, joins the Foreign Legion, and spins a few yarns when he gets home a few years later, tends to be regarded as a modern Ulysses. Maybe on his way home our young man gets into the wrong train which takes him to Oberhausen instead of Frankfurt, and has some sort of experience on the way—why not?—and the moment he reaches home, he begins to bandy mythological names about: Circe, Penelope, Telemachus.

Hence the constant use in The Tin Drum of mock-metaphor and mock-simile, designed to call attention to their own arbitrariness and incongruity. The most interesting of these connect the trivialities of everyday life to the grand events of history: thus Oskar's glass-shattering voice is compared to Hitler's 'miracle weapons' that were supposed to settle the war (the translation rather missing the point of 'jetzt nenne ich sie, die Wunderwaffe'), the difficulties of two Chinese Lesbians in achieving satisfactory physical connection are compared to the problems of reunifying the two German states, and Max Schmeling's parachuting injury during the invasion of Crete with Maria's fall from the ladder. The most extended example is the simile comparing Oskar's difficulties in making love to the filthy Mrs Greff and the German advance on Moscow:

I hope I shall be forgiven for drawing a parallel between the muddy triumphs of Army Group Centre and my own triumphs in the impassable and equally muddy terrain of Mrs Lina Greff. Just as tanks and trucks bogged down on the approaches to Moscow, so I too bogged down; just as the wheels went on spinning, churning up the mud of Russia, so I kept on trying—I feel justified in saying that I churned the Greffian mud into a foaming lather—but neither on the approaches to Moscow nor in the Greff bedroom was any ground gained.

The satiric effectiveness of this absurd metaphor is multiple, taking in amongst its targets the self-glorification of the petit-bourgeois, the euphemisms of Nazi propaganda ('triumphs', like the successful 'front-shortenings' [retreats], being a perversion of language), and the familiar German denial of responsibility for Hitler's crimes.

It is through parody that the novel attempts to activate critical awareness of the potentialities of language for the blurring and veiling of reality. Stylistically The Tin Drum is a constant mimicry of clichés, stereotypes and pseudo-profundities, springing their nullity upon us, as the poetic travelogue sentence describing Reims illustrates: 'Sickened by humanity, the stone menagerie of the world-famous cathedral spewed water and more water on the cobblestones round about, which is a way of saying that it rained all day in Reims even at night.' There is space to consider only two of these, the piece of Blubo with which the novel opens and the detective-thriller with which it closes, since these have strategic importance in guiding our responses.

Chapter One exorcises Grass's fifteen-year-old attempts to romanticize Cassubia for the consumption of Nazi schools. It contains the standard props of the Nazi rural idyll—the earth-mother, the emphasis on being rooted to the land, in the race-consciousness—all in parodic form. The month is October (at the end of a century too), the weather cold, the landscape grey and monotonous, the costumes drab. Harsh realities intrude—it is difficult to keep warm, the fire hard to ignite and keep going, the food primitive. The grandmother's 'race-consciousness' is a peasant cunning that easily outwits the caricatured Prussian gendarmes, themselves a Laurel and Hardy parody 'dick und dünn' (fat and thin)—Laurel and Hardy in Germany are 'Dick und Doof' (Fat and Foolish). Her 'blood-rootedness' to the soil is farcically represented in Koljaiczek's penis. The grandmother's role in the novel is complex and demands further discussion, but the parodies in Chapter One discourage the reader from indulgence in nostalgic pastoral myth as a flight from contemporary reality.

In the closing chapter Oskar is conscious of the need to satisfy the consumer demand for stereotyped literary endings with a bang not a whimper, and offers two equally parodic alternatives: the figure thirty, with its nice circular symbolic pomposity, neatly rounding out the original fall at his third birthday, or the excitement of a murder hunt. Oskar stage-manages, wishing to provide a suitably dramatic point of capture, yet his imagination stretches no further than Orly airport ('an interesting place'/'besonders pikant und originell'). Suitable mystification is provided: did Oskar do the deed, or was it a classic lovers' triangle? That other mystery, the black witch, fraught with symbolic significance for some critics, seems to me the appropriate parody-image of the demonization of guilt and responsibility that the novel so squarely confronts.

Beginnings and endings round off literary fictions, encapsulating them against the contingencies of reality: here both are subjected to a radically skeptical critique. The episodic structure of The Tin Drum—identified by Kayser as characteristic of grotesque form—militates against tight formal coherence; the three-part division of the novel (pre-war, wartime, post-war) is modelled on history not numerology or symbolic pattern. Through techniques learnt from Sterne and Jean Paul, Grass attempts to dispel our comfortable assumptions about the correspondence between the shape of fictions and the shape of history. To understand that '"convention", and "automatized" perception of reality … the evil in itself, in as much as it hinders insight into the possibility of changing the world and thus robs actual change of its essential prerequisite' is the target of Grass's witty rhetorical strategies seems the essential basis of an adequate reading of The Tin Drum.

According to Nazi racial mythology, there were young, vital races and old, decrepit ones (like the French); the Germans, predictably enough, counted as 'more childlike than any other nation' [Richard Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich, 1974]. The treatment of the 'little man' and his relation to history in The Tin Drum ironically bears this out. The SA men who vandalize Markus's shop during the Kristallnacht of 1938 find themselves at home: '… there, in their characteristic way, they were playing with the toys'; ('characteristic' translates 'eindeutig'/'unambiguous', in significant contrast to Oskar). Out at the seaside on Good Friday, Matzerath and Jan Bronski hop from stone to stone, 'gambolling like schoolboys.' The intrusions of history do nothing to disturb their 'innocent' childishness: Jan Bronski plays skat as the Polish post office falls and a world war beings; at the bombardment of Danzig Matzerath rushes up and down the stairs watching the city on fire, 'bewildered as a child who can't make up his mind whether to go on believing in Santa Claus….' Nothing changes after the eclipse of the Nazis, for Oskar's post-war fame as a pop star depends on his ability to reactivate childhood: 'they gave vent to their pleasure … burbling and babbling like three-year-olds.'

This debased childishness is the expression of a flight from adult responsibilities. Characteristically, the petit bourgeois adults of Langfuhr are shown in their private lives allocating blame to someone else, or to an abstraction like 'fate'. Oskar's glass-shattering voice tests bourgeois conscience with his incisions into shop-windows, and uncovers its shuffling evasiveness: 'Suddenly there was a hole in the glass and by the time I had half-way recovered from my flight and was three blocks away, I discovered to my consternation that I was illegally harbouring a pair of wonderful calfskin gloves, very expensive I'm sure, in my coat pocket.' Matzerath wants to make it clear to his wife that he's not responsible for her Good Friday trauma: 'If only we'd never gone out there. Can't you forget it Agnes? I didn't do it on purpose.' Conversely, in this parody of a quarrelsome marriage, Agnes exonerates herself of any responsibility for Oskar's fall (though she was engaged in musical flirtation at the time), branding Matzerath as a 'murderer'. She thus forges a potent weapon for marital strife, to be resurrected at will; when Matzerath is wounded by it, she too feels guilty, and they join forces, declaring their joint blamelessness, comforting themselves with the fiction that Oskar is a 'cross they had to bear, a cruel and no doubt irrevocable fate, a trial that had been visited on them, it was impossible to see why.' The latent political attitudes here are subtly conveyed in cliché; Nazi propaganda rationalized race-hatred with the slogan 'the Jews are the cross we must bear.'

Compromising action is undertaken by the 'little men' of Langfuhr only covertly and discreetly, to avoid unpleasant consequences. Shame is an important motivating factor, dictating conformity with accepted public standards; that lack of 'civil courage' which Bismarck felt to be characteristically German is much in evidence in The Tin Drum. Dückerhoff sets the tone early in the century and in the novel: face-to-face with Koljaiczek-Wranka, he makes no move to unmask him, fearing for his own skin. Only when he is 'comfortably settled in the train' to Danzig does his righteousness begin to blossom, and even then he is careful not to compromise himself: 'He did not actually denounce Koljaiczek-Wranka; he merely entered a request that the police look into the case, which the police promised to do.' The SA volunteer Meyn is equally concerned about his public image, frightened by disopprobium into sobriety: '… he dreaded the neighbours in whose presence and hearing he had sworn on numerous occasions that never again would a drop of gin cross his musician's lips …', attempting to cover the traces of his massacred cats by dumping them in the dustbin. He is watched from another apartment house window, denounced and expelled from the SA for inhumanity to cats. The little enclosed world of the apartment house, with its neighbourly nosiness and gossip, acts as a court against petty transgressions and moulds the conformity of its inmates.

The most significant example of discreet hypocrisy in the novel is Agnes's affair with Jan Bronski. Their respective degree of courage is well illustrated by their ways of playing skat: 'Mama proposed at the very start that the stakes be raised to a quarter of a pfennig, but this struck Uncle Jan as too risky….' But Agnes's 'darling' is the product of the fantasy life of a Madame Bovary rather than an active disregard of public convention: she enjoys 'the delicious misery of an adulterous woman's life', and acts out a tragicomic version of romantic stereotypes, modelled on Romeo and Juliet or 'the prince and the princess who allegedly were unable to get together because the water was too deep.' Her everyday behaviour is markedly conformist: she is ashamed to have to parade Oskar in front of other mothers on the first day of school, and her dieting schedules are ruined by secret orgies of eating. Attempting that cardinal sin against Nazi eugenics, to abort Jan Bronski's child, she achieves only the appropriate Liebestod of a petit-bourgeois Wagnerian—death through over-eating. Her trips to the confessional and her guilt-laden self-extinction demonstrate her fundamental adherence to the Nazi stereotype of the chaste feminine ideal; in the Nazi cinema 'all dishonoured women had to expiate their own defilement through death' [Grunberjer, A Social History of the Third Reich]. Torn between the German Matzerath and the Polish Bronski, Agnes illustrates the Cassubian dilemma: 'we're not real Poles and we're not real Germans', Oskar's grandmother tells him; the political omens draw her to Matzerath, her affection to Jan Bronski, and she declines the responsibility of exercising choice.

The skat table is of course the central image of evasion in the novel. Underneath, it provides perfect security for discreet orgies, visible only to Oskar (who doesn't count, for adults), Jan's sock offering 'woollen provocation' to Agnes's genitals in debased parody of the heroics beneath the grandmother's skirt, in Chapter One. Above, the childish adults are at their play, the triangle providing a perfect formal symmetry, the rules of the game a set of conventions which relieve the individual of the agony of responsibility: '… in a skat game at least you knew what to expect.' The real world, with its complexity, irregularity and unpredictability, is ritually banished: 'skat … was their refuge, their haven, to which they always retreated when life threatened'.

Their behaviour thus exemplifies a monstrous imbalance between the attention paid to trivia (the 'everyday world') and the virtual abnegation of civic and political responsibility (the 'historical'). The easy-going Matzerath is incensed only by matters like his wife's smoking in public, which she does on the way back from the Good Friday

Dust jacket designed by Grass for the 1959 German edition of The Tin Drum.Dust jacket designed by Grass for the 1959 German edition of The Tin Drum.
seaside outing to provoke him (compare Nazi campaigns for women's decency in public: '… the inhabitants of Erfurt were told by their chief of police to stop women who smoked in public and remind them of their duties as German women and mothers' [A Social History of the Third Reich]). At the dinner celebrating Kurt's baptism, anger is aroused not by the indifference of the guests to the suffering of war but by Vincent Bronski's clumsiness:

Ehlers, a native of the Baltic, showed a special aptitude for counting Russian prisoners; at every hundred thousand, a finger shot up; when his two outstretched hands had completed a million, he went right on counting by decapitating one finger after another…. Trying to impersonate a diving submarine, Vincent Bronski's left hand upset his beer glass. My grandmother started to scold him.

And of course Meyn's expulsion from the SA offers fierce satiric comment on the schizophrenic morality of a society that glorifies his barbaric exploits during the Kristallnacht and is abhorred only by his inhumanity to cats!

Yet it should not be supposed that the novel's critical energies are directed only against the petit-bourgeois, and their habits. The rhetorical strategies are designed to implicate all of Oskar's post-war affluent readership; the audience, living 'a muddled kind of life outside this institution', sweating with 'Angst und Schrecken' (Fear and Terror) in the Paris metro, contains liberal intellectuals as well as petits bourgeois. The flight from reality into theory receives the same scornful dismissal as the retreat to the skat table.

Thus the novel is full of idealistic theoreticians whose active and practical role in the real world is minimal. Oskar's visitors and friends, Klepp and Vittlar, are the first examples of the type, Klepp with his theories about the relation between jazz and Marxism or his elaborate schemes for organizing his life between sleep and propaganda, and Vittlar with his pseudo-philosophical jargon. Dr Hornstetter, Oskar's psychiatrist, theorizes about Oskar's inadequate contact with humanity, but seems to be in greater need of contact with him than he with her. Dr Hollatz publishes long-winded irrelevancies on Oskar's glass-shattering powers, to be emulated in due course by the pseudoscientific explanations of the newspaper accounts of the damage at the Stadt-theater. Amongst the Dusters, there is a clear split between the grammar-school theorists and the working-class activists: the Duster party doctrine is schoolboy anarchy '… our fight is against our parents and all other grown-ups, regardless of what they may be for or against' and their activities take in such things as stealing church decorations and staging black masses—expressing their essentially conformist psychology in the frisson of wickedness and sacrilege these exploits provide them with. Their leader is the son of the Danzig policechief. Meanwhile the only meaningful resistance activities are committed by the communist apprentices at the Schichau dockyards.

The essential thrust of Grass's analysis of the failures of German 'civil courage' during the Nazi period and after is that bourgeois respectability offers no kind of challenge to criminality. The emotional need to conform, the deep fear of individual action that might incur public condemnation, adapts itself equally strongly to malign and criminal publicly sanctioned attitudes as to harmless or benign ones. Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt's demythologizing study of Eichmann's trial in Israel, makes a similar point; for her, the man who organized the transportation of Jews to their execution was no demon but a petty conformist, throwing himself into the bureaucracy of genocide with the same energy as he gave to selling oil. She condemns him as well, but not for the crime for which he is convicted; she shows Nazi evil as banal rather than satanic. Oskar's view of criminals also denies them heroic status: 'In the very midst of their felonious pursuits the most desperate thieves, murderers, and incendiaries are just waiting for an opportunity to take up a more respectable trade.'

The hero of The Tin Drum, Oskar Matzerath, is fundamentally conceived as a subtle counter-image to these petit-bourgeois evasions. The subtlety of the conception resides in the fact that Oskar is by no means heroically opposed to the skat-players of the novel; on the contrary, he practises the same evasions, only in a systematic, conscious and above all deliberate fashion. Oskar differs from his milieu only in that he accepts responsibility, not for his role in private or political events, but for his acts of evasion. In doing this he offers a disturbing challenge to stereotyped notions of 'innocence.'

Oskar is essentially an ambiguous figure. The dwarf who deliberately refuses to grow up, who decides to remain a child and to evade adult responsibilities, blurs the conventional categories of 'child' and 'grown-up'; childishly 'innocent' in appearance, treated as such by adults, who drop their pretenses in his presence, he is, nonetheless, fully conscious, the reverse of 'childish' in his mental operations and calculations. Similar conceptions abound in grotesque art: the dwarf Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, for instance, speaks with an acute sophistication incongruous with her childish appearance. Sexually neutral, she is allowed access to intimate recesses of her customer's private lives, and articulates a sharp consciousness of the gap between hypocritical pretensions and reality. Oskar is likewise a strategically-placed instrument for uncovering the bad faith of petit-bourgeois 'innocence'.

Oskar distances himself from grown-up childishness—as it manifests itself for instance in a superstitious awe of material objects '… there is something very strange and childish in the way grown-ups feel about their clocks—in that respect, I was never a child.' He is sarcastic about the concept of innocence: '… innocence is comparable to a luxuriant weed—just think of all the innocent grandmothers who were once loathsome, spiteful infants—no, it was not any absurd reflections about innocence and lost innocence, that made Oskar jump up from the kitchen chair….' Manheim's translation loses some of the bite and point of this passage: 'the little game of guilt and innocence' (das Spielchen Schuld-Unschuld) refers to the faux naif trivialization of issues of private and public responsibility practised so pervasively in the novel (cf. the shop-girl who blushes when Bruno asks for 'innocent' (unschuldig) white paper at the novel's opening). In sharp contrast to the childish adults of the novel, Oskar assumes total responsibility for his acts from the moment of birth; their retreat into irresponsibility is parodied by his sustained dissembling of childishness.

Thus Oskar's deliberate indifference to human suffering counterpoints the thoughtless negligence of his elders. In the chapter 'Good Friday Fare', for instance, Matzerath and Oskar are played off against each other: neither of them are at all moved to sympathy by Agnes's evident physical distress at the sight of the eel-catching. In Matzerath this is boyish self-absorption: he is excited and curious about the longshoreman's activities, he wants to help, he boasts about his haggling prowess, etc. By contrast, Oskar's attitude is a calculated detachment: his eyes remain fixed on the horizon, wondering whether the boat he sees is Finnish or Swedish, he notes details of the long-shoreman's appearance with evident detachment, he even turns his account of Mama's vomiting into a callous joke: 'Even now Mama couldn't have vomited up more than half a pound and retch as she might, that was all the weight she succeeded in taking off.' He becomes tired of the arguments between the adults, and so calculates a means of distracting them: 'I drummed all the way to Brösen so they wouldn't start on again about eels.' Oskar's function here is to draw out the consequences implicit in 'normal' forms of bourgeois behaviour, to demonstrate their essential connections with his own aesthetic callousness. A similar point is made in the counterpointing of Oskar and Jan Bronski during the fall of the Polish post office: Bronski's retreat into the security of the skat-game expresses simple, compulsive cowardice, Oskar's parallel evasions are sarcastic and deliberate. The only 'risk' Oskar is willing to incur is that of playing skat for the first time in his life (thereby dropping his pretense of childishness, albeit ironically), the only 'responsibility' he takes on is that of distracting Bronski's fears: '… it would not have been hard for him to slip away between two of the shell hits which were shaking the building in quick succession, if a feeling of responsibility, such as he had never before experienced, had not bidden him hold on and counter his presumptive father's terror by the one effective means: skat-playing.' The ordeal at an end, Oskar resumes his normal 'irresponsible' role: 'I was separated from the thirty defenders by the wall. At this point Oskar remembered his gnomelike stature, he remembered that a three-year-old is not responsible for his comings and goings.' By a deliberate fiction, Oskar exposes the rationalizing fictions of 'innocence' practised by his fellow Germans.

In contrast to almost every character in the novel, Oskar chooses his social roles according to expediency: he is no Uncle Toby with a single hobbyhorse, but a virtuoso exponent of multiple, complex personae. To the Dusters he is Jesus Christ (the role providing them with the frisson of sacrilege that their bourgeois conception of rebelliousness seeks), but he drops this persona as soon as the game is up: 'I offered no resistance, but stepped automatically into the role of a snivelling three-year-old who had been led astray by gangsters.' For Sister Dorothea, Oskar adopts the role of Satan, adapting himself to the needs of her repressions, which require sexual indulgence to be a diabolical rape, not (the theme of responsibility emerges once more) the consequences of her own desires. As a pop-star, Oskar manipulates his childhood again, using the nostalgia for the past that grows in the post-war years as a means of dispensing a comforting communal 'innocence' to his audiences: '… I succeeded in turning hardened old sinners into little children, singing Christmas carols in touching watery voices. "Jesus, for thee I live, Jesus, for thee I die," sang two thousand five hundred aged souls, whom no one would have suspected of such childlike innocence or religious zeal.' The same voices had been living and dying for some other leader a few years previously; Oskar's exploitation of their desire to be relieved of guilt is a cynically deliberate version of the same evasions.

Oskar's pleasure in complex role-playing is matched by his aesthetic tastes, which show a marked predilection for deviousness: 'May our Father in Heaven … discourage Oskar's penchant for the tortuous and labyrinthine.' He approves of Greff's complex and fantastical suicide-machine, which reminds him of Bruno's 'knotted string spooks.' The operative word to describe Bruno's art is 'vielschichtig' (elaborate or many-layered) and Oskar also uses it to characterize his notion of the fundamental aspects of human nature: 'menschlich … das heisst, kindlich, neugierig, vielschichtig, unmoralisch' (human, that is, child-like, curious, complex and immoral). Oskar likes to play games with words that imply ambiguity or multiplicity: 'Paradoxical: that might be the word for my feelings between Passion Monday and Good Friday.' The dwarf whose scenarios for the preservation of his detachment from life are complex works of art (the fall down the cellar, for instance—'Not suicide, certainly not. That would have been too simple.')—is an image of artistic irresponsibility, 'Oskar, the incorrigible aesthete.'

The artist, the perpetrator of deliberate fictions, is a suspect figure in Grass's work. The conception of the artist as a liar, a purveyor of irresponsible imaginative games (which owes something to Thomas Mann), is frequent in Grass's mind, most evidently perhaps in some of his earlier political writings, where he is very self-conscious about his need to justify the artist's capability of engaging in 'real' life: 'Citizens of Lübeck … Someone is appearing before you whose profession is a suspect one: he writes fictional and yet suspiciously true-to-life stories' (Über das Selbstverständliche). The Tin Drum displays many traces of a feeling of the fundamental bad faith of the artist, falsifying experience to create formally satisfying patterns, exploiting his past for money and fame—and most deviously of all—affecting a morality that may have its validity only in the idealizing world of fiction, that may not stand the test of practical application in everyday life. Hence Grass's powerful urge to make effective political contributions to German society; hence also, staying with the novel, some of Oskar's self-directed ironies about his aesthetic proclivities, on his decision to drum up the past, for instance: 'The time had come to transmute the pre-war and wartime experience of Oskar, the three-year-old drummer, into the pure, resounding gold of the post-war period.'

The critical energy and acuteness of The Tin Drum stems from this sceptical awareness of the artist's role. However 'pure' the intentions, however systematic the execution, the work of art for Grass can never stand outside the society that produces and consumes it. Even Oskar, the self-proclaimed hero, the systematic enemy of the petit bourgeois, the miraculously omniscient critic and manipulator of social convention, reflects fundamentally the tensions and contradictions of the society from which he springs. The obverse side of Oskar's cynical detachment is reflected in the evidently non-ironic longing for the security of the grandmother's skirts. Despite the images of labyrinths and tortuous corridors, Oskar's evident preference is for simple enclosed spaces that take a direct route back to the Cassubian potato field—the base of the Eiffel Tower for instance: '… the great vault, which seems so solidly closed despite spaces on all sides, became for me the sheltering vault of my grandmother Anna….' The house, as an image of security and permanence, has a powerful meaning for Oskar, and he is bitterly conscious that the constructions of architecture are treacherous and do not provide the security under the skirts:

… the Home Guards and I … stood amid brick walls, in stone corridors, beneath ceilings with plaster cornices, all so intricately interlocked with walls and partitions that the worst was to be feared for the day when, in response to one set of circumstances or another, all this patchwork we call architecture would lose its cohesion.

The same applies for Danzig, the known extended space now lost (Oskar's drum searches the Danzig shipyards for 'all the hiding places that were ever known to me in those parts'); the tone with which Oskar evokes its past is also not ironic, contradicting the systematically affected cynical pose: 'How I relished those afternoons in the multicoloured old city; there was always something of the museum about it and there was always a peeling of bells from one church to another.' And Oskar is a collector of momentoes of the past, of photographs, documents, and drums—like Jan Bronski of stamps or Klepp of portraits of the Royal Family. The collector's passion, the minute attention to detail that characterizes Oskar's realist art of narration, stems from the source it despises—the grocer's shop with its routine of stock-taking inventory. Grass has the visual and mental habit of realist artists—James Joyce, who had an equal passion for detail, once declared to Budgen, 'I have a grocer's assistant's mind' [quoted by Richard Ellmann, in his James Joyce, 1965].

So the mind that unmercifully lashes the sins of the petite bourgeoisie in The Tin Drum is itself fundamentally bourgeois. The language of the novel allows this contradiction to develop freely, for it carries the essential problematics contained in The Tin Drum. In what way can the artist challenge stereotyped perception, stimulate critical awareness, achieve any sort of progressive function? The methods employed in The Tin Drum are of a negative kind: Oskar's narrative can only imply values that it cannot express. Fictions can only be dispelled, in the world of this novel, through the adoption and recognition of deliberate fictions; humane forms of conduct can be suggested only through the deliberate comic distortions of the grotesque.

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