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Critical Essay by Kurt Lothar Tank
SOURCE: "Live with Matzerath?" and "Don't Ask Oskar," in Günter Grass, translated by John Conway, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1969, pp. 1-12, 67-84.
In the following excerpt, Tank discusses the reaction of European critics to The Tin Drum. He also examines Grass's working methods, the process of the novel's composition, and the book's main themes.
In Oskar, the tin drummer, Günter Grass has succeeded in creating a peculiar and indeed original figure, at once very simple and highly complex. It is a figure which invites the most varied and contradictory interpretations—and yet which resists all interpretations, preserving its secret like a figure in a fairy tale while calling forth other figures from fairy tales and folk rhymes: a witch master whom the Black Cook of the nursery rhymes bewitches and dominates, who can shatter glass by singing and work wonders, wonders that we believe of him, that amaze or shock us a little, and which we cannot get enough of. We adults feel as if we were transported back to the days of our childhood, when with astonishment we shared Gulliver's and Robinson Crusoe's experiences with them. But at the same time we know that in this gnome Oskar has been conjured up the spirit and demon of an epoch—howling lasciviousness, malice, blasphemy. His is an infantilism that suddenly assumes demonic shape, that is, ethically uncontrolled yet acts with deadly certainty of purpose, at the same time appearing almost innocent, fleeing into hiding places, seeking shelter under grandmother's wide skirts, using reactions compounded of cruelty and innocence to shut itself off from the unholy adult world.
Whereas German reviewers—even Günter Blöcker, for example—accentuate the antihumane character of The Tin Drum and its narrator-hero, most of the French critics emphasize different aspects of the work. Besides comparing it with the world of the Germanic sagas and Hieronymus Bosch's world of images, they relate it to contemporary history and also stress—astonishingly—the book's moral tendency. Thus Henri Petit, writing in the Parisien libéré of October 31, 1961, made this evaluation:
Günter Grass has his own way of setting a world in motion while preserving a singular intellectual freedom throughout an entire population of characters that is portrayed at once satirically and symbolically. His drum-beating hero is a dwarf, a dwarf of his own free will who for a number of reasons did not want to grow bigger. The best of it is that he wanted to preserve the mad independence of an evil spirit in order to further examine what lies behind things. Tirelessly he explains to us fifty years of Germany's history. A giant could not have brought that feat off; he would have stumbled over his legs, his arms, his brain, and his pen.
This remark, at once penetrating and helpful, reveals The Tin Drum's substratum and its secret dialectic. To reach this value-free position, which is not without its dangers, Günter Grass and his hero and monster Oskar Matzerath had to pay a fairly high price: they had to identify themselves with evil. They had to do this in order to overcome guilt—a new and vicious guilt—and the poison of self-righteousness. Another and older, more profound critic of Germany, Thomas Mann, drew close to this delicate problem in a similar manner. One of his strangest writings is a little-known work that bears the title Bruder Hitler [Brother Hitler].
To speak plainly, Oskar Matzerath is a part of us Germans just as Adolf Hitler is a part of us and our history. Like Hitler (and the "Hitler in us"), the tin drummer Oskar Matzerath who is around us and in us is something we must also overcome. Our involvement in guilt cannot be canceled by shunting it aside or by a pharisaical defamation of Günter Grass. Neither can it, for that matter, be eliminated by limiting ourselves to aesthetic and ethical evaluation nor by taking an intellectual or sociological point of view of the work. One of the best and most valuable things about the book is that it arouses a strong and long-lasting disquiet.
Files could be filled with the utterances of readers who have felt shocked and outraged by The Tin Drum. This fact is attested to by letters to newspapers, to Grass himself, and to critics who have dared to comment favorably on his book. It is striking that readers whose spelling is unobjectionable—even men with doctoral degrees, professors, and senate presidents—are stimulated by Günter Grass to use plain language of a sort not ordinarily found in readers' letters. One other observation seems significant to me. Although positive and negative judgments regarding the book are to be met with among young as well as older readers, among the youth—with individual exceptions—a greater absence of bias, a greater readiness to examine Grass's criticism of society, including those passages of the book which have been termed offensive or shocking, can be seen.
Borchert and Böll, who were much read after 1945, scored their successes primarily with their short stories and satires. Günter Grass is the first to succeed in making postwar German literature so interesting to large numbers of people in Germany and abroad, and especially to young people in Germany, that they plunge into the adventure of reading an (in part) exacting and tedious book of 734 pages with eagerness and inner sympathy. The Tin Drum, which five years after its appearance had run to 500,000 copies in Germany alone, is actually read line by line. So are the novella Cat and Mouse (which like The Tin Drum has been put out in Germany in a paperback edition) and the thick novel Dog Years. And these books are eagerly discussed, above all by high school, technical school, and university students. The discussions are by no means always favorable. The young people have a very good critical sense and are without snobbery.
Most of them see very clearly what distinguishes Grass from many other novelists. He does not treat the problems of the individual and society on the level of current judgments and prejudices. He goes into the substratum of existence, and out of the insecurity of an agitated age he builds up a (highly dubious) picture of mankind. He offers us no tragic heroes or positive heroes, as the epoch of German idealism did and as the doctrine of socialist realism requires.
Even if one wished to see only a fool in Oskar, one should still recognize that in foolish times this fool fulfills a function which preacher and pedagogue often fail in because they do not reach each man and appeal to him where such an appeal should be made: to his subconscious, to his dreams. What takes place in The Tin Drum, and also in Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, is a process—a process of the imagination into which every reader is drawn, willingly or unwillingly. Originally a figment of the author's imagination, a vital figure such as the tin drummer Oskar gains power over us; his demonic powers awaken other powers in us, affirmative and defensive powers that make us capable of self-assertion in a new area of freedom that is not without danger, and always in danger. Such a figure, whether he be called a negative hero or a fool, has substance and creates substance. Through such a figure, greater depths of the soul are reached; that which once was, becomes alive; sunken and forgotten images, sagas, fairy tales, and myths enter our consciousness anew. And these older, deeper, ineradicable reserves become the standard for estimating the worth of the new….
In an interview published in the Frankfurter Neue Presse of November 14, 1959, Günter Grass said, in answer to the question as to how he had got the idea for the tin drummer:
About seven years ago, at the home of friends of friends of mine, I saw a three-year-old boy with a tin drum hung around his neck. He was told to shake hands and say hello to the grown-ups, but he ignored them, wouldn't say hello to anybody, and kept to his drum. His point of view later became Oskar's point of view.
The question-and-answer session continued as follows:
How did the material accumulate?
A good half of the material was always there. The other—equally good—half was furnished by Oskar with his "point of view." Any material in excess of the two good halves had to be stricken out.
Did you intend from the very start to write a picaresque novel?
The Tin Drum is no more a picaresque novel—what is a picaresque novel?—than Die Legende von Ulenspiegel und Lamme Goedzak [The Legend of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak] is. The satire, the legend, the parable, the ghost story—everything, in short, that today is simply and simple-mindedly labeled surrealism—serve this reality and are part of it.
What about the parallels that are often drawn with Simplicissimus? Are they justified? Did you have others for a model?
Certainly The Tin Drum may be traced to the adventurous Simplicissimus, certainly also to novels of individual development such as Wilhelm Meister and Der grüne Heinrich [Green Henry]. But the decisive influence for me was Herman Melville with his object mania, his Moby Dick.
How long did you work on The Tin Drum?
The first notes began in the summer of 1953. In February, 1959, the manuscript was completed.
What difficulties with regard to form and content were there in the writing?
Because I excluded the use of flashbacks that is so popular today, things had to be told chronologically. That meant that I was always close to the material and a reality that had to be fixed and named exactly. So I needed voluminous chapter plans and timetables. Also, when one writes chronologically one has to be very industrious.
Grass makes very exact preliminary studies, similar to those that Thomas Mann used to make. The writing, (as Grass told a Spiegel editor) proceeds in three stages. In the first version, Grass records inspiration, memory, fancy. Then he fills in "gaps" with documentary material. Last, he polishes this second version until the inserted facts no longer seem like foreign matter.
In a radio talk with Horst Bienek (which the latter did not include in his collection Werkstattgespräche mit Schriftstellern, [Workshop Talks with Writers], 1962), Grass gave more precise information about his way of writing, especially in the field of the epic. From his answers it is clear that the two great novels, The Tin Drum and Dog Years, as well as the novella Cat and Mouse, can only be understood as parts of an encompassing whole. The center or core thereof, into which later events are projected and out of which they then unfold, is defined by the image world of early childhood and youth which Grass experienced in Danzig, the suburb Langfuhr, and the Vistula lowland.
The content resists being formed until the right genre has been found, and the most suitable regulating energy in the principal and secondary characters, in the meter and rhythm, in the cadence of the dialogue. The author speaks without reluctance of the difficulties that can arise in doing this:
For a long time I tried to approach the whole complex of material of The Tin Drum by means of dialogue, but the material was too broad and flowed apart in all directions. The figure of Oskar Matzerath could not be made distinct by means of dialogue.
There were other preliminary stages of The Tin Drum. If one disregards the thirteen-year-old's attempt at novel writing (Grass set himself to write Die Kaschuben [The Cassubians] under the stimulus of a prize contest sponsored by Hilf mitl, the Nazi magazine for schools), a cycle of his poems is of particular note. Grass tells us:
About 1950–1951 I made my first trip to France, and there wrote a long, metaphor-laden, but not very good, [unpublished] cycle of poems called Der Säulenheilige [The Saint on the Column]. It tells about a young man, a mason—the time is today—who had suddenly had enough of life in the village and, with the help of his manual skill, built a column on which he sat and had his mother bring him his food on a pole. From that elevated perspective the young man (as I had planned it) described life in the village. 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.
With the first sentence, with Oskar's confession—"I admit it: I am an inmate of a sanatorium and convalescent home"—the basic tone of the novel had been found. Out of the main figure, its peculiarity and its perspective, evolves the novel's over-all structure, often surprisingly for the author, and yet with inner consistency. Grass explains it as follows:
Only one character was definite. That was Oskar Matzerath and his development: that at the age of three he stops growing, at twenty-one, in accordance with normal development, decides to grow a bit, and gets a hump. And it was definite that the book would end with his thirtieth birthday.
The point of view from which Oskar sees the world makes it possible for Grass to describe people and events in a manner that neither children nor adults could observe and interpret. Oskar Matzerath acquires something of that now subhuman, now superhuman, power which formerly was attributed to figures of fairy tale and saga, demonic dwarfs, trolls, and giants transformed into toads. At the same time he remains—in a positively confounding way—natural, childlike, and naive. In the conversation with Bienek, Grass made reference to the consequences and the advantages resulting from the fact that his central character from the age of three grows no further,
but at the same time has from birth the intelligence and clear-sightedness of an adult, with all adult mistakes and false speculations; that, however, he is later not noticed by adults as an adult but remains always a little bit of a fellow; and that he sees everything constantly from this perspective looking upward from below, not only the people around him but the entire epoch.
Ernst Jünger once said that it is a characteristic of our time that the real is just as fantastic is real. And it was Friedrich Dürrenmatt who said that one cannot get at our epoch any longer with tragedy but only with comedy. With comedy in extreme form, the absurd drama and the grotesque. Both possibilities—which Grass … tested and played out in many forms in his poems and plays—unite and expand, with lyric and dramatic elements added, in his novels. Grass's predilection for the grotesque emerges in almost every scene, on almost every page of his works, in his (sometimes self-transforming) principal and secondary characters. This can be seen in the characterization of the dwarf drummer Oskar and his keeper Bruno (who makes plaster-coated figures of knotted string), of Joachim Mahlke with the over-sized Adam's apple (Cat and Mouse), of Brauxel, alias Goldmäulchen, alias Eduard Amsel, who manufactures scarecrows (Dog Years). Even the petit bourgeois milieu in Danzig-Langfuhr and the artists' milieu in Düsseldorf—when seen through the eyes of the main character, the narrator—contain the possibility of describing a greater number of eccentrics than are generally portrayed in modern novels.
Grass makes use of the classically grotesque because therein, as he says, "everything, the tragic and the comic and the satiric, has room side by side and each supports the others." Oskar Matzerath, he says, remains a realistic figure and does not become a creature of artifice. In contrast to the at times unproductive, often merely mechanical, grotesqueness in the dramas (Zweiunddreiβig Zähne, The Wicked Cooks), Grass in The Tin Drum succeeded in exploiting the possibilities of the classical grotesque. The dynamism that is in the drummer boy Oskar largely accords with Grass the narrator's own vitality. Grass's optics and the fact that Oskar is himself an eccentric make it certain that Oskar will discover an abundance of eccentrics round about him. The uniformity of modern mass society that has often been lamented by cultural critics and sociologists exists neither for Oskar Matzerath nor for Günter Grass. In the conversation with Bienek, Grass said:
The figures around Oskar Matzerath are mostly petit bourgeois, each of them—within the frame-work of the grotesque—an eccentric, or an "original," as one says in Germany. I think that we too are all eccentrics. The opinions, mostly deriving from sociologists, that deny the existence of the individual today and promote a pretty dismal uniformity—I don't see them proved. Even in a packed streetcar I do not see a mass of people; I see nothing but "originals," individual persons. One has a goiter, another has a big Adam's apple; one is big, another is small; one keeps blowing his nose and doesn't have a cold, another has a cold and doesn't blow his nose….
In denying uniformity so vigorously, Grass contributes to overcoming the view (which has become almost a compulsive idea) that all processes in modern society are inevitable. In The Tin Drum the memoir-writing Oskar gives the following answer to the question, "How shall I begin?"
One can begin a story in the middle and stride boldly forward and boldly backward sowing confusion. One can be modern, eliminate all times and all distances, and afterwards announce or have it announced that one has, at last and in the nick of time, solved the space-time problem. One can also assert at the very beginning that today it is impossible to write a novel, and then—behind one's own back, so to speak—show one's ace with a smash hit, so as to end up as the last possible novelist. I have also had it said to me that it looks modest and nice to assert in the beginning that there are no heroes in novels anymore because there are no individualists anymore, because individuality has been lost, because man is solitary, everyone alike is solitary, without the right to individual solitariness, and forms a nameless and heroless solitary mass. All that may be true in its way. But speaking for myself, Oskar, and for my keeper Bruno, I would like to state: We are both heroes, quite different heroes, he behind the peephole, I in front of it, and when he opens the door the two of us, with all our friendship and all our loneliness, still are not a nameless and heroless mass.
One should not draw false conclusions from this oftquoted passage. It has the ring of a pronunciamento, and in polemically pointed negative terms contains what is almost like an artistic program, a theory of the novel. But one should be wary of pushing this utterance too far or making it into an absolute. It is impossible to miss the ironic and self-ironic inflection, in which there is expressed an attitude of distance. Oskar Matzerath sets this note of distance even when he yields the floor to other speakers—his keeper Bruno or the impresario Gottfried von Vittlar (who at his own wish reports him to the police) and lets them do the narrating.
The furious quality of some chapters, in which the narrator seems to yield the conduct of the narrative to his drum, the amplitude of the figures, and the many fantastic-grotesque scenes, all could easily, in a first reading of The Tin Drum, give rise to the impression of an overflowing and in part undisciplined manner of narrative. This impression does not stand critical scrutiny. To be sure there are weak, or rather weak, lackluster passages, especially in Book Three; at times there are distracting repetitions and witticisms; and at several points one could do without the distasteful exactitude. Nevertheless, even in those sections which are open to criticism in their details, the tone of distance set by the main character (in lessened degree) is artistically maintained. If this note of distance becomes altered to such an extent that it can no longer come within Oskar's field of vision, a new figure and a new perspective appears. If its problem gains so much specific gravity as to require a separate presentation, it is lifted out. This is what took place during the writing of The Tin Drum at the appearance of Joachim Mahlke (the central figure of the novella Cat and Mouse). In the composition of Dog Years also, the note of distance among the three respective narrators, and between each narrator and the events he is relating, is exactly defined….
By means of associations, anticipations, and corrections, the narrator constantly re-examines the distance between the time when he is narrating and that time in the past which is the subject of his narration. Toward the end (in The Tin Drum as well as in Cat and Mouse and Dog Years) this distance steadily diminishes. In the alternation between the onward march of the narrative and the pause to take the snapshot of the image, doubts are awakened:
The alternation serves the purpose of mutual revision. Grass is also a revisionist vis-à-vis the object. If a moralistic tendency is recognizable anywhere in his works, it is in this technique of manifold refraction. Things remain among themselves, and yet are narrated. The narrator narrates, and yet acknowledges an "author, who invented us for professional reasons" (Cat and Mouse). The reader seemingly remains excluded, and yet is addressed with the words "You who have to lead a confused life" (The Tin Drum). Time is in flux, and yet is cemented in paradigms. This constant alternation also conveys to the reader the feelings of reserve, of great mistrust, of radical doubt. [Klaus Wagenbach, in an essay in Schriftsteller der Gegenwart/Deutsche Literatur: Dreiundfünfzig Porträts, edited by Klaus Nonnenmann, 1963]
In the exact and mistrustful examination of the relationships, in the radical doubt, in the call for what Klaus Wagenbach describes as "general ideological disinfection," there is no denial of humanity and morality but rather the realization resulting from painful experience that an age of inhumanity, in order to be fully understood, cannot and must not be portrayed with the old familiar stylistic means. "God is a bad stylistic principle," Gottfried Benn once said. Humanity and morality too are, in certain circumstances, bad stylistic principles. When human beings become human material, become objects, the appeal to humanity is insufficient to liberate them from this servitude. A dictatorship of objects is needed, a tyranny of the drum, before the demon can be exorcised. The Tin Drum offers many examples of the success and failure of such frivolous infantile attempts. Let us cite one gay example that has become famous: the grotesque scene in which the boy Oskar, crouching under the speakers' platform of a National Socialist Party rally on the Maiwiese in Danzig, coaxes the crowd to fall under his spell by virtuoso use of his drum:
The drum lay before me, already in position. Lovely and loose I let the sticks play in my hands and, with tenderness in my wrists, laid an artistic and gay waltz tempo on my drum, letting it grow louder, more intense, conjuring Vienna and the Danube, until overhead the first and second troopers' drums took a liking to my waltz and the side drums of the older boys, more or less skillfully, took up my overture. In between, it's true, there were the inflexible ones with no sense of hearing who went on beating boom-boom, and boom-boom-boom, when I meant the three-quarter time that the people love so well. Oskar was about to despair, then the fanfare trumpets began to get the idea, and the fifes, oh Danube, piped so blue. Only the leaders of the trumpeters and drummers didn't believe in the Waltz King and shouted their annoying commands, but I had deposed them. This was now my music. And the people thanked me. Laughter got loud in front of the platform, then some were singing along, oh Danube, and across the whole field, so blue, as far as Hindenburgallee, so blue, and to Steffenspark, so blue, my rhythm went skipping, reinforced by the microphone over me turned up to full volume. I peered out through my knothole—but still kept busily drumming—and saw that the people enjoyed my waltzes, skipped in excitement, had it in their legs. Nine couples and now another couple were dancing, mated by the Waltz King. The only one that the waltz time didn't suit was Löbsack. With district Party chiefs and SA battalion leaders, with Forster, Greiser and Rauschning, with a long brown tail end of party officialdom, he stood in the middle of the crowd, boiling as the passage through to the platform began to close in front of him. He was used to being steered to the platform to the tune of straight march music. These frivolous sounds made him lose his faith in the people.
SA and SS men search for the mischief-maker under the platform. "They did not find Oskar, because he was too much for them." Comparison with the prophet Jonah is resisted, and also God's anger threatening Nineveh, "even when it was called Danzig." Also refused is the world outlook that cuts heroes and saints like stencils while it makes human beings into human material and without scruple is just as ready to use them as "fuel" for its ends as it is to transform them: "My drum was not Biblical, so I stuck it under my pullover, I had enough to do with myself; without bumping myself I found my way out of the bowels of an all-purpose rostrum which only by chance had the proportions of a prophet-devouring whale."
A significant characteristic of Grass is the value-free sphere into which he leads his drummer again and again, the swing back into a dismal everyday state after the wild unbridled movement. Oskar—who himself does evil, tempts others to evil, and who nevertheless resists the manifestations of power and of evil as they appear in the spirit of the age—at the same time brings about by his presentation of events a recognition of the special, twilight-lit enigmatic character of evil, its banality which appears in the most remarkable crossbreeds of kindness and crime, musical ear and pathological urge to murder. In The Tin Drum this theme is played through in many variations, with special impressiveness and art of a high order in the chapter, "Faith, Hope, Charity." In this chapter the keeper comes to Oskar's bed, takes his patient's hands away from the drum and says: "But Herr Matzerath, if you keep on drumming so loudly, people elsewhere will hear that there is much too loud drumming here. Won't you take a pause or drum a little softer?" Oskar is willing. He decides to dictate a new, softer chapter to his drum. But it is in this very chapter that the only friend he has had in his life, the Jewish toy dealer Markus from Danzig, dies in the Kristallnacht of the year 1938. Oskar knows a couple of those who are guilty of his death. The SA man Meyn, who plays the trumpet so beautifully, is one of these guilty ones. And so at the end, with a hard drum roll, Oskar dictates these sentences of reminiscence:
There was once a tin-drum player named Oskar, and they took from him his toy dealer.
There was once a toy dealer named Markus, and he took all the toys out of the world with him.
There was once a musician named Meyn, and if he is not dead he is still living and again plays the trumpet beautifully.
Like the dismal everyday state of things, so too evil remains in the world. Murder does not die with the murderer; tyranny does not die with the death of the tyrant. Guilt also remains. It seeks and finds places to hide. And it is roused by fear. Fear is here projected into the shadow figure of "a child's bogieman that keeps getting blacker." This shadow figure saw from the earliest days what no human being noticed and what conscience would like to deny and the drum would like to drown out. The Black Cook of German nursery rhymes—is she a phantom or a reality? Is she a thing born of fear and guilt or an emissary of infernal or celestial powers? Is she life? Is she death?
"Don't ask Oskar. He can't find another word."
This section contains 4,739 words
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