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Critical Essay by Keith Miles
SOURCE: "The Tin Drum," in Günter Grass, Barnes and Noble Books, 1975, pp. 48-83.
Miles is an English dramatist, short story writer, novelist, author of children's literature, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, a small portion of which was reprinted in CLC-15, he discusses the literary influences of Herman Melville, Lawrence Sterne, and Thomas Mann on The Tin Drum, and examines Grass's portrayal of Oskar, who acts as commentator on "the character and history of the German people in the twentieth century."
It was not out of modesty that I wanted to become a drummer. That is the highest thing, the rest is a trifle.
Adolph Hitler, Munich People's Court, 1924
When I go down to the cellar
There to draw some wine
The little hunchback who's in there
Grabs that jug of mine.
Des Knaben Wunderhorn, ed. Arnim and Brentano (1805–8)
Literary criticism is born of suspicion. When a new author makes such a thunderous impact as Günter Grass did with The Tin Drum, the literary critic uses doubt and distrust as his bookmarks. He seeks to explain and absorb that impact by cataloguing the many writers who have so clearly "influenced" the novel. Now the search for source and affinity is a valuable activity, which enriches our apprehensions of a work. Moreover, it is impossible to gauge a writer's full significance until he is set alongside his literary forbears and contemporaries. But all too often the task of doing this is approached with a hearty scepticism. Many modern critics seem to equate the detection of an influence with catching an author out in the very act of plagiarism. To be moved sufficiently by another's work to want to borrow from it is somehow seen as a grave weakness, as proof of glaring unoriginality. As if literature should arise spontaneously, or as if the business of an author should at the very least be to disguise his borrowings instead of openly acknowledging them, or, as is sometimes the case with Grass, of actually celebrating them. It was T. S. Eliot who warned against the pursuit of a spurious originality in writers, and his words have a special relevance here—"we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously" (Tradition and the Individual Talent: Selected Prose, 1953). In The Tin Drum we shall hear many of the voices of Grass's literary ancestors, some loud, some soft, some mere whispers, some returning echoes. And these voices, far from diminishing the power of the novel, enhance it and confirm its impression of towering individuality.
Grass's first novel not only invites comparisons with the work of other writers, it compels them. An author immediately summoned to mind is Herman Melville, and Grass [in an interview in Frankfurter Neue Presse, 14 November 1959] has readily admitted his debt to the American—"But the decisive influence for me was Herman Melville and his object mania, his Moby Dick." And in another interview [in the September 1979 issue of Encounter] Grass singled out two other qualities of the novel—its realistic precision and its pursuit of fantasy as part of reality—"That's what Melville gave me". One can see many other features of Moby Dick reflected in The Tin Drum: the epic structure, the delight in fable, the true ambiguity of symbols, the Biblical affiliations, the exploration of uncertainty and terror (as the ship leaves the security of the land or as the country sails into the great black unknown of the Third Reich), the love of the big dramatic scene, and, most of all, the fine lyricism. For, as Grass emphasised in that same Encounter interview, "Everything I have written has its origin and impulses in the lyrical." Finally, there is a bond between Ishmael, who has "Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly," and who ends up as "neither believer nor infidel"; and the Oskar who declares the basic paradox of his existence—"… though today I am at home neither in the sacred nor the profane but dwell on the fringes, in a mental hospital" (The Tin Drum).
In his play, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo (1959), Grass expresses his affection for Melville by quoting directly from Moby Dick at the climax of the drama. For another of the key influences upon his work, Grass has expressed more than affection. His lecture, On My Master Döblin (1967) draws attention to the neglected talents of Alfred Döblin (1878–1957), whose masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, remains the archetypal metropolitan novel. Technically, this work foreshadows many of the devices used in The Tin Drum, but Grass does not concentrate on the finer details of Döblin's prose composition. He dwells on the latter's role as a writer-politician, a role which he himself has attempted to fill with fluctuating success. To illustrate his theme, Grass does not use Döblin's master-piece, but selects his Wallenstein, a choice which is not as perverse as it may at first appear.
Apart from the fact that Wallenstein satisfies Grass's predilection for the historical, it is a work about an aggressively political animal, whereas Franz Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz is fundamentally apolitical. Again, the character of Wallenstein connects directly with the German imagination. He is a national hero who has inspired many novels and plays—including Schiller's drama—and who has proved equally irresistible to biographers. The Thirty Years War, in which he operated, was the last of the wars of religion and its intrigues, futility and farcical aspects have been immortalised in a number of works, from Grimmelshausen's Simplicius Simplissimus (1669) down to Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children (1939). In other words, Grass—through Döblin—is dealing with a period which is very familiar to his audience and which he makes even more familiar by relating it to Germany of the twentieth century. For Döblin does not present his readers with a great military hero. His Wallenstein is a cold-blooded master of finance, an opportunist, who, like Krupp, invested his money in armaments. "Krupp and Wallenstein each bought a Kaiser" (Über Mein Lehrer Döblin). Grass points up other parallels, then concludes by insisting that literature can and should have an educational impulse. And yet it is not from the idea of the novel as manifesto that Grass has learned most from his master. It is surely from Döblin's approach to the historical process that he has gained one of his main intellectual characteristics—his belief in the possibility of simultaneous existences. Döblin thought that the present contained both the past and the future, and decided that "This simultaneity in the present is a single truth, a meaningful event" (Unser Dasein/Our Existence, 1953). We shall find that his belief underlies much of Grass's writing.
Great writers are great readers. The Tin Drum is a monument to its author's profound love of literature and abounds in parody, quotation, allusion, burlesque. Exemplifying Synge's dictum that "All art is collaboration", it is a work of such range and copiousness that it is possible to attach an endless list of comparisons to it.
Two writers who must be mentioned in any discussion of Grassian parallels are Lawrence Sterne and Thomas Mann. Sterne has always exercised a strong appeal to the German mind and when the first volume of Tristram Shandy was published in Germany in 1769, in a translation by Johann Friedrich Zückert, it caused a sensation. Writers as diverse as Goethe ("Yorick-Sterne was the most beautiful spirit who ever lived"), Novalis, Jean Paul, Hegel, Heine and Herder have paid tribute to its effect upon them. Many novelists have tried to thumb a lift from Tristram Shandy but there are times in The Tin Drum when Grass actually seems to be behind its driving wheel. There is the same idiosyncratic autobiographical approach, with the narrator constantly reminding us that he is undertaking a literary work. In both novels the tone is firmly established in the opening paragraph, with Tristram speculating cheerfully about his conception or with Oskar playing with the notions of the observer and the observed, friend and enemy, abnormality and normality, as a child plays with its bricks. Grass, too, shares Sterne's delight in documentation, his capricious attitude to the novel's structure, and his merciless mockery of folly, pretension and authority. We are told that in the library of the Reverend Sterne, vicar of Coxwold, there were five editions of Rabelais. Grass joins Sterne in borrowing from Rabelais his zest for language, for learned wit, and for the obscene. Another work of literature which we can safely assume was on Sterne's shelves was the Bible, and both he and Grass introduce a great deal of Biblical language and reference into their works. This, set against the more Rabelaisian qualities, makes for a glorious interpenetration of the sacred and the profane. Another writer whose presence links the worlds of Tristram Shandy and The Tin Drum is Shakespeare, whose Hamlet preoccupies both Sterne and Grass.
What separates the two novelists is their narrative skill. Sterne, like Rabelais, deliberately loses his narrative thread, meandering off into all manner of digressions. Grass never loses sight of his story and, more important, never breaks faith with it. Another apparent difference between the two works is in their tone, with Sterne's sentimentality having little in common with Grass's cynicism. Yet are these qualities so unrelated? Oscar Wilde was at his most perceptive when he discerned, in De Profundis, that "A sentimentalist is a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is the bank-holiday of cynicism". To complete this list of affinities between Sterne and Grass we must return to Melville who, having finished Moby Dick, confessed to Nathaniel Hawthorne that "I have written a wicked book". No such authorial confirmation is needed in the cases of Tristram Shandy and The Tin Drum: they gleefully proclaim their own wickedness.
Wickedness is not a quality which one easily associates with Thomas Mann, that urbane master of German prose. To many critics Mann and Grass are poles apart, coming, as they do, from totally different backgrounds, adopting contrasting life-styles, and viewing their work in very different ways. There is a patrician air about Mann which sorts ill with the air of a well-rehearsed plebeian which Grass often conveys. Mann appeals primarily to the intellect while Grass, in The Tin Drum certainly, appeals chiefly to the visual imagination. Mann prizes economy: Grass, in his first novel, exalts abundance….
The work of Mann and Grass … is not as totally opposed in conception or execution as some have argued. It may be that in Grass—to borrow once more from Tristram Shandy—we have an example of the judgement surprised by the imagination, whereas in Mann we see an instance of the imagination, even at its most mettlesome, reined in by the judgement. But beyond this there are similarities worth noting, and they occur especially when we compare Mann's The Confessions of Felix Krull (1954) with The Tin Drum. In a penetrating essay, Arrigo Subiotto has suggested that the similarities between Felix and Oskar are "so striking as to be suspect" (German Men of Letters, vol. 4, 1966). Both are self-absorbed heroes who relate their tales with disarming innocence. Oskar, like Felix, is an imprisoned criminal, though he has chosen the asylum instead of the jail. Like Felix again, he is a beautiful boy who is irresistible to both sexes. Each hero has a succession of names and guises, and each claims Mercury as his protector.
These similarities need to be qualified. Both heroes may be totally self-involved as they narrate, and act as protagonists in, their respective stories. But their starting-point is hardly identical. Felix Krull is able to take up his pen "at leisure and in complete retirement" in order to give us the confessions of a confidence trickster, a special insight into the trade secrets of a professional criminal. Oskar, on the other hand, writes out of a compulsion and is grateful to Bruno, his keeper, for making the paper available to "this mind of mine which persists in excreting syllables". Again, Felix does not change as a result of the retelling of his life history, whereas Oskar hints at a very definite change in his life at the end of the novel. In his final chapter, Thirty, Oskar tries to pull all his images and memories about him in one frantic movement, like Grandmother gathering in her wide skirts. For the Black Witch is at hand and she provokes the dramatic change which is distilled into the sentence "Words fail me". After the verbal plentitude of the rest of the novel, this announcement brings the reader to a sharp halt. At the end of Felix Krull, Mann gives us a moment of ecstatic ascent rather than a sudden and disturbing descent. Seized by "a whirlwind of primordial forces", Felix embraces with Zouzou's mother—"And high and stormy, under my ardent caresses, stormier than at the Iberian game of blood, I saw the surging of that queenly bosom".
The comparison of Oskar and Felix as beautiful boys must also be modified. Oskar exploits his abnormality in order to pass among his victims: Felix exploits his normality. Oskar chooses his path through life at the age of three, deciding that he has reached the stature which suits him, and resolving to stay at that height by an act of will-power. For anxious parents, he considerately supplies a medical explanation of his condition by pretending to fall down the cellar steps. Felix, however, only gradually becomes aware of his powers, and those powers rely strongly on the classical perfection of his body and the natural dignity of his bearing. Oskar is throughout the complete outsider, and, notwithstanding the detail into which Grass goes about his parentage, it is the freakish aspect of Oskar which is stressed. Grass supports this with his drawing of the drum-beating dwarf on the book-jacket.
Oskar does indeed follow Felix in undergoing a change of names but he has a far greater variety of identities. Also, his adventures take him much further afield than is the case with Mann's hero, whose operations are limited to a few locations. After the failure of the Krull family business—a sparkling wine of inferior quality—Felix moves to Paris and takes a job as a lift boy. Realising his talent for ingratiation, Felix rises from this lowly station, via the willing arms of the cultured wife of a manufacturer of lavatory fittings, past the widening eyes of the impressionable Miss Eleanor Twentyman from Birmingham, to full aristocratic status. Impersonating Louis Marquis de Venosta, he consorts with members of the Portuguese Royal Family and writes home long and graciously obsequious letters to his "parents". In the tradition of confidence tricksters, Felix cannot only establish a relationship immediately, he can pursue it with care and intensity. Oskar, however, has no such facility. He tends to eliminate, rather than develop, serious friendships.
There are many other smiles of recognition between the two novels. One could compare them as wonderfully playful novels, as works which help to destroy the myth that the German genius is too high-minded to produce comic literature of this order. One could compare them as travesties of the Bildungsroman, the great novel of development and education. Felix is hardly an example of the "growth to wholeness", and he underlines this when he speaks of education as "the fruit of freedom and apparent idleness; one does not achieve it by exertion, one breathes it in". Oskar, too, resolutely blocks any possibilities of development or growth in himself, and like, Felix, sees "education" as the learning of new ways to exploit his power over others. Another point of comparison between the two novels is the subtle use of homosexuality. It is lightly introduced into The Tin Drum, and in Felix Krull, the queer peer, Lord Nectan Strathbogie, is used as a means of affirming Felix's fascination for either sex, as well as his adroitness in avoiding the consequences of becoming valet at Aberdeen and Nectan Castle.
Notwithstanding all these affinities, Grass's novel is anything but a slavish copy of Mann's. Confronted with The Tin Drum, one can imagine Mann borrowing the words from one of his own characters in Tristan: "You write a villainous hand, sir, you would not get a position in my office, let me tell you." The truth is that Thomas Mann and Felix Krull, Herman Melville and Moby Dick, Alfred Döblin and Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Lawrence Sterne and Tristram Shandy, are only four of the countless literary partnerships which can be identified in Grass's work. This does not mean that The Tin Drum is simply a second-hand bookshop specialising in classic novels. On the contrary, the book has an astonishing freshness, because everything which Grass touches he makes irredeemably his own. His novel transcends its sources and achieves a depth, resonance and originality which is quite remarkable.
There is no surer guide through the undergrowth of Grass's first novel than that which he himself provides in his title. For The Tin Drum is primarily about just that. It is not a study of Oskar Matzerath and his problems: it is a novel about the tin drum and its relationship to Oskar. Throughout, the drum stands central. It is the key symbol, the mainspring of the narrative, and the controlling influence on the imagery and style of the work. In designing the book-jacket, Grass emphasised the centrality of the drum by enlarging it out of proportion, and by framing it in Oskar's stippled garb so that it stands out in sharp relief. This drawing is not merely a visual aid for The Tin Drum: it is a highly skilful précis of it. In the drawing, as in the book, the drum is at once an organic part of Oskar, and something quite separate which has to be strapped on to him; a gaping red wound, and a proudly-held weapon: a source of vulnerability and a perfect protection. The drumsticks, too, are both organic and separate: monstrous growths or bone-like sticks held by the embryo hands. The duality is even more pronounced in the figure of Oskar. He is at once simple and complex, child and adult. The pointed hat and the apparel suggest a dwarf, but the face is that of a baby. Malevolence competes with innocence, protest with pathos, freakishness with normality. The novel starts here, with this striking demonstration of realism at one with surrealism. Imagine the drawing without the drum, and one realises how much it contributes.
Whether one prefers to see more of the dwarf than the baby, or vice versa, one factor remains constant. The tin drummer is giving a performance, and is strongly aware of his audience. This awareness of spectators is stressed in the opening paragraph:
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 the keeper's eye is a shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
The casual, conversational tone conceals the amount of information that is packed into this paragraph. Oskar is a patient in an asylum and his condition is serious enough to warrant constant observation by his own keeper—who seems to be a combination of a male nurse, a prison warder and an attendant at a zoo. The scrutiny of Oskar is as total and continuous as it is possible to be. Words like "watching", "sight", "peephole", "eye", "see through", and "blue-eyed" not only reinforce this point, they establish the primacy of the visual element in the novel. Oskar is not alarmed by his incarceration or by the fact that he is under surveillance. What is vital to him is an audience, even if that audience is only represented by the brown eye of his keeper. Oskar can perform. He can do what he has always done: assume an appropriate role and play it to the hilt.
It is essential to grasp this theatrical aspect of Oskar because it dictates so many of his activities throughout the book. When Oskar is born, Alfred Matzerath first speaks as a man of business—"He will take over the store when he grows up. At last we know why we've been working our fingers to the bone". His next words are more prophetic: "When little Oskar is three, he will have a toy drum" and the moth which is drumming on the two sixty-watt light bulbs helps to fix this promise firmly in Oskar's mind. At the age of three, Oskar sees in a drum what all children do. It is a toy, a brightly-coloured, lacquered instrument, simple to play, and gifted with noise. With noise the child can get attention, and with attention he has the opportunity to indulge in role-playing. Oskar soon comes to understand that when the drum is around his neck, and only then, he is the leading actor in any situation. This is why, later, he has an immediate kinship with Bebra, the musical clown. It is not just lack of height which unites them, but the instinct to exploit that lack of height in front of an audience. As Bebra insists, Oskar's place is on the rostrum; and his pupil soon demonstrates that, even from beneath it, he can command an audience magisterially. At a Nazi Party Meeting, renowned for its order, seriousness, and martial music, Oskar's drum takes control and leads the musicians in The Blue Danube Waltz.
The audience begins to sing and dance and Löbsack, one of the Nazi speakers for the night, "stood there fuming and surprisingly disgruntled by my three-quarter time. He was used to being escorted to the rostrum by rectilinear march music". Oskar here is both performer and spectator, leading the music with his drum and peering through the knothole to judge the audience reaction just as Bruno later peers through the peephole at him. Oskar is moved by Löbsack's plight, noting with fine irony of the Nazi that "These frivolous sounds shook his faith in the people". Feeling sorry for Löbsack, he switches the music to a Charleston, "Jimmy the Tiger", taking up the rhythm of Bebra the clown who had played in the circus on empty seltzer siphons. Even when Oskar rests his instrument, his influence lasts and the drummer boys continue to play on. Later, having wrecked the meeting completely, he tucks his "very unbiblical drum" under his sweater and makes good his retreat. It should be remembered that once again a visual element, colour, has dominated the scene. The brown of the Nazi uniforms has been defeated by the blue of Strauss's waltz, a colour relationship which recalls the opening paragraph's statement that the brown eye of Bruno can never see through a blue-eyed type like Oskar.
The performance under the rostrum is not solely anticipated by the meeting with Bebra. Even earlier, Oskar is taken to see the play, Tom Thumb, and this makes a deep impression on him. What strikes him most is that Tom Thumb, though controlling the action, is not visible on the stage. At the Party Meeting, he, too, is invisible but undeniably central. Tom Thumb enjoys the comforts of a cow's, and then a wolf's, stomach. Oskar is enclosed in the "bowels" of the rostrum. And just as Tom's adventures end with domestic reunion, so does Oskar return from his fantastic feats to the more mundane, but reassuring, world of dinner with the family.
Oskar's theatricality is not only limited to public performance, such as his appearance in Bebra's Theatre at the Front or in the trio at the Onion Cellar. The urge to adopt roles informs his whole psyche. Sometimes it is a defensive action, as in the many instances where he pretends to be an innocent child caught up in a guilty situation, exonerated by his age. On other occasions, he enters into certain roles in order to manipulate or assess relationships with his family or friends. A cemetery in Fortuna North prompts thoughts of the Gravedigger Scene in Hamlet, and Oskar, in the true tradition of Sterne, imagines himself to be a Yorick. In this role, he can usurp Hamlet and use his musings about the nature of existence to confront a more practical problem—"To marry or not to marry, that is the question". Maria, no yearning Ophelia, turns him down. An even greater role beckons Oskar when he encounters Sister Dorothea in the darkness of the Ziedler toilet. "Oh heavens, it's the Devil!" whispers Sister Dorothea as she feels the fibre rug in which Oskar has wrapped up his naked body. "Slowly I felt my way into the role, and Satan was my prompter", comments Oskar, delighted that the fibre rug seems to have the same aphrodisiac qualities for Sister Dorothea which the Fizz Powder held for Maria. As the nurse falls forward, Oskar catches her and holds her up long enough to "arrive at a decision in keeping with my Satanic role". But the moment lacks the celebration it requires. Oskar finds that he is impotent—"I aimed an unloaded pistol at the bull's eye". Sister Dorothea awakens to the realities of the situation and flees.
It is significant that in the roles of Yorick and Satan he is required to play opposite women who exert a tremendous power over him. In both cases—a rejected proposal, impotence—he fails because his drum has not been an essential part of the performance. When the drum, or the glass-shattering voice developed to safeguard the drum, are fundamental to a particular role, it is usually crowned with success. For the tin drum is the symbol of Oskar's potency and, shocked by the thought that the supply of drums might actually cease, he develops a castration complex. He is even able to date it to the 9 November 1938, for "that was the day when I lost Sigismund Markus, who had kept me supplied with drums". Later, after a spell in hospital, he revisits his nurses and "might well have attempted a conquest in the hospital if I had still had my drum, if I had still been able to count on my reliable drummer's potency of former years". And when he is confined to a mental hospital the power of drum and voice is gone, so that he is "unable to shatter even a toothbrush glass with his singing". Ironically, it is only by using a drum "adroitly and patiently" in the asylum that he can recall the former potency of the instrument, which is rather as if Samson had been made the prison barber at Gaza, forced to discuss his past with his customers.
From an early age Oskar is aware of his utter dependence on the drum. In his first theatrical pose, before the eye of the camera at the age of eight months, he assumes an attitude most natural to him—"My little claws hover in earnest concentration on a level with my head, ready to descend, to strike. To strike what? The drum!" When he finally acquires his first drum he determines that he will never be separated from it. Only a child can logically wear and play a toy drum, so he decides to remain, physically, a child of three. An open trap door leading to the cellar gives him his opportunity. He places the drum in a safe position at the bottom of the stairs, then rehearses his fall like a born actor, experimenting with the number of steps he will have to mount before he tumbles. Every effect is gauged, even down to noise and smell. When Matzerath and Mama arrive, the tableau which Oskar has arranged speaks with dramatic suddenness. His assumed role—that of a child who has wandered unwittingly into an open trap door—has been played to perfection. The unharmed drum, as important a feature of the tableau as the injured child, can now be Oskar's permanent possession.
But the tin drum is not only a symbol of potency. Like all true symbols, it has no single inner meaning. It lends itself to a large number of interpretations, some complimentary, others contradictory. Many critics have seen the drum as a symbol of artistic creation and, clearly, Oskar is, at one level, an example of that favourite character in German literature: the artist at odds with a philistine society. The medium of his art is the drum, a child's tin drum, lacquered, with red and white flames on the side. Nor is it one particular tin drum which Oskar beats. He does not have the professional musician's reliance on a single, loved instrument. Such is the force and intensity of his drumming that the mortality rate among his drums is high. Indeed this mortality rate can be linked directly to his progress as a musician: "In that period, roughly between the ages of seven and ten, I went through a drum in two weeks flat. From ten to fourteen I demolished an instrument in less than a week. Later, I became more unpredictable in my ways; I could turn a new drum into a scrap in a single day". It is the tin drum's power of regeneration which holds so much attraction for Oskar and which provides him with a degree of stability—"for it did not die as a mother dies, you could always buy a new one or have it repaired…."
To identify the presence of Oskar the Artist is far easier than to analyse the nature and purpose of his art. The crucial question must always be whether or not his drumming has a moral function. For many critics, it has not; they see the drum as a symbol of amoralism, of irresponsibility, of strongly anti-social attitudes. Others can discern a moral basis and a seriousness in Oskar's art. Marcel Reich-Ranicki comes nearer to the heart of the matter when he separates the novel from the fact of its existence, arguing that while the text itself may evince a "cruel amoralism", there is a fiercely moral impulse behind the author's very decision to come to terms with Germany's Nazi past. In fact, it is not necessary to isolate intention from achievement in this way. For in The Tin Drum, Grass has many mansions and can accommodate all critical factions, without any danger of their meeting each other in the corridors. His novel unites two apparent extremes and brings off a bizarre, morganatic marriage between the moral and the amoral.
Grass's tendency to deal with polar opposites which are yet capable of fusion is hardly an innovation in the novel. This tendency has been the dominating intellectual trend in German literature of the past century, and is especially noticeable in the work of Thomas Mann. The Tin Drum belongs very much in this dualist tradition and it declares its aim unequivocally in the drawing on the book-jacket: to achieve a synthesis of good and evil in artistic terms. The drum is the means to this end. It should be remembered that the drum, too, is imprisoned in the asylum and kept under observation; and that, like Oskar, it is a vastly weakened instrument recalling its own former glories but ever-conscious of the approach of the Black Witch who brings with her the ultimate mark of impotence for drum and drummer alike—silence. No other art-form can compete with the drum at its peak. Even Lankes, the cigarette-smoking master of concrete art, admits this—"Man, Oskar, if only I could paint like you drum". And Bruno, commissioned by Oskar to render the figures of Goethe and Rasputin into a single knot construction, fails dismally to manage "a valid synthesis of the two extremes" and remains "restless and dissatisfied; for what I knot with my right hand, I undo with my left, what my left hand creates, my right fist shatters". It is no accident that Oskar asks that the figures should "present a striking resemblance to himself" because Grass has merged the qualities of Rasputin and Goethe in Oskar. Or, to be more exact, he has invested the drummer with the qualities of the Russian faith healer and the German poet-prince as those qualities are perceived by Oskar. Following the "Well-known inner voice", Oskar chooses Goethe's Elective Affinites and Rasputin and Women as the two books which are going to form the basis of his education; and it is significant that the latter work is "copiously illustrated". With the aid of the childless Gretchen Scheffler he works his way through the books time and again. Oskar realises that they are of equal importance, as each provides a corrective for the other. "I didn't want to stake everything on Rasputin, for only too soon it became clear to me that in this world of ours every Rasputin has his Goethe, that every Rasputin draws a Goethe or if you prefer every Goethe draws a Rasputin in his wake, or even makes one if need be, in order to be able to condemn him later on".
When Oskar is about to depart from Paris with Bebra, he is so involved with the question of whether or not he should take his two favourite authors with him, that he carries on "negotiations" with his two gods Dionysus and Apollo. At first the former advises against any reading matter being taken and the latter suggests that the trip itself is a mistake; they then make the obvious choices between the books. Oskar takes both authors—"If Apollo strove for harmony, and Dionysus for drunkenness and chaos, Oskar was a little demi-god whose business it was to harmonise chaos and intoxicate reason. In addition to his mortality, he had one advantage over all the full divinities … Oskar could read what he pleased, whereas the gods censored themselves". This determination of Oskar to unite the forces of good and evil, in a way that makes them mutually-enriching rather than self-defeating, reveals itself even more clearly during his illness after Matzerath's funeral. Matzerath's death as a result of the swallowing of the Nazi Party pin symbolises the demise of the Third Reich itself. In Oskar's life, too, it marks the end of an era. He hurls his drum and drumsticks into the grave and promptly begins to grow. Oskar's growth—his short journey in the direction of normality—brings with it a crisis for his health. Fever grips him and, in one of his most febrile moments, he sees the figures of Rasputin and Goethe moving even closer together. Oskar envisages a merry-go-round, tended by God our Father, who, from an excess of benevolence, gives children more rides than they really want. Oskar notices, on each accelerating circuit, that the merry-go-round owner has a different face each time: "he was Rasputin, laughing and biting the coin for the next ride with his faith-healer's teeth; and then he was Goethe, the poet prince, holding a beautifully-embroidered purse, and the coins he took out were all stamped with his father-in-heaven profile; and then again, Rasputin, tipsy, and again Herr von Goethe, sober. A bit of madness with Rasputin and a bit of rationality with Goethe. The extremists with Rasputin, the forces of order with Goethe". What brings Oskar's vision to an abrupt close is the application of Mr. Fanjgold's disinfectant, and Grass signals the sudden change from the surreal to the real, disinfectantly, with the astringent information that Fanjgold once worked in Treblinka Concentration Camp as a disinfector.
The interchangeability of Rasputin and Goethe as the ruling providence in this sequence is an example of that fusion of light and darkness for which Oskar is striving. And the very fact that he places the two authors in such antithesis indicates a moral judgement of some kind on his own behalf. He is by no means as devoid of ethical awareness as some critics have claimed. He is capable of guilt, of self-examination, and of distinguishing between right and wrong. It is usually in the presence of death that these things happen. The death of his mother—the only parent of whose identity he can be absolutely certain—is a great blow to him, not least because she has been responsible for the purchasing of the drums from her admirer, Sigismund Markus. Oskar's grief finds its expression in his drumming, and he stands beside the death-bed and re-creates "the ideal image of her grey-haired beauty on my drum". And the drum itself responds to the tragedy, the red flames on its casing paling a little, and the white lacquer intensifying to a dazzling brightness. Oskar feels genuine guilt at his mother's death but is not above exaggerating that guilt for effect. Again, he has a profound feeling of guilt over the execution of Jan Bronski, his presumptive father—"Even when I feel most sorry for myself, I cannot deny it: It was my drum, no, it was myself Oskar the drummer, who dispatched my poor mama, then Jan Bronski, my uncle and father to their graves".
Oskar is not only referring to his own personal guilt here, but also to the collective guilt of a nation which sent so many of its uncles and fathers and brothers and sons needlessly to their deaths. This interplay of the personal and collective has already been seen in the defence of the Polish Post Office, an event of international significance which is seen by Oskar as a battle for his drum. The only reason that he and Jan are in the Post Office at the time of the Nazi attack is that they have gone there to have the drum repaired: they have chosen old-fashioned Polish skills, as embodied in Kobyella, over modern German technology. Here we have one of many examples of the way in which the drum is used to advance the narrative and to place important historical events in a peculiar perspective. Because of the drum's role in the action, Oskar feels guilty over Jan's execution; but he has learned to cope with his guilt in the same way as so many Germans coped with the exposure of Nazi Atrocities—by denying that they knew what was going on, by taking refuge in ignorance. It was an "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". Normally, Oskar would not have learned the details of Jan's execution and burial, for, as he himself observes with mordant irony—"Out of consideration for the men's relatives, who would have been crushed by the expense of caring for so large and flower-consuming a mass-grave, the authorities assumed full responsibility for the maintenance and perhaps even the transplantation". The introduction of the notion of responsibility here gives the sentence a vicious edge, following as it does upon the fashionable German disclaimer: "We didn't know it was happening."
The information which throws all this collective and personal guilt into focus is brought, appropriately, by Leo Schugger, that richly symbolic figure "who like us believed in paradise". Leo, in common with many other characters in the book, is first introduced and explained by way of his occupation. But that occupation—"to turn up at funerals"—immediately sets him apart from the Bakers and the Greengrocers and the Nurses and the Doctors and the Stone-cutters and the Artists. For Leo Schugger belongs with Bruno, Bebra, Raguna, Raskolnikov, and Oskar himself among Grass's collection of grotesques. All the elements of the grotesque are contained in Leo. There is the fundamental disharmony, expressed in his madness ("meschugge", in German, is a slang word for crazy). There is the absurdity of his vision and of his appearance. There is the morbid abnormality of his occupation and the strange, telepathic powers which make that occupation possible. And there is his ability to be at once comic and terrifying, a clown with a suit several times too big, and an ever-extending obituary column in human form. This last aspect of Leo is at its clearest in the chapter, 'He Lies in Saspe'. The man from whom "no burial, however discreet, could be kept secret", guides Oskar to the cemetery where Jan lies, by means of an empty cartridge case. During the macabre journey, Oskar tries to turn back but Leo defeats him with his own weapon of musical allurement, turning the empty cartridge case into a whistle and himself into a Pied Piper. With orchestral support from the sirens and foghorns in the harbour, Leo finds that it is, quite literally, "child's play … to draw a frozen Oskar after him".
Leo Schugger is an angel of death, a white-gloved hand welcoming victims to the beauties of the after-life, a carrion crow feeding on the emotions of the mourners and knowing by instinct when and where a burial is taking place. He is also an artist, performing a deliberate and unvarying ritual, "moving with the lightness of a dancer, for grace had touched him", arriving on cue at all times. Again, he symbolises the uncertainties and contradictions of the Church under the Third Reich. Grass is careful to establish that he was a student at a seminary, for whom "the world, the sacraments, the religious, heaven and earth, life and death had been so shaken up in his mind that forever after his vision of the world, though mad, had been radiant and perfect". In short, Leo is an unresolved clash of opposites. His glove may hold genuine compassion but his mouth slavers compulsively. Christian duty is balanced by an enlightened necrophilia. For Leo represents the horrifying ambiguity of the situation which confronted the Church in Hitler's Germany. Deeply opposed to the more pagan manifestations of Fascism, the Church, with a few honourable exceptions, was oddly quiescent under its sway. Many historians have catalogued the paradoxes of organised religion under the Nazis, and the ambivalence, frustration and disillusion which afflicted Catholic and Protestant Churches alike. [In a footnote, Miles suggests the following works for further study of this issue: W. L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1959; R. Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich, 1971; Gunter Lewy, The Catholic Church in Nazi Germany, 1964.]
As Grass underlines again and again, the staggering truth is that Hitler viewed the Christian Church and its members as highly amenable to his purpose. Catholics were persecuted by Nazism yet found its patriotism and anti-Semitism distinctly attractive; in 1939, the Catholic clergy in Germany were even urging soldiers to fight for the Führer against France, one of the most Catholic countries in the world. Protestants were in a far more susceptible position. Their founder, Martin Luther, had been a rabid anti-Semite and an advocate of obedience to political authority. It was not difficult for the Nazis to concentrate attention upon these two aspects of Lutheranism at the expense of the others. They were helped by the divided nature of German Protestants which was such that no effective or cohesive opposition to Nazism emerged. Like Leo, many Christians must have felt that all their certainties had been shaken up wildly into a state of permanent confusion. As the power of the State grew, that of the Church declined. With their attenuated functions, the churches could simply look on in despair. In only one area of Christian duty was there a sudden boom: the burial of the dead and the comforting of the mourners. Leo Schugger is a distorted symbol of the Church, bewildered, yet seeming to have a rationale, repeating meaningless rituals, making a living out of the celebration of death.
The association between Leo Schugger and the Christian Church are fully explored in the chapter which ends Part One of the novel, 'Faith, Hope, Love'. This chapter has rightly been identified as the fulcrum of the whole book, and the place where Grass's most serious criticisms of his countrymen are located. Leo Schugger expresses sympathy to all the mourners at the funeral of Herbert Truczinski, until he comes to Meyn the Trumpeter. Fear grips him and he flees across the tombstone. Leo, the harbinger of death, has recognised an even more powerful agent of death in Meyn; Leo, the artist, has acknowledged the superiority of Meyn's trumpet, an instrument which even shines besides Oskar's drum in this context; Leo, the symbol of an apprehensive Church, has bolted before the Storm Trooper. What gives this sequence even more impact is that Meyn is dressed half in civilian clothes and half in SA Uniform, thus emphasising the dichotomy of so many Germans, good citizen, and good Nazi, mourner and destroyer. Meyn has already been responsible for the expulsion of Sigismund Markus from Agnes's funeral.
There is no finer example of Grass's command of language in the novel than that offered in this chapter, nor is there a more memorable instance of his skill in weaving from his ideas a series of vivid, intricate, mobile patterns. The reader's response to the chapter is conditioned in three interacting ways. First, there is the fairy-tale beginning of "There was once …" and its constant repetition, postulating a world in which any horror is acceptable and in which evil has a permanent role. Then there is the liturgical quality of the chapter, and its use of Biblical words and phrases, all of which serves to sharpen the satire upon religious beliefs. Finally, there is the musical element. Oskar's drum is conspicuous by its silence, but Meyn's trumpet is very much in action; and the chapter has the improvised brilliance of jazz music, investigating themes with musical freedom, but always in touch with the melody which is restated stridently on the trumpet.
Behind this complex structure, controlling it and speaking through it, is Oskar. Not Oskar the amoral picaro, but Oskar the engaged and ethically aware individual. For while much of the chapter is delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact, objective voice, there are several moments when Oskar shows regret and compassion. At these moments—the description of Markus's suicide and its implications—Oskar moves from third- into first-person narrative. His concern over Markus is not only concern for the security of his supply of drums. It is sympathy for a human being who has been treated without humanity. He underscores the point by keeping the saga of Meyn and his four cats before us. Meyn can win praise for burning down a synagogue and for taking part in all manner of atrocities against fellow human-beings who are Jews: but when he attempts to kill his cats with a poker, he is reported to the Party and expelled from the SA. A further refinement is included in the fact that the man who informs on Meyn is Laubschad, a Nazi: "he was a kindly man who liked to help all tired humans, sick animals and broken clocks back on their feet". This description is savagely ironic in the context of Crystal Night, in which many tired humans are victimised, called by names of animals, and placed on short rations of that Time, which Laubschad, as a watch-maker, has dedicated his life to measure.
What prompts Oskar to leave the burning synagogue and dash to the toy store is an intuitive recognition of the pact between himself and Markus. Oskar is the protestor against Nazism and Markus is its victim; he is the drummer who is unable to live without his drum, while Markus is "the keeper of the drums". But the SA members have reached the store before him, smashed the window and climbed in among the toys. There the ultimate act of sacrilege is committed—the drums are outraged. "Some had taken down their pants and had deposited brown sausages, in which half-digested peas were still discernible, on sailing vessels, fiddling monkeys, and on my drums". Oskar is shown that there are strict limits to his protest. "My own drum couldn't stand up to their rage; there was nothing it could do but bow down, and keep quiet". Markus is out of reach of the Nazi rage and his suicide is described with poetic simplicity: "Before him on the desk stood an empty water-glass; the sound of the crashing shop-window had made him thirsty no doubt". The poignance of this is increased when we recall Markus's earlier scene with Agnes, kneeling ridiculously before Oskar's mother and imploring her not to "do it no more with Bronski, seeing he's in the Polish Post Office. He's with the Poles, that's no good. Don't bet on the Poles; if you got to bet on somebody, bet on the Germans, they're coming up, may be sooner, maybe later". Markus is the prophet of his own destruction.
Oskar leaves the dead supplier of drums and makes his way towards the Stadt-Theater and there sees a banner held up by "pious ladies and strikingly ugly young girls", proclaiming "Faith … hope … love." He begins to play with these words and to relate them to the realities of the times. The three great absolutes of the Christian religion have been perverted beyond rescue. Faith has become faith in the holy Gasman, Hitler, who has announced that "I am the Saviour of the world, without me you can't cook." Oskar has already united the use of gas for domestic and for extermination purposes at the beginning of the chapter—"And no one who sets his kettle on the bluish flames suspects that disaster is bringing his supper to the boil". In his fantasizing upon the concept of Faith, he supports the Christian allusion with the myth of Santa Claus, the most appealing and paternal of figures in a child's imagination. Santa Claus is but another instrument of death, turning the celebration of Christmas into a complete travesty of itself. Faith in the Third Reich is faith in the powers of darkness, and the argument is hammered home relentlessly.
So corrupt have the Germans become under the Third Reich that they cannot even keep to the progression of Faith, Hope, Love, as set down by Paul the Apostle in the thirteenth chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians. Exemplars of order, the Germans yet betray Biblical placing. After Faith, they turn to Love. It should be remembered that the Greek word αγαπη "Agape", is rendered in the English Authorised Version as "Charity"; in the German Bible, it is translated as "Liebe", Love, a word which has definite sexual, as well as spiritual connotations. Under the Nazi regime, Love degenerates into a self-love which knows no compromise, and which expresses itself nationally in a brutal patriotism. Love of God has become love of the Führer, but this is only an extension of self-love because the Führer is only a projection of the German's love of himself. Carnal appetite dominates the relations between the sexes—"And from sheer love they called each other radishes, they loved radishes, they bit into each other, out of sheer love one radish bit off another's radish. And they told one another stories about wonderful heavenly love, and earthy love, too, between radishes, and just before biting, they whispered to one another, whispered with all the fresh sharpness of hunger: Radish, say, do you love me? I love myself, too". This debasement of Love is the worst disgrace because it is Love which forms the theme of the thirteenth chapter of Paul's Epistle, and which is set firmly above the others in the final verse: "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (English Authorized Version).
After exposing the degradation of Faith and Love, Oskar turns to the "Third white elephant of the Epistle to the Corinthians: hope". This, too, has been vitiated. Hope has lost all definition. There is nothing to hope for. Even the Final Solution has failed as a cradle of hope. The people are "hoping after or even during the finale that the end would soon be over. The end of what?". The Final Solution to what? If every end is also a beginning, what does that beginning promise? It is not known nor is it sought. Hope under Nazism is the denial of hope, it is an obsession with ending and destroying rather than beginning and building. "As long as man hopes, he will go on turning out hopeful finales". After one Final Solution there will come another. Hope, in fact, is the philosophy of despair.
Oskar now moves from the objective to the subjective, discarding the detachment of the third-person narrative and becoming totally involved in the situation he is describing—"For my part, I don't know. I don't know, for example, who it is that nowadays hides under the beards of the Santa Clauses, nor what Santa Claus hides in his sack; I don't know how gas cocks are throttled and shut off". What he does know and fear is that "Advent, the time of longing for a Redeemer" has not been banished from the German calendar. Oskar is not certain if it is flowing again or still flowing, but he is aware of its presence, of the readiness within the German people to welcome, promote and obey another political Deliverer. For the Redeemer is essentially a secular figure, and the promises which he brings must be viewed in secular terms. Oskar stresses this by depriving Paul of his religious conversion and his apostolic status and by regarding him as "Saul, and a Saul he was", palming off the ideas of faith, hope and love on a gullible public. Oskar is not indulging in blasphemy here. At no point in the novel is he more exercised by moral concern. Men need to believe in something and their belief is as fundamental to their lives as food, a point Oskar makes by relating words to sausages. What he has depicted in the chapter so far is a world in which the notions of faith, hope and love have been so abused that the very words have lost their meaning. The political and moral evils of the Third Reich are the result of this perversion of the Christian absolutes. And yet, paradoxically, there are those ready to remedy the veils with the same concepts of faith, hope and love. Oskar is not arguing that these three are, in the abstract, pernicious. He is insisting that they have been, and always will be, cruelly misunderstood as guiding precepts; and when he sees them being offered again by latter-day Sauls, he shudders at the prostitution of language—"words communicate, butchers won't tell, I cut off slices, you open books, I read what tastes good to me, but what tastes good to you?" The Christian truths embodied in faith, hope and love do not taste delicious, it is only in their adulterated form that they excite the palate, and this is why Oskar does not want them on the menu.
Because Grass, through Oskar, concentrates on faith, hope and love, it is easy to overlook the fact that this key section of the novel has other affinities with the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians. The first verse of that chapter runs: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or as tinkling cymbal" (English Authorised Version). It is no coincidence that the musician, Meyn, opens the chapter, 'Faith, Hope, Love'. With his trumpet, which he plays "too beautifully for words", Meyn does indeed speak with the tongues of men and of angels. He may need the inspiration of the gin bottle to do this, but he is not without love, keeping and caring for his four cats, one of whom he has even honoured with the name of the great German political hero, Bismarck. It is when Meyn joins the SA that things go wrong. He is sobered by disaster and abandons the gin bottle. Love of his art and of his cats is replaced by a ruthless self-love, and his music suffers: "his playing was no longer too beautiful for words because, when he slipped on those riding breeches with the leather seat, he gave up the gin bottle and from then on his playing was loud and sober, nothing more". Meyn's art has become as sounding brass, and this symbolises the emasculation of all artistic talent which tried to serve Nazism. That Meyn is representative is made clear when Markus's store is attacked and Oskar notes that "They all looked like Meyn the musician, they wore Meyn's SA uniform, but Meyn was not there, just as those who were there were not somewhere else". Meyn tries to kill his four cats and is fined and expelled from the party. Only then does his musical talent return. Oskar views this fact with alarm because Meyn out of uniform is no longer so easily identifiable as a man with tendencies which made him embrace the Nazi philosophy. At the end of the chapter, Meyn appears once more. "There was once a musician, his name was Meyn, if he isn't dead he is still alive, once again playing the trumpet too beautifully for words". The fairy-tale aspect of the chapter is not resolved in a happy ending. Meyn, the musician, the breeding-ground for Nazism, is still in existence, practising his art with a skill which deflects the listener from the grim truths which lay behind it.
Oskar, then, is capable of more than cynicism. His satire does have a moral basis in this chapter, his protest is one in which compassion and humility can be detected. But he does not preach any alternative faith to the one he denounces. His reply to the horrors of the Third Reich is a critical humanism, a distrustful vigilance. By revealing the inadequacy of conventional morality against the forces of Nazism, he re-defines the area of conflict. It is a willingness to identify and proclaim the enemy that is important: not a reliance on Christian ideals to fight that enemy once he has been allowed to develop his strength.
Oskar's stature as a character is increased appreciably by this chapter. He reveals a moral awareness and a willingness to discuss religious and political values. Paradoxically, the chapter also helps to explain why he has stayed at his infant height. It is better to remain a dwarf than to grow up to be a Nazi and a philistine. It is better to assume the uncomplicated innocence of a child than to become an adult in a world where the consequences of one's beliefs are too horrific to consider. Above all, it is better to be a freak and a complete outsider than lose one's individuality: a deformed three-year-old is in no danger of being acclaimed as the Ayran Dream. Oskar's championing of individuality is not only a response to Nazism. His protest is against uniformity of any kind. Nothing rouses his moral indignation more than the subjugation of the personality in the group. He is at pains to point out that his enemy is "the symmetry of rostrums" and with drum or voice he wrecks meetings of the Reds and Blacks, Boy Scouts and Spinach Shirts, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Kyffhäuser Band, the Vegetarians, and the Young Polish Fresh Air Movement. His rebellion is against the "cut and colour" of uniforms, against any organisation which exacts blind faith in its creed, and which reduces that creed to a series of slogans. Like John Stuart Mill, Oskar believes that "Whatever crushes individuality is despotic, by whatever name it is called" [John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, 1859]. For in surrendering his individuality, a man relinquishes that most valuable part of his personality: his critical faculty; he gives up what Oskar prizes—his healthy capacity for doubt.
The Tin Drum is, at bottom, a hymn to individuality, and Grass counters the flatness and sameness of Nazi Germany by introducing a host of highly individualised characters. He indicates the enormous loss which takes place in human terms, when any organisation imposes uniformity from above. Even when his characters are most symbolic—Meyn, Leo Schugger, Oskar himself—they remain recognisable human beings, each with his own eccentricities and subtleties. Oskar's own individuality is related directly to the tin drum. To dispose of the drum is a matter of great moral concern to him, therefore, because it will entail a lessening of his individuality. On the other hand, it will be a gesture towards integration into a world which now seems more worthwhile. For Nazism is dead. Matzerath has choked himself in his cellar, just as Hitler has burned himself in his bunker. At Matzerath's funeral Oskar begins to revalue the social and political situation. Poised between two generations—his presumptive father and his presumptive son, Kurt—he examines his future. Should he or shouldn't he cast away the drum, the instrument of protest that was so much needed before?
Oskar decides that he can no longer evade responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He acknowledges that he caused Matzerath's death and concedes that "in all likelihood" it was the German grocer and not the employee of the Polish Post Office who was his real father. This admission dispels one self-deception but leaves another secure. Oskar still persuades himself that Kurt, Matzerath's son, is the fruit of his own supposed union with Maria. It is important that he believes this because it inspires thoughts on the father-son relationship. Oskar can see that he has been a severe disappointment to Mazerath, rejecting all his father's plans for him in the most dramatic way. It was Oskar who soured relations between his father and his mother by pretending to fall down the cellar, an event which "transformed our harmless, good-natured Matzerath into a guilty Matzerath". Oskar's own experience of "parenthood" has given him a sympathetic insight into his own father's suffering. For Kurt has signally rejected Oskar's ambitions for him, destroying all hope of "dynasty of drummers" by battering the tin drum which he is given at the age of three into scrap metal. Kurt does not want to follow in Oskar's footsteps. During the Russian invasion of Danzig, Kurt again demonstrates his apartness from Oskar and his association with "normal" adults, by putting up his hands when a group of Russian soldiers comes into the cellar. Oskar cannot understand Kurt's action. Why cannot his son stay true to his individuality as Oskar does, or as the ants do, allowing no invader to deflect them from their characteristic mode of self-expression? Oskar is learning to come to terms with Kurt's indifference to him, relating it to his own feelings for Matzerath—"Perhaps he, too, could express only by homicide the childlike affections that would seem to be desirable between fathers and sons".
Like a weird version of Prospero, Oskar determines that he will abjure his rough magic and bury the source of his art, his drum, in the earth, deeper than sound can plummet. He begins to grow visibly and suffers the violent pains of growth. The physical distance which he puts between his former and new self is matched by the geographical distance which he, Maria and Kurt put between Danzig and their new abode in Düsseldorf. Oskar's critical condition during this period is reinforced by the fact that Bruno takes over the narrative. Oskar picks up the story in May 1946, the date when he was discharged from Düsseldorf City Hospital to embark on "a new and adult life". By the end of Book Two, then, the rebellious dwarf has been replaced by an Oskar with a distinct realisation of his responsibilities, an Oskar with no tin drum.
That Oskar is alive to his duties is shown by the way he attempts to provide for Maria and Kurt, taking on the role of Maria's surrogate husband willingly. How close he approaches the respectabilities of adult life may be judged from the fact that he even entertains the idea of marriage to Maria. This gesture of faith in the state and validity of holy matrimony is quite extraordinary in view of his earlier attitudes towards the Church. Oskar, the self-appointed secular Jesus, is now attracted to the notion of a Christian marriage service. Leading up to his proposal, he assures Maria that he "liked nothing better than to bear a heavy responsibility". After weeks of evasion, Maria gently, but firmly, turns him down.
Oskar's renunciation of the drum not only renders him more vulnerable to the setbacks and sufferings of everyday life, but has an adverse effect on the novel itself. The writing in the first few chapters of the Third Book has nothing like the tension and force and ambiguity of the earlier books. Lacking the fulcrum of the tin drum, the inventiveness of the author seems to fall off and many of his effects are unsuccessful. For one of the foremost properties of the drum is its vitality, its affirmation of life. Without it, Oskar drifts towards death, or rather, towards associations with artists who are in some way in the service of death. He works for Korneff, the stone-cutter, whose work adorns graveyards. He makes the acquaintance once more of Leo Schugger, now carrying out his functions in Düsseldorf under the name of Willen Slobber. He models for Raskolnikov, the artist who is haunted by guilt and atonement. He befriends Kleep who is recognisable by his "smell of a corpse smoking a cigarette." Appropriately, it is through the agency of the mad artist, Raskolnikov, that he is reintroduced to his drum. Raskolnikov has an intuitive feeling that Oskar lacks something and tries to fill "the vacuum" with all manner of things for "with his surrealist imagination he was never at a loss for an object." At length, the artist's instinct leads him to the object which has now become a source of fear to Oskar: the drum. He makes a melodramatic protest, but Raskolnikov insists that he holds the symbol of guilt. Oskar is painted as "Jesus the drummer boy, sitting on the nude left thigh of Madonna 49." Possession of a drum has an immediate effect on his relationships. Though continuing to support Maria and Kurt, he moves out of their lodgings, asserting his individuality by taking a room in the Ziedler household.
The drum is not brought back into active service at once. Indeed, Oskar assures his landlord, Ziedler the Hedgehog, that "it is very unlikely I shall ever drum again". For a while, his energies are concentrated on the mysterious Nurse Dorothea, that embodiment of all the nurses who tend, mother and excite him throughout the novel. Then he visits the room of a fellow-lodger, Klepp, who has been lying in bed for five days with Oblomov's Complaint. "This corpulent, indolent, yet not inactive, superstitious, readily perspiring, unwashed but not derelict flutist and clarinettist" has much in common with Oskar. When he announces that he was born by mistake, Oskar feels "a strong sense of kinship" with him. He even forces himself to eat some of his host's foul spaghetti and, astonishingly, finds it so delicious that it becomes his "culinary ideal".
Their discussion, and the various objects in the room, conspire to touch off a spark in Oskar. "It was as though all my old, battered, exhausted drums had decided to celebrate a Last Judgement of their own. The thousand drums I had thrown on to the scrap heap and the one drum that lay buried in Saspe Cemetery were resurrected, rose again, sound of limb; their resonance filled my whole being". Oskar undergoes a kind of religious conversion, rushes to fetch his drum, and uses the instrument as a means of confession, drumming up his past history in strict chronological order from his genesis beneath the light bulbs to his exodus from Danzig. It is only the death of Matzerath which he conceals from his listener, returning at the end of his musical account to his main theme—"Kashubian potato fields in the October rain, there sits my grandmother in her four skirts". Transported, Klepp joins in with his flute, and the two play for several hours, rediscovering themselves and the potency of their art. Klepp leaps from his bed, admits fresh air to the room, and washes himself in a manner that amounts to purification. Oskar the Drummer and Klepp have been resurrected. They decide to start a jazz band together.
Once Oskar and the drum are re-united, the old vigour begins to flow in the prose again. The drum is needed as much as ever to combat the complacence of post-War Germany, epitomised in the city of Düsseldorf. Oskar's poem on the Atlantic Wall has been prophetic—the trend is completely "towards the bourgeois-smug". That the drum retains its former powers is shown triumphantly at the Onion Cellar. This episode is thrown into relief by the preceding chapter, 'On the Fibre Rug'. Here we are reminded that a drumless Oskar is an impotent Oskar, even though he is closeted with Nurse Dorothea and a convenient aphrodisiac. From sexual failure he moves to musical acclaim in the Onion Cellar. This is one of Grass's most imaginative conceptions and it allows Oskar to shed his inhibitions again and return once more to a role he has played with such wicked brilliance—that of the satirist. So far in the novel he has satirised the growth of the Third Reich and mocked its victims as well as its creators. He has poured scorn on the Catholic church and exposed what he sees as the total inadequacy of Jesus. He has ridiculed the great mysteries of birth and death and scoffed at the intimacies of the marital bed. He has even derided war itself, presenting it as a tedious interruption: as nations clash in battle, his concern is with the wartime shortage of drums; as the Russians invade Poland, he notes that "sugar that trickled out of the sack had lost none of its sweetness while Marshal Rokossovski was occupying the city of Danzig". At the Onion Cellar, Oskar finds a new target for his satire—the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle of post-war Germany and the affluent quietism which is its concomitant.
The Onion Cellar is a deliberately primitive establishment which caters for "businessmen, doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, theatre and movie people, well-known figures from the sporting world, officials in provincial and municipal government, in short, a cross section of the world which nowadays calls itself intellectual". With their assorted female or male companions, these people, equipped with shaped wooden boards and paring knives, sit on wooden crates covered with onion sacks and set about peeling onions with the assiduity of true penitents. As the onion juice flows, it provokes the desired response in the German middle class—"It did what the world and the sorrows of the world could not do; it brought forth a round, human tear. It made them cry. At last they were able to cry again. To cry properly, without restraint, to cry like mad". For this privileged way of shedding their guilt, customers are charged twelve marks eighty. Tears are followed by words and the customers exchange frank "self-accusations and confessions" in an ecstasy of purgation. The young as well as the adult patronise the Onion Cellar, and produce the most violent weeping as they consider their relation to the older generation. "Oskar was glad to see that love, and not just sexual frustration, could still wring tears from the young folks".
There are two features of the Onion Cellar which sharpen the cutting edge of its satire. In the first place, it is a night club, a traditional source of entertainment for the middle classes where one might expect rich food, good wine, attentive service, light music, warmth, cleanliness and extravagant comfort. The Onion Cellar rests its popularity on the fact that it is a negation of all these things. It provides only perfunctory service and the music it offers, instead of making its customers relax and enjoy their stay, eases them on their way so that their places can be taken by others. What it is selling at high prices is the opportunity to indulge in an act of communal relief. In an affluent society governed by the cash nexus, even tears become a marketable commodity.
The second feature of this night club which strengthens its satirical thrust is its setting of a cellar. Notwithstanding alterations, the Onion Cellar is a real cellar, "quite damp and chilly under foot". The wartime associations of cellars as places in which to hide and take shelter have already been summed up by Oskar's "Like everyone else, we began to live in a cellar". But there are other properties of a cellar which are relevant here. It is a storeroom for items which are too bulky or unsightly to be left about a house. It is the fundamental part of a building and can symbolise a return to basics. It has a dark out-of-the-wayness which makes it sinister: it is the place where Greff, the homosexual greengrocer, goes to hang himself; it is, in folklore, the kingdom of the "little hunchback"; it is an unknown and therefore feared area. In The Tin Drum cellars are of especial significance to Oskar. With the aid of cellar steps, he provides an explanation for his physical peculiarities. As leader of the Dusters, he uses a cellar to house the thefts from various churches. And where he does not tell us specifically of cellars, he often isolates the cellar's quality of beneathness. His story begins beneath the four skirts of his grandmother and he frequently returns to them. His grandfather is allegedly drowned "under the raft". His own birth takes place beneath two sixty-watt light bulbs. His sexual education begins beneath a table, as Jan's foot explores his mother's thighs. His main drumming of protests takes place under rostrums. His preoccupation with Nurse Dorothea leads him to squat in her Clothes Cupboard, beneath her clothes. And, as we have seen, his moral sense is awakened at a series of burials, as bodies are placed beneath the earth. When he forsakes his drum, he lets it form its own cellar underground.
It is only appropriate that Oskar's return to effective drumming in public should take place in a cellar, beneath the watering eyes of its habitués. When matters get violently out of control at the Onion Cellar, it is Oskar's drum which saves the day, returning his listeners to the world of their lost childhood and asserting its superiority over the power of the onions. Oskar has to wait until another graveside scene before he is given a chance to display his talents in front of a wider audience. At the funeral of his employer, Schmuh, who has been sparrowed to death in his Mercedes, Oskar is approached by Dr. Dösch of the concert bureau. Dr. Dösch admits that Oskar's drumming took him back to the bliss of childhood at the Onion Cellar, and wants to promote a tour for the hunchback. Not only does Oskar's drumming have a therapeutic effect, it is "a terrific stunt". To think things over, Oskar takes a trip with Lankes the artist and they end up on the Atlantic Wall of Concrete where they first met. The occasion marks another display of moral concern on the part of Oskar. He drums a protest against the Concrete Eternal, the symbol of German war defences and post-war rebuilding alike. And he criticises Lankes strongly when the latter rapes the young nun, "the little girl who was supposed to be the bride of Christ". Revolted as he is by Lankes's callousness, Oskar learns something from his companion's readiness to turn the possible drowning of the nun into a saleable painting. Lankes's success in creating art out of his relations with nuns convinces Oskar that he, too, must exploit to the full his talents. "The time had come to transmute the pre-war and wartime experiences of Oskar, the three-year-old drummer, into the pure, resounding gold of the postwar period". The choice of a metaphor of material wealth here is highly apposite.
Though Oskar now makes his name and his fortune on tour, he has to do so within the terms of the capitalist system which offends him so much. His protest becomes absorbed and ceases to be a protest at all. Oskar the Drummer is a mere entertainer, unique as his entertainments might be. When he recovers his glass-shattering voice "I made little use of it: I didn't want to ruin my business". Later, he is embarrassed by this period in his life when "Oskar and his drum had become healers of the body and the soul. And what we cured best of all was loss of memory". The commercial world which raises him up brings him down, as he is sued for breach of contract by Dr. Dösch. The death of his mentor, Bebra, and the marriage of Klepp send him into a state of profound depression.
It is at this stage that Oskar finds the ring finger which he claims has belonged to Nurse Dorothea. This finger is the symbol of his lost potency. It is the "eleventh finger" which first declared its independent existence during fizz powder experiments with Maria. It is his third drumstick which has no more strength to drum. He keeps it as a reminder of his past achievements, preserving it in a jar of alcohol, or perhaps just drinking in order to remember. That he is forever cut off from his former glories, as the ring is cut off from its hand, is shown by the fact that he is separated from the finger. The love and marriage which are also symbolised by the finger are now equally beyond him. Oskar feels the decline in his powers and the bed in the mental hospital becomes his goal. Indirectly, the finger points the way, acting as part of the evidence against him in his trial for the murder of Nurse Dorothea. Oskar would rather be an imprisoned criminal than live in a world in which his drum is powerless to protest. Not that the drum has lost all its old skills. In one last desperate performance, it saves the life of Victor Weluhn by drumming up "Poland is not lost", thus routing his enemies. This unselfish act brings the novel full circle. Oskar has rescued Victor Weluhn in the same way that his grandmother rescued Joseph Kiljaiczek. While Oskar's music called up the history of Poland, Anna Bronski's skirts made the fleeing Joseph invisible beneath the four partitions of Poland.
Oskar's story is now over and the drum which has helped him to tell that story is exhausted by the effort. As the drum weakens, the influence of its counterpart, the Black Witch, swells. While the drum was carried before him, Oskar was able to keep the Black Witch behind him. Now she creeps up, kisses his hump and then comes to face him. The end, literally, is within sight. Oskar, for long the consort of those distant relatives of the Black Witch—Rasputin, Meyn, Leo Schugger, Raskolnikov, Bebra, and so on—now achieves a closer relationship with her than they. The apostle of vitality becomes the bridegroom of death: the artist with drum and voice now surrenders all his individuality to the final silence of the grave.
The Tin Drum, then, is far more than an exceptional debut: it is a fully-realised work of art. In the turbulent sea of its language, the themes and purposes of the book are miraculously saved from drowning by Grass. Like a contrary Canute, he can command the waves, can impose his authority on the loftiest surge. Again, he constantly beachcombs along the vast shore of his work, arranging what he finds into intriguing, related patterns. Objects dominate the novel. They control, influence, symbolise or in other ways reflect the behaviour of its characters. The tin drum itself is pivotal and the importance of other objects is affirmed in the table of contents. Very few of the chapter headings contain the names of the figures who people the novel. For the most part, it is a case of wide skirts, light bulbs, photograph albums, windows, schedules, rostrums, card houses, ring fingers, walls, preserving jars, scrap metal, clothes cupboards, tombstones, firestones and fibre rugs. These objects are joined in the story itself by many others of equal significance. They are representational details of that environment which Oskar first assesses, then rebels against, then reconciles himself to, then re-examines critically, then flees from. And in the course of it all, the drum does take him and us towards a measure of light and of truth.
Oskar the satirist, the clown, the picaro, the innocent, the secular Messiah, the practitioner of black arts, the folklore dwarf and the autobiographical figure are all contained in Oskar the historian who has taken on a challenging task: the writing of a report on the character and history of the German people in the twentieth century. It is not an objective report. It is wildly subjective, totally irreverent, and frequently cruel. And yet it has the power to effect moral responses in its author. Oskar may operate largely in a value-free sphere of his own creation, but has several moments when he makes moral judgements either in word or deed. One of the messages of his story is that which Seneca delivered nearly two thousand years earlier: "The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation" (Epistle 28). The recognition of wrong is the first step towards right. It is with such a recognition of wrong in Germany and the Germans that The Tin Drum is actively concerned.
The book has the defects of its virtues. Linguistic brilliance sometimes distracts from a serious point that is being made; the sheer number of characters sometimes diffuses the interest; the surrealistic flights are sometimes counter-productive; and the astonishing range of choice which is offered to the reader in the way of ideas and symbols and insights is occasionally too great to be assimilated. Also, as we have seen, there is a loss of power in the opening chapters of the Third Book so that, structurally, the novel resembles the coffin of Oskar's mother, which was tapered at the foot end. But these are minor reservations and dwindle into impertinence when we consider the strengths of The Tin Drum—its intelligence, its assurance, its wit, its vigour, its uninhibitedness, its invention, its tirelessness, its delineation of character, its bravery, its poetry, its profusion, its universality, its narrative magic. There is also the extreme care of its construction and a masterly skill in concealing that construction. The Tin Drum is an astounding demonstration of what it is possible to do within the novel form. It is the product of a rich, rococo imagination, a giant Gothic clocktower, extravagantly decorated, enclosing an impossibly complicated but delicate mechanism, and deeply, professionally, in love with time.
Let us end with a passage that is highly characteristic of the book. It shows a love of ambiguity and an urge to synthesize opposites. It presents us with what is, at one level, a rather revolting sight, but what becomes, at another, a beautiful and mysterious experience.
She, Roswitha, lay with me and was frightened. Oskar, on the other hand, was not frightened, and yet he lay with Raguna. Her fear and my courage brought our hands together. I felt her fear and she felt my courage. At length I became rather fearful, and she grew courageous. And after I had banished her fear and given her courage, my manly courage raised its head a second time. While my courage was eighteen glorious years old, she, in I know not what year of her life, recumbent for I know not the howmanieth time, fell a prey once more to the fear that aroused my courage. For like her face, her body, sparingly measured but quite complete, showed no trace of time. Timelessly courageous and timelessly fearful, Roswitha offered herself to me. And never will anyone learn whether that midget, who during a major air raid on the capital lost her fear beneath my courage in the buried Thomaskeller until the air-raid wardens dug us out, was nineteen or ninety years old; what makes it all the easier for Oskar to be discreet is that he himself has no idea whether this first embrace truly suited to his physical dimensions was conferred upon him by a courageous old woman or by a young girl made submissive by fear.
This passage offers us an Oskar who is at his most freakish, and yet who makes the reader identify easily with him. It shows Grass displaying his lyrical gift. In a cellar.
This section contains 14,029 words
(approx. 47 pages at 300 words per page)