The latest Grass novel, which returns once more to his birthplace Danzig and the Gdansk which it has become, has taken the full Reich-Ranicki blast. It is one of Grass's thin novels, lean on characterisation but tall on fabular significance. It is not like The Tin Drum and those other fat novels which carry the reader away on a deluge of writhing, reeking, infinitely fertile detail and description. But Grass has always written thin books as well as fat ones, and he has been producing clever political fables for a great many years. This one is not as good as, for example, The Snail, but its central idea is at once cunning, revealing and ominous.
An elderly German widower, returning to his birthplace in Danzig/Gdansk, falls in love with a Polish widow. Both are employed by the past: he as a historian, she as a gilder and restorer. Visiting the overgrown German cemetery, they are seized by an original idea: why should the German exiles, the old Danzigers, not return in death to their native soil? Their homesickness would be relieved, while their dangerous and impossible claim that Danzig itself should return to Germany would be defused. So they set up a company, at first charitable, to establish a graveyard for Germans.
The novel is about how this project goes gradually askew. Initially, it is a dazzling success. But as time passes it falls into the hands of Germans and Poles who think only of profit and expansion. There are special hotels for funeral families, and then holiday bungalows for Germans, and then whole tracts of countryside reserved for luxurious German condominium settlements and golf courses. Those who grow uneasy are rebuked by the German project managers for lacking the true European spirit and relapsing into petty nationalism. Yes, Grass knows his own people all too well. Nobody concerned about the unpredictable future of the German-Polish relationship, after liberation and unification, will sleep quite as soundly after reading this novel.
The toads crawl enigmatically about the sparse undergrowth of the book, croaking out a lament of good hopes foreseeing their shipwreck. Grass is something of an engaging Mr Toad himself. As his critics know, he is easy to wind up. I remember a student audience, years ago, which managed to deflate him by chanting: 'Grass, Du Krote] Halt Dich nicht fur Goethe]' ('Grass, you Toad, stop thinking you're Goethe]'). All the same, this novel is being battered in Germany not because Grass has become a windbag with nothing to say but - just the contrary - because in the swollen-headed climate after unification he is saying something mocking and pessimistic about German good intentions.
This is the last time we will read Ralph Manheim's translation of a Grass work, for Manheim - the most important renderer from German since Edwin and Willa Muir gave us Kafka - died a few weeks ago. But Koeppen's translator, Michael Hofmann, is also phenomenally good, and contributes an introduction to A Death in Rome, this forgotten novel from the 1950s. Wolfgang Koeppen, who began his career in the 1920s, was an anti-Nazi who went to ground in Germany during the Nazi period rather than emigrating: in consequence, he was unfashionable in a post-war West German literary world which wanted an entirely fresh start. His novels in that period, structured with all the artifice and polish of an older period, were ignored for many years. Their irony was too sharp, and wounds were still too raw.
A Death in Rome is the gathering, part-planned, part-accidental, of a German family some 10 years after the collapse of the Third Reich. They meet in Rome, still in the 1950s a wonderful stage-set for dramas of self-discovery. Here is the dreadful Pfaffrath, an old Nazi mayor who is still in power in 'democratic' West Germany, and his tormented son Siegfried who has tried to escape his family by becoming a composer of contemporary music. Here is Judejahn, the SS veteran of murder and massacre, visiting Rome in the thinnest of disguises from his refuge with some Arab government. Here is his fanatical Valkyrie wife Eva, and here his crushed son Adolf who - much like his cousin Siegfried - has fled his background to become, in his case, a priest.
The cast assembles: then, on this Roman stage, the drama begins. Hofmann remarks, accurately, that it is really a choreography. Stylised, dazzling, at moments brutally violent or sexual, Koeppen's novel winds his characters through their dance to its climax in double death. The stylisation applies also to family and individuals: no German clan ever included quite so many assorted Nazi villains, while the characterisation belongs to the pre-war symbolic school to which Mann's The Magic Mountain belongs: The Artist, The Priest, The Man of Blood and Action, and so forth. Forty years ago, this may have seemed out of date. Today, Koeppen's novel demonstrates just how good that literature could be.