Still banging the tin drum German giant

John Reddick celebrates the work of new Nobel laureate Gunter Grass
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So they've given him the prize at last! Almost 40 years to the day since The Tin Drum rudely shattered the dour reconstructionist calm that followed the Nazi storm in (West) Germany, Gunter Grass has finally landed the Nobel Prize for Literature. Like all literary prizes, the Nobel has sometimes seemed to go to pygmies, but in Grass they have chosen a giant. And let's be clear that this stature rests squarely and solidly on the great trio of books now generally, if misleadingly, known as the "Danzig Trilogy": The Tin Drum and Dog Years, published in 1959 and 1963, and - sandwiched between them - the magnificent novella Cat and Mouse.

So they've given him the prize at last! Almost 40 years to the day since The Tin Drum rudely shattered the dour reconstructionist calm that followed the Nazi storm in (West) Germany, Gunter Grass has finally landed the Nobel Prize for Literature. Like all literary prizes, the Nobel has sometimes seemed to go to pygmies, but in Grass they have chosen a giant. And let's be clear that this stature rests squarely and solidly on the great trio of books now generally, if misleadingly, known as the "Danzig Trilogy": The Tin Drum and Dog Years, published in 1959 and 1963, and - sandwiched between them - the magnificent novella Cat and Mouse.

If we only had the works written after the Danzig Trilogy, we would happily regard Grass as a Major Writer, and cheerfully slot him into the top division of the post-war literary Bundesliga with the likes of Boll, Celan, Johnson and Walser. But the Danzig Trilogy puts him into a different league altogether, where he comfortably rubs shoulders with the likes of Proust, Beckett, Kafka, Joyce.

Looking back on Grass's career as a whole, it is easy to be mesmerised by the sheer scale and impact of his political involvement since the mid Sixties. Since at least the 18th century, Germany has had a powerful tradition of the writer as "conscience of the nation" and beacon in the darkness, and no one has grafted more resolutely or enduringly than Grass with his exhausting stints on the SPD election campaign trail, his vivid political pamphlets, his stand-up-and-be-counted response to every political crisis and challenge in his own country - and often in others too. All this is breathtakingly admirable (though in Germany it has earned him endless brickbats from every imaginable quarter over the past 30-odd years). But it has nothing whatever to do with his greatness as a writer. On the contrary, it was his ever more dogged commitment to a particular political vision for his country - in a nutshell: reformism as against revolutionism - that arguably transmuted ineffable genius into mere laudable talent. There are many unforgettable passages in post-Danzig-Trilogy works such as Local Anaesthetic, Diary of a Snail, The Flounder, but all are ultimately bridled and diminished by their relentlessly political agenda: beautifully belled and baubled circus-horses, as against the snorting stallions of the Danzig Trilogy.

The Nobel Prize citation particularly lauds The Tin Drum as a world-class novel. But what makes it so very special? More specifically: how did it blast its way so dramatically into the public's consciousness (thereby propelling Grass with phenomenal speed from obscurity into worldwide renown)? Not least important was that West Germany itself was burstingly ripe for such an explosion: the heads-down-and-get-on-with-it mentality that had followed the currency reform was starting to ease; the Wirtschaftswunder was rapidly taking shape; in particular, a post-Hitler generation was growing to maturity and on the verge of asking that powder-keg question: "Papa, what did you do in the war?"

Related to this is the crucial factor of Grass's own age. Born in 1927, he witnessed Hitler's 12-year millennium from the vantage point of a child: he saw it all, but was responsible for nothing. Had he been born 10 years later, he would have been too young to take it in; born 10 years earlier, he could only have been either an accomplice or an exile. It was perhaps Grass's prime master-stroke to structure his whole novel on the basis of a child's-eye perspective (this hadn't always been his plan: his original conception was an epic poem recounted from the vantage point of a stylite, a pillar-dweller!). It was a further master-stroke to make the child-narrator even more freakish and fraudulent than the world he inhabits: no other writer has remotely matched Grass's achievement in conveying the unspeakable monstrousness of Hitler's Germany by refracting it through the all-seeing eye of an apparent monster: a physically retarded little runt who purports to have been born omniscient and clairvoyant - and who introduces himself to us on the very first page as both lunatic and liar.

The often repellently alienating stance of Oskar Matzerath, the narrator, is of course doubly a ploy: a brilliant ploy of Oskar's within the fiction to protect himself from a hostile world - and a brilliant ploy of Grass's vis-a-vis his reader. What this narrative stratagem means for us as readers is that what we see in the foreground is so to speak a vast and filth- smeared plateglass-window on which Oskar scrawls his various scabrous graffiti - while beyond the glass we glimpse a constant shadow-play of quite different shapes and movements and possibilities. It is in this infinite suggestiveness that the true power of the novel lies. Again and again, for instance, we feel through the very rhythm of the words a warmth and humanity completely at odds with the unconcern professed by the apparently amoral narrator. And for all Oskar's air of brashness, there is a passion and poetry behind it that often can move you to tears. This is particularly true in the case of the infamously "disgusting" passages such as the depiction of the grinningly putrid horse's head full of pullulating eels, followed by the very smell and sliminess of Agnes Matzerath's vomit: a literally nauseating episode, yet also the introit to a haunting fable in which Agnes sees a fathomless abyss open up before her, and duly plunges into it.

If it is a criterion of Great Art that it remain inexhaustible and reward any number of visits, The Tin Drum certainly qualifies. Like a fine diamond, it gleams with a different iridescence each time you look at it. It has no single meaning or message - not for us, and not for Gunter Grass either. It has a plurality of messages that we are at liberty to extract and cart away with us; but then we leave the essence behind. Conceived originally as poetry, this great book calls us back again and again just as a great piece of music does: we need to hear its rhythms, feel its beat, see its colours, smell its smells. This truly is a Nobel Prize-worthy miracle: if you've never yet read it, go and buy it straightaway.

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