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Gunther Grass berated for scorning united Germany

Tony Barber reports on the controversy surrounding the distinguished no velist after his new book challenges the moral basis of his country's rebirth
The sour odour of bitchy controversy polluted the atmosphere of German letters this week as Gunter Grass, the nation's most famous living author, traded abuse with its most influential literary critics.

The cause of the row was Mr Grass's latest novel, Ein weites Feld (A Broad Field), which is to be officially published on Monday, and whose weighty themes, treated in 781 pages, are the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Germany's subsequent unification.

Mr Grass, 67, is well-known for his view that Germany lost the moral right to unification as a result of the horrors perpetrated in the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War. However, the critics insist that they dislike his newest book not because of its political messages but because it is, in their view, poorly written and not very interesting.

This may not bother Mr Grass too much, because his novel's first print run of 100,000 has already sold out. "Those who write me off should take care that they don't get written off themselves," he growled in a television interview on Thursday.

The loudest dog snapping at Mr Grass's heels is Marcel Reich-Ranicki, 75, a critic so powerful that few German authors receive word that he has savaged their work without cursing his name. In a review published in the latest edition of the news magazine Der Spiegel, Mr Reich-Ranicki remarks acidly: "My dear Gunter Grass, I have to say that I find your novel to be a complete and utter failure."

However, either at the prompting of Der Spiegel or on his own initiative, the critic also allowed himself to be pictured on the front cover of the magazine tearing a copy of Mr Grass's novel in half. The image was possibly too strong for a country where the Nazis staged ritual burnings of books, and it was certainly too strong for Mr Grass.

"I do not wish to contribute to a magazine which depicts on its cover the horrific act of ripping up a book," said the author, after denying Der Spiegel permission to publish an interview with him about the novel.

A comprehensive thumbs-down for the book also appeared in Die Zeit, the extremely serious Hamburg weekly. Its reviewer, Iris Radisch, kicked her article off with the words: "Who is going to read this? Of their own free will and right to the end? This book is unreadable."

Mr Grass broke new ground for the German novel with his rumbustious early novels, Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), and Hundejahre (Dog Years), published in 1959 and 1963.

For some critics in Germany, however, his pronounced left-wing views have intruded too obviously into his later works.