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Günter Grass. On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983. Trans. Ralph Manheim. San Diego: Harcourt, 1985. 157 pp. $13.95.
Dennis Tate. The East German Novel: Identity, Community, Continuity. New York: St. Martin's, 1984. 264 pp. $21.95.

Günter Grass, one of West Germany's most widely read and acclaimed authors, enjoys great popularity beyond the confines of the German-speaking world. His [End Page 335] novels have appeared in English translation almost immediately after their publication in German. Recently, translations of his nonfiction have begun to appear as well. On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983 is a collection of essays and addresses organized into two sections. The first, "On Writing," consists of essays reprinted from various journals; the second, "On Politics," is comprised primarily of speeches delivered not only in West Germany but also in various major European cities outside Germany.

Grass's essays on writing include two pieces that focus on Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, whom Grass characterizes as his mentor. The first, "Döblin, My Teacher," is a tribute to the relatively unknown novelist, whom Grass admires primarily, it would seem, for his ability to live with contradictions. Döblin's futurist novel Mountains, Oceans, and Giants provides the prism through which Grass contemplates the Utopian novel.

Franz Kafka is the ostensible subject of another of Grass's essays on writing, "Kafka and His Executors." However, this essay might just as well have been included among the pieces on politics, for it is essentially a meditation on the "structures to which, quite apart from military, economic, and ideological power, the societies of East and West are more subject than ever." Conceived as a series of remarks on the tenth anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia, "Kafka and His Executors" elaborates the inextricable, though too often unacknowledged, connections between literature and politics, the contemporary significance of Kafka's vision of bureaucracy, and the dangers implicit in a bureaucratic and technocratic view of progress.

The remaining two essays classified under the rubric "On Writing" are essentially retrospectives on Grass's own writings. "The Tin Drum in Retrospect or the Author as Dubious Witness" recollects the process through which Grass's earliest and still most famous novel came into being; and "What Shall We Tell Our Children," possibly the most complex and richest of the essays collected here, may best be read as a companion-piece to From the Diary of a Snail.

The speeches that constitute the section "On Politics" all exhibit Grass's commitment to a politics of evolution and his aversion not only to the rhetoric and practice of revolution but also to other ideologically based forms of political extremism. A careful reading of "On Politics" makes it clear, however, that this aversion is not so much a variant of liberal indecisiveness as it is a result of insight into the inadequacy of universal and totalizing solutions to problems that are concrete, socially specific, and particular.

Grass's criticism of universalizing ideologies combined with his real commitment to social change makes him one of the most convincing critics of the patterns of thought and behavior that justify and even affirm the resurgence of the Cold War in the contemporary world. For this reason alone he would be worth reading. But there is much more to Günter Grass, and especially for the reader of his novels in translation, the essays carefully selected and beautifully translated by Ralph Manheim add a dimension to one's understanding of one of Germany's outstanding authors.

Dennis Tate's The East German Novel is a valuable introduction to the development of prose fiction in the German Democratic Republic. Tate's project is more ambitious than it seems at first glance; essentially he attempts to reconstruct the history of literature in the German Democratic Republic by a series of analyses [End Page 336] of twenty major works of fiction. The broad framework for the study is historical, although the arrangement of the works analyzed is not strictly chronological. He groups works of literature within categories corresponding to various stages in the development of the concepts of identity, community, and continuity...

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