With Gunter Grass, who just died at age 87, I had a brief friendship. I translated for him on a popular radio show, and I introduced him at his reading at the Y. I also met his charming first wife, Anna, a Swiss dancer, and acquiesced in his friendly cavil: why must I everywhere find some fault, i.e., be hypercritical (though not of him). Our ways parted amicably, and there was no further contact. Incidentally: can a critic be hypercritical? An architect, hyperarchitectural? An ophthalmologist, hyperocular?
He was a major writer. Though of interest in his early poems and later plays, and of real charm in his drawings (I never saw his sculptures), it was with two of his early novels, “The Tin Drum” and “Dog Years,” that he achieved international stature: two novels of lasting luster, both of which I reviewed with due enthusiasm. Later, even as good a novel as “The Flounder” seemed a bit overlong: too many over-drawn-out parts among the indisputably brilliant ones.
He did also publish his political writings, many of them stomping speeches for Willy Brandt, but political writings tend to be primarily of specific, temporary interest, and only secondarily transcending into universality, into permanence.
Especially remarkable in his later years was his outing of himself. That he had been a member of the Hitler Youth can be readily excused, comparable to our youthful joining of the Boy Scouts. But subsequent time in the Waffen-SS was less innocuous, even if, as the Times obituary pointed out, it was “near the end of the war, and [he] was never accused of atrocities, [though] the fact that he had obscured the crucial point of his background while flagellating his fellow Germans for cowardice set off cries of outrage.”
There was something likable even in Grass’s appearance. It is nice when an artist makes no attempt to look like one, avoiding the aura of regimentation of even that harmless bohemian kind. Grass was of medium stature, rather stocky, and with a walrus mustache more befitting a German general or emperor. That, and a certain glint in his gaze, gave him the aspect of a canny peasant whose wit had let him ascend to the ranks of the solid bourgeoisie, which in Germany has a way of looking even more bourgeois than its equivalent in other countries. He rather reminded me of the successful upstart Lopakhin in Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard.”
No other major novelist since Rabelais has, to my knowledge, made as much of eating—indeed gourmandising—as Gunter Grass has. And not only eating, but also cooking. He was himself a pretty good cook. Consider the following, from the memoirs of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s preeminent literary critic. Not especially fond of Grass’s writing, R-R nevertheless accepted a dinner invitation from Grass: “He would, with his own hand, prepare a meal for us [R-R and his wife, Tosia]. I accepted despite my memory of a soup made by Grass, which I had recklessly eaten in the summer of 1965, on the occasion of the wedding of . . . Walter Hoellerer . . . . It had tasted disgusting. I expected the worst. But then a critic must have courage. . . . He served us fish. Now I hate and fear fishbones. And I did not realize that there existed any fish with quite so many bones. . . . Anyway, it was both a torture and a delight. Undistinguished as he may have been as a producer of soup, he was magnificent with fish. The meal was risky but tasty—and it had no ill effects whatsoever either for Tosia or myself. Yet it had some consequences. What was left of the fish, mainly its numerous bones, was sketched by grass the following day. And very soon this fish was at the center of a novel by him. It was a flounder.”
I would guess that having a grocer father was that much more likely to produce an esurient son. And so we have cooks popping up everywhere in his writings, most notably in the play, “The Evil Cooks.” But also in “The Flounder,” where we get a wonderful of nine (or eleven) noteworthy female cooks through the ages, some real some fictitious. Hence the “or eleven.” As the critic Peter Demetz put it, Grass “initially intended to write a prose epic about the primary role of food in world history, but that at a later stage, coming to grips with an irrepressible crew of formidable women—some fictional, some real—who did the world’s important cooking, he confronted recent feminist ideas about women in culture at large. “The Flounder” is an ample, exuberant, and skillfully structured narrative about eating, cooking, procreating, women and a cunning fish . . .”
The book contains among other things, as Patrick O’Neill has written, “a generous selection of recipes for outlandish dishes,” but all sorts of details deal indirectly with food. In reviewing “The Flounder,” John Updike has written, “when at the end [Ilsebill]’s husband/narrator, watching her undergo a Caesarian operation, notes that ‘I also saw how yellow, like duck fat, Ilsebill’s belly fat is. A piece of it crumbled off and I could have fried two eggs on it,’ his tortuously ramifying theme of food is brought to a point that hurts.” This passage exemplifies Grass’s important use of the grotesque, and the way he so often manages to use springboards leaping back to food or cooking.”
Of equal importance is that he is writing fables, i.e., books in which there is an element of the fabulous. And fables almost always feature symbolic animals. Observe only his titles, in which cat, mouse, dog, toad, female rat, flounder, and snail make their appearances, even if the mouse is only a hypertrophic Adam’s apple, and the toad only a voice. These animals live; the flounder talks, the snail keeps a diary.
Eventually Grass got what was long prophesied for him, the Nobel Prize, although by that time most of his books were also seriously questioned and even, as in the case of “My Century,” poorly reviewed. Nor did it matter that he reused some of his subjects, as, for instance, the grinding poverty of Calcutta appearing in both his fiction and nonfiction.
My own notice of “The Tin Drum” for Partisan Review and reprinted in my collection “The Sheep from the Goats,” as well as being the lead essay in Patrick O’Neill’s anthology “Critical Essays on Gunter Grass,” satisfies me upon rereading, as not all of my earlier writings do, though some amaze me with their prescience. I recognized in Grass what Salman Rushdie did in his introduction to “On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983.” He spoke of “books which give [writers] permission to travel . . . become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be. A passport is a kind of book.” And, inversely, a book can be a kind of passport.
It has been pointed out that Grass was a precursor of the “magic realism” that came to us much later from writers in South America. As Rushdie observes, what the wildest fantasy leads to may seem on one level absurd, but is hopeful underneath. And thus liberating.
P.S.: I regret not having the umlaut for the U in Gunter. The customary substitute, an added E as in Guenter, seemed to me awkward and alienating.