Günter Grass, the towering German writer who has died age 87, called himself many things: toad, dinosaur, “notorious pessimist”. Yet this was the same man whom the Nobel committee in 1999 praised for giving German literature “a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction” with his first novel, “The Tin Drum”, published 40 years before. He could be caustic and lyrical, arrogant and kind, a mass of seeming contradiction. Yet one through-line animated his extraordinary life: he never wavered in his role as a member of that vanishing breed, the public intellectual.
He was a polarising figure in post-war Germany, a kind of national Cassandra who stirred controversy from the moment he turned from making art and sculpture to fiction. The obituaries seesaw between branding him a giant and a hypocrite; because Grass, the great moral authority of the social democratic left, hid his own wartime membership in an elite SS military unit for decades. The belated revelation tarnished his reputation for good, much as his East German counterpart, Christa Wolf, was calumnied for her role in her nation's darkest chapters.
In the diary he kept in 1990, a year in which he campaigned vigorously against German reunification, Grass revealed how deeply he feared the madness of nationalism. Why, he asked, did the new Germany “always have to be so grand, so Wagnerian?” Like many of the perpetrator generation he was haunted by the Nazi past; only in 2006 did it become clear that he, too, personally incarnated its tortured silences. But as was his way, in every polemical intervention he made, Grass the writer and thinker was unrepentant. He said what he thought, even when it was unpalatable, using his prominence to utter what he felt it his duty to say.
In this reckless truth-telling it seems to me he bears more than a passing resemblance to his own first fictional creation: three-year-old Oskar Matzerath, the protagonist of “The Tin Drum” who resolves not to grow up. The minute his first novel appeared Grass was accused of airing Germany’s dirtiest linen; the novel was attacked and even burned by young Christians in Düsseldorf. The grotesque portrayal of his countrymen's march into fascism and the repression of Nazi crimes after the war was too close for comfort for many in a society busy building Germany’s “economic miracle”. From the start he was the one who “spat in the soup”, who “fouled his own nest”. In the role of national troublemaker he was consistent to the end: in 2012, he published a poem criticising Israeli policy that was blasted as anti-Semitic.
Yet inside the strident crank was another Grass: the artist, gifted with a creativity both naturalistic and surreal. His language circled and wended like the creatures to which he so frequently compared it, and which he exquisitely drew: legions of snails and eels and fish and toads. Paging through volumes of his drawings and sculpture, one is stunned at his virtuosity. His was a protean creativity, a fact the Swedish Academy understood when likening his stature to that of his countryman Thomas Mann. Reading his diary, one can’t help feel he was more at ease with cooking and drawing, forming and shaping, than with people.
Yet the outpouring of grief at his death today shows that the private Grass touched many, too. He was a staunch defender of freedom of expression and fellow authors. One was Salman Rushdie, who used Twitter to convey his sorrow at losing “a true giant, an inspiration, a friend.”
“Drum for him, little Oskar,” he ended.