Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Showing, Telling and Believing: Gunter Grass's 'Katz Und Maus and Narratology

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Showing, Telling and Believing: Gunter Grass's 'Katz Und Maus and Narratology

Article excerpt

Pilenz, the narrator of Katz und Maus, is someone for whom writing is an existential need: 'Ich schreibe, denn das muss weg. Zwar ist es angenehm, Artistik auf weissem Papier zu betreiben--aber [...] was nu tzt alle Zauberei mit der Grammatik; und schriebe ich alles klein und ohne Interpunktion, ich musste dennoch sagen [...]', and he goes on to describe what happened when his fellow fifth-former Mahlke made off with a military decoration belonging to someone else:

[...] ich musste dennoch sagen: Mahlke verstaute das Ding nicht in der ehemaligen Funkerkabine des ehemaligen polnischen Minensuchbootes "Rybitwa", hangte den Apparat nicht zwischen den Marschall Pilsudski und die schwarze Madonna, nicht ubers todkranke Grammophon und die verwesende Schnee-Eule, [...] brachte [den Orden] durch die Luke im Vorschiff wieder ans Licht, stieg mit seinem Gehange in die Badehose, schwamm mit mir in ausgeglichenem Tempo zur Badeanstalt zuruck und schmuggelte das Stuck Eisen in geschlossener Hand an Schilling, an Hotten Sonntag, an Tulla Pokrief ke, an den Tertianern vorbei in seine Badezelle im Herrenbad. (1)

This passage first says what kind of writer Pilenz is, and then enacts it. Pilenz is driven to write; and by virtue of that compulsion he is indentured to a minute empirical realism, which saturates the following sentence with the contingent details of the episode, and fills the novella as a whole with enough archaeological data of material life to fill a whole archive of Danzig Alltagsgeschichte in the Second World War. Thus driven and committed, Pilenz puts behind him the experimental and non-realist tendencies displayed in his juvenilia (another character later refers to his 'Kafkaesque' early poems and short stories (KM, p. 99)), and immerses himself in material memory, even considering, at one point, rubbing the keys of his typewriter in onion juice, '[um] ihr wie mir eine Ahnung jenes Zwiebelgeruchs [zu] vermitteln, der in jenen Jahren ganz Deutschland, Westpreussen, Langfuhr, die Osterzeile wie die Westerzeile verpestete' (KM, p. 95).

Pilenz's tenacious commitment to material detail is something readers will recognize as a quality he shares with his creator Grass. Indeed Grass is known for such plenitude and excess of material description that, even without counting the fantastic vein that runs through the dense mass of prosaic detail, his work frequently would appear to tip over into a kind of hallucinatory hyper-realism. However, it is not on the grounds of his affinity with, or anticipation of, the magic realists that I draw back from attributing to Grass precisely the same attitude to writing that he gives to his narrator Pilenz, with nothing added and nothing taken away. Rather, I would emphasize a feature of the story that distinguishes his attitude from that of his imagined narrator-figure. This is the strong formal interest that is at work here, one qualifying Katz und Maus, if not as an example of experimental writing exactly, then at any rate as a piece of narratological fiction. By this, I understand a story that is self-conscious about its narratological choices to a degree where the text not only works with them to get the invention off the ground, as every piece of narration must, but where the elaboration of the original narratological constellation in the structure and texture of the story amounts to an extended reflection on the work's own narratological first principles.

It is known that Grass turned to the composition of Katz und Maus when the Hundejahre project was foundering on a narratological difficulty, and that writing the shorter work enabled him to get the longer one afloat again. (2) For Grass, Katz und Maus thus evidently served as a piece of narratological therapy, a relatively self-contained exercise to help him regain and extend his control of narrative technique. This would explain the unusual measure of literary self-consciousness with which Katz und Maus is constructed. …

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