Academic journal article German Quarterly

Gunter Grass Revisited

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Gunter Grass Revisited

Article excerpt

O'Neill, Patrick. Gunter Grass Revisited. Twayne's World Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1999. 184 pp. $32.00.

In the original volume on Gunter Grass in the Twayne World Authors series, Gordon Cunliffe introduced students to a writer who seemed for a while destined to keep contemporary German literature alive in the curricula of North American colleges and universities. The time was 1969; Hermann Hesse was very much in vogue, Nelly Sachs had recently shared the Nobel Prize for literature, and the bizarre novels now known as the Danzig Trilogy had captured the attention of virtually every Germanist and, thanks to the remarkably sensitive translations of Ralph Manheim, of wide audiences of general readers, as well. Many readers of the German Quarterly will remember the April 13,1970, cover of Time with Grass as dentist on its cover, celebrating the advent on these shores of his latest bestseller, Ortlich betdaubt, as a kind of affirmation of our intellectual worth, of the relevance of our passion for German letters.

Thirty years later, and despite the faithful efforts of Harcourt Brace and the sustained brilliance of Ralph Manheim until his death in 1992, North American appreciation of Grass seems largely frozen at that earlier juncture. Die Blech.trommel, Katz and Maus, perhaps Ortlich betaubt still resonate, but who has time in a single semester to work through Der Butt, Die Rattin, or the 800 pages of Ein weites Feld? It is not a matter of size alone, of course. The middle novels seemed to many to sacrifice narrative power for domestic German political polemics, the later novels to indulge in dreary and apocalyptic visions, the most recent to offer only gray and doddering substitutes for the outrageous but vivid characters of the original trilogy. Even at scholarly conferences, where once large sessions would be animated by a shared familiarity with each new work, now discussions in ever smaller numbers often taper off with acknowledgments that many start but few finish these notoriously difficult texts.

Cheerfully undaunted by all this, and driven by his own conviction in the growing importance of Grass as literary artist, O'Neill has crafted a wade mecum that just might remind readers-whether they encounter Grass in German or in translation-of what a rich, relevant, and above all consistent writer he has been. In straightforward fashion, O'Neill's fourteen chapters chronologically guide us through the plays, the poems, the ballet experiments and, of course, the novels. …

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