Grass, Gunter: The Tin Drum

The Proposer of “the Tin Drum “introduced the book, which had been recommended to him by a German friend as an example of a rich literary tradition within Germany.

 This controversial assertion sparked some debate and momentarily diverted the group from its consideration of “the Tin Drum”.

 Getting back on task the proposer found the book challenging, a “difficult read”. Complex and somewhat disjointed. The novel is based on the life of Oscar Matzerath who decided at the age of three to stop growing by throwing himself down stairs. He communicates through his tin drum and by means of other “gifts”. He considers himself as both Jesus and the devil.

 The story is narrated by Oscar who is an inmate of a mental institution. It is a complex mélange of fact and fiction, partly autobiographical, dealing with guilt and loss in equal measure.

 It was published in 1959 and translated into English by Ralph Manheim a couple of years later to international acclaim. Grass initiated a new translation to mark the 50th anniversary of its first publication and Breon Mitchell undertook this work. The new translation is generally considered to have captured much more of the subtlety of Grass’s use of language.

 The group discussed this further with some having read the original translation while others had read the Mitchell version. One member who had read the original felt that he had missed a great deal but thought that any translation from German into English is likely to lose some meaning. Examples of where improvements had been made in the Mitchell version were shared, in particular in sentences where words were used to mimic the sound of the drumbeat.

 The Proposer gave a brief overview of the author’s family background, explaining the importance of this to providing an insight into the source of Grass’s story. He was born in Danzig in 1927 of Polish-German parents. They ran a grocery shop through the years of the depression. Gunter’s mother had the greater influence on him encouraging him to pursue his “talents” while his father wanted him to become an engineer.

 He left school at 15 and was conscripted into the Waffen SS, wounded at the age of 17 while serving with a Panzer Division and interred as an American Prisoner of War.

It was when in captivity and in the years immediately after the war that he first began to question his support for the German cause and to acquire the feelings of guilt and shame which lie at the heart of much of his early work.

 With Danzig mostly destroyed Grass became a refugee following his “talents” via stonemasonry, to Art College where he studied sculpture and graphics and eventually to writing. He was a lifelong Social Democrat though no longer a party member. He opposed the unification of Germany on the basis that there would be a risk that a unified country would revert to the behaviors that brought about the Second World War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 and now aged 84 he lives in Berlin.

Returning to the Group discussion it was confirmed that most, if not all, agreed that it had proved to be a difficult read. Some had read the book before and found that a second reading helped them to better appreciate and understand the complexity of the book. Everyone recognized and admired the quality of the writing but there was a unanimous view that the book was too long, that it was episodic with several chapters almost standing alone as if short stories. 

 The Group endeavored to compare the book with others but concluded that it was a “one off”. No one confessed to reading any of Grass’s subsequent books and given that the “Cat and Mouse” (1961) and the “Dog Years”(1963) were, together with the Tin Drum, known as the Danzig trilogy it was suggested that these would have to be read before a comparison can be made. There was little enthusiasm for this idea!

 The group puzzled over how the book had been conceived and whether or not it had been planned. While chronology gave it some structure it was pointed out that there remains a randomness and lack of coherence. One member described the writing as a “creative ferment of ideas and images” but also applauded the imaginative use of wordplay eg “brain explodes on to page”.

Some members appreciated the allegorical approach adopted by Grass while others felt it was overdone. Most were impressed by the imagery, sarcasm, and moral ambiguity that pervades the novel and serves to add layers of complexity to what is a very complicated story.

 The purpose behind the use of a three-year-old child (Oscar) to narrate the story was discussed and it was agreed that this enabled Grass to deal with the difficult issue of responsibility. The observational position given to Oscar allowed him to more freely comment on what was happening around him and it was suggested that being a three year old enabled Oscar to remain unnoticed and to avoid being accused by anyone for his actions.

 Some members remarked on the book’s pervasive sense of futility and on the use of humour that often had an unpleasant edge. They considered the book to be overrated, better received by people outside Germany than by German people themselves. It was suggested that the reason that the book was so warmly welcomed by the English speaking community was because it acknowledged guilt and expressed shame about Germany’s role through the events of the war and postwar years.

 It was mentioned that some critics regarded the book as blasphemous and pornographic when it was first published. This drew much protest from certain members who were particularly incredulous about the suggestion that the book was pornographic. The loudest protest came from those members of the group who have demonstrated in the past a startling liking for what many would describe as racy literature. 

 A more sympathetic explanation for the strength of feeling was eventually attributed to the differences in the two translations with the later Breon Mitchell translation restoring some overtly sexual references thought to be too shocking for British readers 50 years ago.

 In conclusion the book was highly regarded by some but not by all. While everyone considered it to be too long they all admired the quality of the writing and the complex treatment of difficult issues. The majority agreed that while the book had been a challenging read it had been worth persevering with.