Boy with a Tin Drum

In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York.

Wolff, who had left Germany in the 1930s, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.

'I'm thinking of publishing your book in America,' he said. 'Do you think the American reader will understand it?' 'I don't think so,' I replied. 'The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces —' 'Say no more,' he broke in. 'All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I'll bring it out in America.'

The American Tin Drum appeared in 1962 with Pantheon Books of New York, a firm founded by Wolff.

Later on, I was often urged to give some account of the origins of my first novel, but I didn't feel ready to sift through the circumstances and influences with a prying eye. I was almost frightened I might discover my own tricks.

Up to then I had written poetry and plays, as well as libretti for the ballet (my first wife Anna was a dancer). In 1956 Anna and I left Berlin and moved to Paris with the vague idea of writing a novel circulating in my mind. I took pleasure in art, enjoyed the varieties of form, and felt the urge to create an alternative reality on paper — in short, I had all the tools needed to undertake any artistic project, regardless of its nature.

If things had gone solely according to my own desires and instinct for play, I would have tested myself against purely aesthetic norms and found my role in the scurrilous. But I couldn't. There were obstacles. The gestation of German history had brought forth piles of rubble and dead bodies, a mass of material that, once I began to clear it away, only increased from book to book.

With the first sentence, 'Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution...,' the barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention, and an obsession with detail all flowed freely. Chapter after chapter arose, history offered local examples, I took on a rapidly proliferating family, and contended with Oskar Matzerath and those around him over the simultaneity of events and the absurd constraints of chronology; over Oskar's right to speak in the first or third person, over his true transgressions and his feigned guilt.

The Tin Drum struck a distinctly new tone in post-war German literature, one that was greeted with enthusiasm by many critics and with annoyance by others. The poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger offered this review in 1959:

'The Tin Drum knows no taboos... Again and again the narrative enters the forbidden sphere where disgust and sexuality, death and blasphemy meet.

'What differentiates Grass in this respect both from any form of pornography, and from the so-called 'stark realism' of the American school, what legitimises these blunt forays, indeed elevates them to acts of artistic brilliance, is the total objectivity with which he presents them.

'Unlike Henry Miller, Grass does not seek out taboos; he simply doesn't notice them. It would be unfair to accuse him of deliberate provocation. He neither avoids scandal nor invites it; but that is precisely what will give rise to scandal: Grass doesn't have a guilty conscience, he takes what we find shocking for granted.'

This passage shows the wide variety of responses my work evoked in the late fifties. As a result, from the very start of my career as a novelist, I was considered controversial.

The 'shocking' parts of The Tin Drum may have led translators and publishers in other countries to omit or shorten passages they believed their own readers might find disgusting or blasphemous. And some no doubt thought that by pruning this very long novel, written by a brazen young author who was still unknown, they could only improve it.

I thought highly of the late Ralph Manheim, and his translations of several of my works into English were marvellous, but both literary historians and translators indicated repeatedly that his translation of The Tin Drum needed revision. I heard the same thing about the early translations of The Tin Drum into other languages.

Thus, in the early summer of 2005, ten translators, including Breon Mitchell, joined me in Gdańsk with one set goal in mind: to create new versions of my first novel in their own languages. To prepare myself for their questions, I reread The Tin Drum for the first time since I'd written it, hesitantly at first, then with some pleasure, surprised at what the young author of 50 years ago had managed to put down on paper.

For eight days the translators from various lands questioned the author; for eight days the author talked with them, responded to their queries. During breaks I would take them to this or that spot mentioned in the rapidly shifting narrative of the novel.

How much more relaxed the reader's attitude towards The Tin Drum is today, even in Catholic countries like Poland, was evident one Sunday when the author and his translators visited the Church of the Sacred Heart in the Danzig suburb of Langfuhr, where I was born and raised. In my autobiographical memoir Peeling the Onion, I recounted the story:

And there, in this neo-Gothic scene of a youthful crime, a young priest with a cryptic smile, a man who bore not the faintest resemblance to Father Wiehnke, asked me to sign a Polish copy of the book in question, and the author, to the astonishment of his translators and editor, did not hesitate to place his name below the title. For it was not I who broke off the Christ Child's little watering can that day at the Altar of Our Lady. It was someone with a different will. Someone who had never renounced evil. Someone who did not wish to grow...

Günter Grass, Lübeck, January 2009

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