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Gunter Grass and his Critics: From 'The Tin Drum' to 'Crabwalk'.

Gunter Grass and his Critics: From 'The Tin Drum' to 'Crabwalk'. By SIEGFRIED MEWS. (Studies in German Literature, Linguistics and Culture: Literary Criticism in Perspective) Rochester, NY. Camden House. 2008. vii+426 pp. $90; 50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-1-57113-062-4.

Der Fall Grass: Ein deutsches Debakel. By WOLFGANG BEUTIN. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang. 2008. 192 pp. 18.50 [euro]; 12 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-3-631-57004-3.

Siegfried Mews's astoundingly well-researched critical overview of Gunter Grass's reception is an essential compendium for anybody working on the author's prose fiction. It illuminates the literary-critical reception of Grass in respect of all fifteen pieces of literary fiction and systematically analyses sources ranging from contemporary newspaper reviews in the German, US, and (to a lesser extent) UK and French press, through disparate research articles and chapters, to highly specialized monographs. Consideration of the media response to the 2006 autobiography has been added in the epilogue. Mews discreetly sifts and evaluates his press material and yet remains both substantially more inclusive and more critically focused than similar earlier studies (e.g. Blech getrommelt: Gunter Grass in der Kritik, ed. by Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Gottingen: Steidl, 1997)), so that his book stands out as a valuable tool for research. Particularly in the case of less celebrated works such as Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus and Unkenrafe, Mews significantly corrects the picture of their contemporary reception not just by recording positive reviews but also by stressing the different sympathies and priorities brought to the works in different geographical locations. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. In extending, both chronologically and spatially, Volker Neuhaus's critical overview of academic scholarship on each literary work (Gunter Grass (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992)), Mews systematically brings back to light forgotten insights expressed in early and not always easily accessible articles, as well as delineating the major themes, issues, and stylistic concerns that underpin academic debate up to the present. This is above all to be welcomed in respect of Grass's 'Danzig Trilogy', which has inspired a myriad of critical approaches and vastly differing interpretations over the years. Although the index is a little disappointing in a research companion of this calibre (terms such as 'religion'/'Christianity', 'politics', 'narrator'/'narration', 'teaching'/ 'pedagogy', 'masculinity', and 'gender' were all absent, despite their inclusion as interpretative categories in the text), Mews's sixty-page bibliography of secondary sources outclasses all other contemporary compilations on the author.

Nobody working on Grass in the future--at whatever level--can afford not to have a copy of this book to hand. However, it should be noted that Mews neither expresses any personal, overarching interpretations of either the author or his work, which it is probably unfair to expect from a companion of this sort, nor develops any obvious critique or theory regarding the critical reception as a phenomenon in its own right. This is an element or chapter one might more reasonably have hoped for, and some kind of wider interpretative framework might have helped guard against the obvious problems inherent in Mews's eclectic source material. Sources and voices begin to merge and compete in an at times rather bewildering manner if one tries to read the book as a narrative about Grass's authorial significance, while the very nature of Grass's relationship to his critics means that chapters can appear repetitive. By the same token, one hardly reads an encyclopedia from cover to cover, but is often incredibly grateful that it is there. Mews's critical compendium of source material fulfils just such a function, and every library with holdings in contemporary German literature should have a copy.

No such statement can be made about Wolfgang Beutin's Der Fall Grass: Ein deutsches Debakel. The book sets out to be a 'schmale kritische Schrift', but it soon reveals itself to be a Kampfschrift of the worst sort. Beutin's main argument appears to be that Grass is a shoddy writer, with hitherto unrecognized right-wing tendencies and a muddled and self-contradictory political presence that brings the entirely of post-war German society into disrepute. He avails himself of no recognizable critical apparatus in order to set about substantiating these claims. Not only does the book lack any bibliography, Beutin makes no reference to any other scholarly works on Grass throughout, and this despite the fact that he is nominally discussing Die Blechtrommel, Im Krebsgang, Beim Hauten der Zwiebel, and the 1968 collection of essays Uber das Selbstverstandliche, which includes many of the most frequently referenced political pieces from that period. Political antipathy evidently motivates most of what he writes: much, of course, is made of the 2006 Waffen-SS revelations, but Grass's support of NATO involvement in Kosovo in 1998 is also held against the author with tedious and often misplaced frequency. A thoroughly confused image of Grass as a political commentator emerges, based on the worst possible scholarly practice. Not only does Beutin limit himself almost exclusively to one small volume of speeches from the 1960s, entirely discounting the specifics of this decade and quoting out of context throughout, he also states as fact wild conspiracy theories about how the media and the German intellectual community propelled Grass to fame and have subsequently kept him in the spotlight. His literary criticism amounts to two chapters in which he tries to correct Grass's grammar and style. Yet Beutin's own text is exceedingly poorly written, lurching from tabular lists and bullet-point insertions to Bild-style sensationalist sentences, personal anecdote, and inappropriate political polemics. The introduction loses itself entirely in a bullet-point critique of contemporary German social policy, so that no overarching literary-critical argument can establish itself. The book's catchy title and appearance with Peter Lang may well mislead readers into purchasing a work with no academic credentials. This is probably the most disappointing aspect of Beutin's own 'debacle'.


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Author:Braun, Rebecca
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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