by Ted Gioia
In the aftermath of World War II, Oskar
Matzerath—the diminutive protagonist of Günter
Grass's
The Tin Drum—embarks on an intense
program of self-improvement.  "I educated myself
at almost no cost in the company of thousands
determined to learn, to make up for the education
they'd missed, took courses in night school,
…discussed collective guilt with Catholics and
Protestants, shared that guilt with all who thought:  
Let’s get it over with now, be done with it, and
later, when things get better, there'll be no need to
feel guilty."

Alas, novelist Grass might
have done better to follow
this same approach. Instead
Grass waited until 2006
before revealing that, more
than a half-century earlier,
he had been a member of
the Waffen-SS, a military
branch under the direct
control of the Nazi Party.  
Shockwaves reverberated
throughout the literary
world in response to Grass's
admission—previously readers had assumed that
Grass, only 17 when the war ended, had been too
young to serve as an active participant.  Yet the
novelist now explained that he had attempted
unsuccessfully to enlist in the U-boat fleet at age 15,
was drafted into the Waffen-SS in 1944, and served
as an assistant tank gunner in a panzer division.  

Some influential supporters rushed to the novelist’s
defense, asserting that a teenager's misjudgment
should not invalidate the achievements of a long
and illustrious career. "The man (and the writer) is
a model of soul-searching and national conscience,"
John Irving wrote at the time.  "Grass is a daring
writer, and he has always been a daring man. Was
he not putting himself at risk—first at 15, then at
17? And now, once again, at age 79? And, once
again, the cowardly small dogs are snapping at his
heels."  Yet many others were deeply disturbed by
the revelations.  After all, Grass was not just an
illustrious writer, but one whose reputation was
built, in large part, on his zeal in berating and
holding up to derision those who refused to take
full ownership for Germany's Nazi past.  

In the words of journalist Joachim Fest, Grass had
"set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug
one"—a stance that not only sold books, and gained
him renown, but earned Grass a Nobel Prize for
literature in 1999.  In granting the award, the
Swedish Academy specifically cited Grass’s courage
in "recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the
victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget
because they had once believed in them."  After the
revelations of 2006, these words became imbued
with unintentional irony.

How does Grass’s complicity impact our
interpretation of
The Tin Drum, the caustic 1959
novel that serves as the cornerstone of his oeuvre?  
If anything, our understanding of Grass past
intensifies the reading experience.  The distance
between author Günter and protagonist Oskar is
diminished, and the rapier wit of the writer takes on
the added edge—whether deliberately or
unwittingly, who can tell?—of self-criticism.  A
novel that bravely bridged the gap between personal
responsibility and collective responsibility, takes on
the overtones of a forced confession.

If Grass had been looking for a protagonist to cast
shame and derision on the German mindset of the
first half of the 20th century, he could have hardly
chosen a more fitting symbol than his tin drummer
Oskar.  Was Oskar manly and  proudly Aryan, a
fitting exponent of the master race?  No, not in the
least.  Oskar is a dwarf, but a peculiar one—his 37-
inch stature is the result of his own decision, at age
three, to stop growing.  Moreover, Oskar's
intelligence is fully developed, but he pretends to be
an idiot, blabbering like a child and avoiding all
adult responsibility.    

His own ethnic origins are uncertain—Oskar’s
prefers to accept his mother's Polish lover as his
'presumptive father', rather than her husband, a
staunch Nazi party member.  But this, like much of
Oskar's worldview, based as much on personal
whim rather than actual evidence.  The youngster's
one authentic passion is for his tin drum, given as a
gift on his third birthday and his inseparable
companion for most of the novel. Oskar has little
direct involvement in the war—although he
eventually joins a troupe of entertainers who
perform for the troops.  In truth, he avoids
complicity of all kinds.  And yet…

Bad things happen again and again to the people
surrounding little Oskar—mother, father and
'presumptive' father, friends, accomplices, lovers.  
Often Oskar's responsibility is unclear, at best
indirect, yet he invariably plays some contributory
role in the downfall of those around him. Usually
Grass leaves it up to the reader to trace the
connection between cause and effect;  Oskar
himself has little interest in probing his possible
culpability—a strange reticence given the analytical
zeal he applies in so many other aspects of his life.  

After the end of World War II, Oskar decides that
it is time to grow up—but the way he does so is,
again, filled with symbolic resonance. When he
escapes as a refugee to West Germany, he puts on
additional height and bulk, and transforms himself
from a three-foot high dwarf to…a four-foot high
hunchback.   Instead of true maturity, Oskar has
settled for a different kind of deformity.  Around
this same time, he discovers that he can make a
good living performing on his tin drum—an
instrument that evokes intense memories among his
audience, and allows them to weep and shed the
pent-up tears that they have kept inside so long.  

As this thumbnail summary makes clear,
The Tin
Drum
lacks a plot, at least in the familiar sense of an
unfolding drama with clear resolution.  Grass
doesn't actually avoid grand historical events, but
he deliberately places them at the periphery of our
field of view—his novel is like a movie in which key
scenes take place in the background, while the
foreground is filled with banality and Felliniesque
excesses. It is all too fitting that, when Oskar is
finally held responsible for a despicable act, it is one
he probably didn't commit.   The world of
The Tin
Drum
is, thus, not without its moralizing and
staunch defense of virtue—but these are invariably
sham, applied at the wrong time and in the wrong
place.

Grass compensates for the deliberate withholding
of dramatic incidents through the sheer audacity of
his imagination.  The novel includes a number of
bizarre scenes, cinematic in approach, that will stick
in readers’ heads—although I wouldn't be surprised
if many of them would prefer, like the characters in
The Tin Drum, to forget such painful, unsettling
images.  I call attention to:  the crude fisherman
who uses a severed horse's head to catch eels; the
resulting self-abasement of Oskar's mother, who
commits suicide by eating the most disgusting fish
she can find; the conspiracy between Oskar and a
gang of hoodlums to conduct a parody of a
Catholic mass, with the dwarf playing the role of
the baby Jesus;  the wounded Polish postal worker
forced to play cards as the blood is draining out of
his body.  These rank among the most disturbing
and unforgettable scenes in modern German
literature, and have contributed not only to the
novel's fame, but also the outrage with which this
book was initially met.

I will leave it to others to judge Grass's degree of
culpability in the events of 1944 and 1945.  I can’t
even begin to balance the personal role of the
teenager against the larger global influence of the
author.  Does the latter mitigate the former?  Does
the former invalidate the latter?  But I do know that
any indictment others lay at the feet of Günter
Grass could hardly be as savage and unforgettable
as the one he has served up himself in this intense,
brilliant and deeply chilling novel.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.
His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the
Repertoire.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
The Tin Drum
by Günter Grass
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
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