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

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

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

As this thumbnail summary makes clear,
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

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
The Tin Drum
by Günter Grass
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(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

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
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

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
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

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

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

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

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

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

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

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

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.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

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

Bunch, David R.

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.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

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
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

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

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

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

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

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

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

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

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

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

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

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

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

Vance, Jack

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

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

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other