The line between what one most admires in Günter Grass’s writing and what one most resents is a remarkably fine one—and, it sometimes seems, a mobile one. His set pieces possess a Dickensian quality, but happily Dickens had not heard about motifs and symbols and other such-like devices for doubtfully expressing the perfectly expressible, whereas Grass, who is a bit of a pedagogue, has. There is something of Dürer, of Brueghel, and of Bosch in Grass’s make-up; there is also something of Mary McCarthy’s Mr. Converse, the creative writing teacher who went through his students’ work “putting in the symbols.” Looking back, you may find you remember most vividly some horrific-farcical scene which in the actual reading was spoiled for you by the author’s persistent nudging.
The density of Grass’s writing derives in part from his documentation—for instance, the naval expertise in Cat and Mouse and the faustball and ballet matter in Dog Years—though at times this documentation appears to be posing as a sort of autonomous allegory. In the new novel, Local Anaesthetic, there is a fair amount of technical information about dental methods through the ages, and about geology, and more than a fair amount (for its relevance is more dubious) about the manufacture of cement, “a commercially produced dusty powder. It is made by milling a slurry of limestone or marl, and clay, by crushing and grinding calcined cement clinker, by flotation and spray-drying in a rotary kiln….”
Much of this is interesting in itself and some of it is entertainingly presented, such as the lecture on various ways of cooking a literal goose given to a class of prisoners of war, their features “sharp-cut from undernourishment,” by a former hotel chef who is later to become a famous TV chef. Even so, there is a distinct discrepancy between the space this information occupies in the novel and its significant contribution to the novel. Generally in Dickens, documentation—what a person does for a living, where he lives, his favorite food and drink—is properly indistinguishable from characterization—what a person is. And there is less room for inoperative material in this relatively short novel than in the mammoth Dog Years. Dog Years was a notably energetic work: as in The Tin Drum, a lot was going on even if some of the activity remained enigmatic. By comparison—by comparison with other novels by Grass, for, when all is said, he is one of the very, very few authors whose next novel one has no intention of missing—Local Anaesthetic is a little on the tired side.
Admittedly, that is inherent in its theme: a wearied, worried bafflement, the apparent homelessness in the affluent state of passion and ideals, even their possible dangerousness. After all, an Economic Miracle isn’t as hateful as a Master Race in arms…. If the citizens have their eyes glued to the idiot-box, then what about the commandants of concentration camps who read Hölderlin …