From the Diary of a Snail
by Günter Grass
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 310 pp., $7.95
Among the things which Günter Grass is good at—as he might put it, in one of his less engaging habits of phrase: writingsculptingdrawingtalktalkingbarbilliardstombstonemaking—there is cooking. He comes back to cooking several times in From the Diary of a Snail, not to a classic cuisine or to Utopian rinds and grains, but to great thick cauldrons full of Central Europe’s fancy: tripe with caraway seeds and tomatoes and garlic, mutton with lentils, “green eel” from the dirty old Havel lakes, beef heart stuffed with prunes, pheasant with weinkraut, hashed lung. Novels are a sort of soup, drawn out of every kind of bone, stray vegetable, and stock from past meals. In the present case, however, Grass has chosen to serve up the ingredients with their end product. We get a novel, a central narrative, and interleaved with it an assorted mass of diary, fantasy, and reflection.
In 1969, Grass for the second time fought an independent election campaign on behalf of the Social Democrats. As he had done in 1965, but on a much larger scale, Grass toured the country speaking in one small town after another, encouraging the growth of voters’ clubs and daring the doubting electorate to return Willy Brandt, a “Sozi,” as chancellor. (Brandt did become head of a government, but only as the leader of a coalition with a perilously thin majority: it was not until 1972 that the West Germans showed unmistakably that it was a Social Democrat government that they wanted.)
But for the first time, Grass found himself fighting on two fronts: against the sullen, familiar mass of Christian Democrats and conservatives on the right, but also against the new left, the revolutionary young whose insurrection the year before had shaken the whole state on its foundations. Accustomed enough to being called a criminal against Germanity and a befouler of the national nest, Grass reacted badly to being denounced as a revisionist by boys and girls in brass-framed glasses. He hit back, sometimes with bad-tempered invective which evaded the fundamental questions thrown at him, but at the same time he began to reach around for a more coherent and profound way of expressing his own revulsion—so typical of the generation of teenagers who were sucked into the Wehrmacht—from German radicalism and “the weeds of German idealism which spring up as inexorably as rib-grass.” One result was the intemperate Local Anaesthetic, his least successful novel. The second, much more interesting, is From the Diary of a Snail.
One can list the ingredients before trying to describe the soup. Much of the book consists of his diaries from 1969; fragments of the campaign with all its encounters and journeys and hotels; reflections on days and weekends snatched with his wife and children in Berlin; sketches of Willy Brandt silently playing games with matches in a melancholy of self-doubt and then emerging at last to fight; a visit to Czech friends a year after the invasion. At one meeting Grass addressed, a …