Günther Grass
Günther Grass; drawing by David Levine

Imprisoned in Günter Grass’s new and corpulent book a thinner but very considerable novel is struggling to get out. The question, which I find difficult to answer with much confidence, is: does it manage to emerge? There is no end of excess fat for it to cut a way through: at the same time it is a muscular piece of flesh and blood, endowed with sharp teeth, at least thirty-two of them.

Dog Years, stretching from the early Twenties up to 1957, falls into three sections. The first, narrated by Herr Brauxel, owner of a very special sort of mine, deals with the childhood of the two main figures, Amsel and Matern, who became blood-brothers with the help of a penknife, though Amsel turns out (when such things start to matter) to be half-Jewish. At this time however, Matern, the though, the sportsman, protects Amsel, the plump clever boy (artistic too, he creates prodigious scarecrows) from the other lads. This section could even be said to possess a good deal of simple charm.

The second book, a hefty slab of 230 pages, takes the form of letters addressed by Liebenau, a slightly younger man, to his cousin Tulla, the Tulla Pokriefke of Grass’s previous novel, Cat and Mouse, and carries the narrative up to 1945. Liebenau is a rather drab, rather feeble person, Tulla is a fearsome wench, quite a creation in her own right, but having little to do with the essential story of Amsel and Matern. This second section is terribly hard going. Grass appears to have been influenced by the question-and-answer sequence of Ulysses; the epistolary form is irritatingly “literary” and the reiterated fairy-tale formula—those hundreds of paragraphs beginning “There was once…”—creates portentousness rather than power or pathos. Many a reader will fall by the way, which is a great pity, since it is here that the central event of the novel is recounted. Nine masked SA youths climb over Amsel’s fence, knock out the fat sheeny’s teeth, all thirty-two of them and roll him in the snow. Eight of them are named, the ninth (it is plain to the reader, though not to Matern) is Matern. When the snowman melts, out steps a thin young man, who heads for a dentist and thirty-two gold teeth, who survives, who in fact eventually becomes a mineowner, the owner of a mine which (we are told with stultifying frequency) “produces neither potash nor iron nor coal.” Grass’s overwhelming taste for the allegorical, or perhaps we should rather say the quasi-allegorical, betrays him into doubling this transformation scene with the sea-change of Jenny, the fat little would-be ballet dancer, who is rolled into a snowball by nasty Tulla, and emerges as a thin ballet dancer when the snow melts. What is Jenny doing in the book? Just another figure, you may say, featuring legitimately on so large a canvas, with no need to “do” anything in the book. But she loses her toes in an air raid, and we last see her in her bar “Chez Jenny,” a faded spinster, serving her special lemonade to Goldmouth (or Brauxel, or Amsel of course), a well-to-do mine-owner with a chronic hoarseness which (though Matern attributes it to excessive smoking) he traces to a certain January snowfall…The lemonade contains several drops of a magic essence, a Gypsy recipe—Jenny was a Gypsy orphan—and also a little mica—Jenny’s adoptive father, the school teacher Dr. Brunies, was a keen collector of mica stones. Once you have started an allegory, it is difficult to stop it.

The third section, related by antifascist Matern, tells of Matern’s search for vengeance in postwar Germany. The pace accelerates: there is no risk of the reader falling by the way now, he is swept splendidly along. The addresses of ex-Nazi wrongdoers—small-shots or at the most medium-shots—are revealed to Matern among the graffiti on the wall of the Gents lavatory in Cologne Central Station. He sleeps with the first culprit’s wife and with the daughter of number two; since in the case of number three no wife or daughter is available, Matern kills his pet canary; the fourth he punishes by throwing his stamp collection into the fire…Matern acquires gonorrhoea and during the next six months distributes it freely over West Germany—“the milk of vengeance”—with special attention to the female relatives of former Nazi officials. Denazification he calls it. He attempts to wreak vengeance on Martin Heidegger too—what did all that talk of Being and Nothing do, except help people to convince themselves that there wasn’t a bad smell, or if there was, then it didn’t come from that pile of bones, or if it did, then the bones weren’t human bones?—but only succeeds in wrenching off the philosopher’s gate and throwing it into the philosopher’s garden. The philosopher himself is as abstract, as evasive, as his philosophy.


But vengeance is growing thin—“Who wants to tear open old wounds if the opening of wounds gives pleasure?”—and, in the Germany of the economic miracle, Matern is growing fat and scant of breath. Grass is clearly wise in thus de-demonizing the avenger. For what form could vengeance appropriately take? And who is the man who could administer it? Not, at any rate, Matern, who has belonged to both sides. There is a nice reference in a young people’s “open and dynamic” radio discussion to “Adolf Hitler, builder of the Reichsautobahn.” It is as if the Ghost of Banquo found himself offered the seat of honor, given a good wash and haircut, plied with beer and schnapps and complaisant female relatives, and taken out to night-clubs on expense accounts.

This section is full of marvelous setpieces, and on the whole the symbolic (the fairy-tale, the allegorical) and the realistic manage to co-exist fairly comfortably. Thus the fashionable new night-club, “The Morgue,” where the customers eat off genuine operating tables with genuine dissecting instruments, the waiters wear surgeon’s robes and masks and rubber gloves, and the bill has the form of a death certificate. Prepared to wreck the joint, Matern is upset by the pudding, a dentition-shaped affair to be tackled with spatula-shaped instruments, and vomits his guts out in the toilet. “A lot of people get that way the first time,” the attendant assures him. “Take some strong coffee and a slug of schnapps and you’ll be all right.”

Grass’s last novel, Cat and Mouse, was something of a give-away, I thought, a piece of work so thin that its “allegorical” skeleton obtruded, in a way it didn’t in the dense composition of The Tin Drum—and alas its bones could be seen to lack articulation, its symbols were too often wantonly private. Dog Years is an altogether more powerful work, with a recovered density of detail and documentation, but it has no cohesive presence to match that of Oskar the dwarf drummer. Matern and Amsel are not dwarfs, but men. The dwarf (who makes a number of inoperative appearances in this new novel) was an outsider: Matern and Amsel are insiders, and therefore (given Grass’s symbolizing stress) “representative.” Disbelief is not so readily suspended here; fantasy demands, more imperatively than in The Tin Drum, to be reconciled with realism, the individual story with national history, the “symbolic” with what it symbolizes. And the reconciliation cannot always be made—at least, cannot always be seen to be made.

Central to the book, it would seem, is the idea of the blood-brotherhood of German and Jew, with emphasis laid on the blood as well as the brotherhood. Each needs the other, the German the Jew, the brotherhood the blood. This is represented parable-wise in the faustball business. Amsel was the “born play maker,” the middleman, the arranger, the brains, while the “unstoppable” Matern piled up the points. If the symbolism is acceptable here it is largely because of the expertise Grass displays, he knows about faustball. Perhaps the idea is acceptable too. Matern believes too easily, he is receptive to myth; Amsel is disbelieving, Matern’s only expressed objection to him is that “nothing was sacred to him.” Each is necessary to the other. The situation offers the possibility of mutual aid and correction—also of murder. But the associated idea, that the Jew wants to be beaten up—Amsel had always desired gold teeth instead of those drab natural things, and the forged passport obtained some weeks in advance of “the miracle in the snow” mentions as a distinguishing mark his “Artificial denture. Gold crowns”—this seems merely disgusting. Matern is forever grinding his teeth, he is known as the Grinder (the deep tortured Teutonic soul, Wagnerian percussion?), whereas Amsel throws his teeth away and is proud to be known as Goldmouth (the sophisticated, un-natural, gilt-edged Jew?). It seems merely a sick joke, a mere extension (if that) of an old racist theory.

One readily understands the difficulty Grass faces. He doesn’t want just to write another “anti-Nazi” book: that has long since become a heavy industry, a respectable profession, everybody is against atrocities. Indeed, “satire” is universally fashionable. At the same time Grass is appalled by what was done in the name of Nazism, and by all that has been forgotten in the name of reconstruction and economic recovery. Do we forget because we must—or because we will? One solution, especially congenial to Grass’s gifts, is to glance sideways at the horrors, through the eyes of children. “Bet you that’s a human bone…” Another expedient is to fall back on the ambiguities, the pedantic wordplay, the experimental techniques of what was once called “modernism.” In an essay in Commentary for May 1964, which I recommend by way of remedying the certain deficiencies and possible injustices of this present account, George Steiner has remarked on Grass’s recourse to the late Twenties and the consequent “outmoded flavor of his audacities.” The German economic miracle had no counterpart in literature: there the lost ground has taken longer to make up.


But too often Grass seeks to extricate himself from this central difficulty—the problem, to put it simply, of dealing freshly and feelingly with a numbed subject—by means of a calculated vacillation between the grim and the farcical, between the portentously “significant” and the unrelated tour de force, between realism and fantasy. Symbolic-smelling red herrings lure the reader off on wildgoose chases, and allegorical hounds, let off their leashes, howl oracularly and then disappear into thin air. Mystification lies thickly about the identity of Herr Brauxel (or Brauksel or Brauchsel), the opening narrator, and is simultaneously rendered senseless by the broad demystificatory hints which accompany the mystification. Matern poisons Harras, the fine German shepherd who sired Hitler’s favourite dog. Why? Because Harras “symbolizes” Nazism? Nonsense, Harras is just a dog. Throughout, a symbolic italicizing goes hand in hand with an apparently deliberate blurring of the print, so that one asks in bewilderment whether Grass is striving to sharpen his meaning or seeking to prevent it from emerging.

This obsessive play with motifs and emblems goes on even in the concluding pages, the Walpurgisnacht as Steiner calls it, when Brauxsel-Haseloff-Goldmouth-Amsel takes Matern on a tour of the mine which “produces neither potash nor iron nor coal.” The cable of the pit cage is made of “seven times thirty-two wire strands wound round a hemp-clad steel core,” and the mine (which, Matern says, is “hell, indeed”) consists of thirty-two stalls (or circles): the magic number is the number of Amsel’s lost, or found, teeth, Incidentally, what the mine produces, and very profitably since there is a world-wide market, is mechanical scarecrows, representing by sound and movement the cardinal human emotions and actions, weeping, laughing, hating, copulating, philosophising, practising democracy, playing games, conducting business…”This meticulously organized inferno,” as its owner describes it, is an incredible tour de force. But what otherwise is it? Not a hell for people at all, not even for other people. It is, and that is the trouble, incredible, a gratuitous act of the imagination: incredible, where the apparition of the Devil to Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is, incredibly, credible.

Reviewing the novel on its first appearance (a respectful acknowledgement is due to the translator, who very nearly succeeds in a very nearly impossible task), a writer in the Times Literary Supplement contrasted Grass’s deliberate “de-mythologizing, de-heroizing, and as he puts it, de-demonizing” of Nazism with the “demonizing” of it which Mann performed in Doctor Faustus. Mann thus “paid a paradoxical tribute” to the “perverse appeal” of Nazism, whereas Grass’s task has been “the more difficult and more effective task of exposing its vulgar shoddiness from the inside.” I am not altogether sure that de-demonizing is what Grass is invariably doing here. There is some ambiguous Wagnerianism in the novel; the Virgin Mary appears to Matern and exhorts him to poison the dog Harras; and Brauxel’s mine may owe a little to the Devil’s account of Hell (and the concentration camps) in Doctor Faustus: “…the chirps lured from this everlasting dispensation of the unbelievable combined with the irresponsible…”

Nor, which is more to the point, is it so certain that de-demonizing is “more effective”—if by that is meant salutary—than Mann’s so-called demonizing. The account of his pupils denouncing Dr. Brunies for not hanging a flag out on the Führer’s birthday, while again one can understand Grass not wishing to make a song and dance about it, is even cosy. Heinrich Böll’s novels achieve a degree of de-mythologizing with much less ado and with more clarity, which I would have thought indispensable to de-mythologizing. And, in so far as such an exercise is right and proper, hasn’t the de-demonizing of Nazism and the exposure of its “vulgar shoddiness” been carried out more effectively than any novel could do it by Adolf Eichmann? “I sat at my desk and got on with my job…”

No, for all Grass’s violence and for all Mann’s heavy nineteenth-century elegance, Doctor Faustus strikes one as having been written in blood and tears and Dog Years in ink and posterpaint. I think Grass is often at his best when scurrilous, when he is lashing out with a rough and angry tongue, but Mann can make him look actually genteel. All the same, Dog Years is a staggering performance. With such energy and inventiveness it can afford or very nearly afford some major failures of form and uncertainties of intention. I still feel, though, that like Amsel and Jenny, the book could profitably have spent a few hours inside a snowman, having some of its excess fat boiled out.

This Issue

June 3, 1965