Elbe Swans and Other Poets

The Meeting at Telgte

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Helen and Kurt Wolff, 147 pp., $9.95

Günther Grass
Günther Grass; drawing by David Levine

The date is 1647—or perhaps Herr Grass would prefer to say 1647/1947. The meeting of German poets at Telgte, between Osnabrück and Münster, takes place while the Thirty Years War is drawing to a close, three years before the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, and during the period of prolonged negotiations. The 200 states and sees which constituted the Germany of that era are devastated. The war which began as the culmination of the Counter-Reformation has fanned out into a multiplicity of wars, not all of them between Catholics and Protestants, some between co-religionists. For many years:

The military lineup of the contending parties was not determined by religious allegiance: Catholic France, with papal approval, had fought against Spain, the Habsburgs, and Bavaria; the Protestant Saxons sometimes had one and sometimes the other foot in the imperial camp; a few years earlier, the Lutheran Swedes had attacked the Lutheran Danes. In deep secret Bavaria was bargaining for possession of the Palatinate….

Some armies had mutinied, others had changed sides. Luckily for the rest of Europe, England was much taken up with civil war. “The thing that hath been tomorrow is that which shall be yesterday,” runs the first sentence of Günter Grass’s novel; and this Europe resembled’ much the world of sides constantly changing sides within a setting of unceasing war which Orwell foresees as the state of the world in 1984. 1647/1947/1984 then.

In 1947, under the sponsorship of the German writer Hans Werner Richter, a group of German writers held meetings to discuss the state of German literature and the German language after Hitler, in a Germany whose cities were heaps of ruins. Herr Grass invents in The Meeting at Telgte a parallel for Richter’s meeting—a projection back into the past—which, he certainly manages to persuade us, might well have taken place. A meeting of German poets “to rescue their cruelly maltreated language and to be near the peace negotiations. There they would sit until everything, the distress of the fatherland as well as the splendor and misery of poetry, had been discussed.” The writers who met were overwhelmingly of the Protestant persuasion; the members of Hans Werner Richter’s group were overwhelmingly pro-Western (there were no writers from the Soviet zone).

The Meeting at Telgte contains none of the ambitious devices of Herr Grass’s earlier novels. There is none of the symbolic machinery of tin drum or flounder drawing the strands of the characters and their narrations together. Instead, at the center of the novel there is a featureless, anonymous, timeless “I”—the author as abstract tricentennial witness.

The narration is in appearance a straightforward account of what was discussed, of poems read at meetings. The writers consider form, subject matter, language. The poet August Buchner, professor of poetry at Wittenburg, Prince Hamlet’s university, talks about dactyllic measures. Siegmund von Birken reads a chapter from his manuscript…

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