Authors: Gunter Grass
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
Boston New York 2009
Also by GÜNTER GRASS
Cat and Mouse
The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising
Max: A Play
From the Diary of a Snail
In the Egg and Other Poems
Meeting at Telgte
Drawings and Words, 1954-1977
On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983
Etchings and Words, 1972-1982
Show Your Tongue
Two States—One Nation?
The Call of the Toad
Too Far Afield
Peeling the Onion
For Anna Grass
Copyright © 1959 by Hermann Luchterhand Verlag GmbH
Translation copyright © 2009 by Breon Mitchell
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this
book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Grass, Günter, date.
The tin drum / Günter Grass ; a new translation by Breon Mitchell.
Translation of: Die Blechtrommel.
1. Germany—History—1945-1955—Fiction. I. Mitchell, Breon. II. Title.
Book design by Linda Lockowitz
Printed in the United States of America
The Wide Skirt 3
Under the Raft 13
Moth and Light Bulb 26
The Photo Album 38
Glass, Glass, Little Glass 50
The Schedule 61
Rasputin and the ABCs 72
Long-Distance Song Effects from the Stockturm 84
The Grandstand 96
Shop Windows 111
No Miracle 121
Good Friday Fare 133
Tapering toward the Foot 146
Herbert Truczinski's Back 155
Faith Hope Love 181
Scrap Metal 193
The Polish Post Office 205
House of Cards 219
He Lies in Saspe 229
Fizz Powder 253
Special Communiqués 264
Carrying My Helplessness to Frau Greff 274
Seventy-five Kilos 287
Bebra's Theater at the Front 299
Inspecting Concrete—or Mystical Barbaric Bored 310
The Imitation of Christ 327
The Dusters 341
The Christmas Play 352
The Ant Trail 364
Should I or Shouldn't I 377
Growth in a Boxcar 400
Flintstones and Gravestones 413
Fortuna North 428
Madonna 49 440
The Hedgehog 453
In the Wardrobe 466
On the Coco Rug 487
The Onion Cellar 497 On the Atlantic Wall or Bunkers Can't Cast Off Concrete 512
The Ring Finger 527
The Last Tram or Adoration of a Canning Jar 538
In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel,
The Tin Drum,
in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.
"I'm thinking of publishing your book in America," he said. "Do you think the American reader will understand it?" "I don't think so" I replied. "The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—" "Say no more," he broke in. "All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I'll bring it out in America."
appeared in 1962 with Pantheon Books of New York, a firm founded by Wolff.
Later on, I was often urged to give some account of the origins of my first novel, but I didn't feel ready to sift through the circumstances and influences with a prying eye. I was almost frightened I might discover my own tricks.
Up to then I had written poetry and plays, as well as libretti for the ballet (my first wife Anna was a dancer). In 1956 Anna and I left Berlin and moved to Paris with the vague idea of writing a novel circulating in my mind. I took pleasure in art, enjoyed the varieties of form, and felt the urge to create an alternate reality on paper—in short, I had all the tools needed to undertake any artistic project, regardless of its nature. If things had gone solely according to my own desires and instinct
for play, I would have tested myself against purely aesthetic norms and found my role in the scurrilous. But I couldn't. There were obstacles. The gestation of German history had brought forth piles of rubble and dead bodies, a mass of material that, once I began to clear it away, only increased from book to book.
With the first sentence, "Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution...," the barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention, and an obsession with detail all flowed freely, chapter after chapter arose, history offered local examples, I took on a rapidly proliferating family, and contended with Oskar Matzerath and those around him over the simultaneity of events and the absurd constraints of chronology, over Oskar's right to speak in the first or third person, over his true transgressions and his feigned guilt.
The Tin Drum
struck a distinctly new tone in postwar German literature, one that was greeted with enthusiasm by many critics and with annoyance by others. The poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger offered this review in 1959:
The Tin Drum
knows no taboos.... Again and again the narrative enters the forbidden sphere where disgust and sexuality, death and blasphemy meet.
What differentiates Grass in this respect both from any form of pornography, and from the so-called "stark realism" of the American school, what legitimizes these blunt forays, indeed elevates them to acts of artistic brilliance, is the total objectivity with which he presents them. Unlike Henry Miller, Grass does not seek out taboos; he simply doesn't notice them. It would be unfair to accuse him of deliberate provocation. He neither avoids scandal nor invites it; but that is precisely what will give rise to scandal: Grass doesn't have a guilty conscience, he takes what we find shocking for granted.
This passage shows the wide variety of responses my work evoked in the late fifties. As a result, from the very start of my career as a novelist, I was considered controversial.
The "shocking" parts of
The Tin Drum
may have led translators and publishers in other countries to omit or shorten passages they believed their own readers might find disgusting or blasphemous. And some no doubt thought that by pruning this very long novel, written by a bra-
zen young author who was still unknown, they could only improve it. I thought highly of the late Ralph Manheim, and his translations of several of my works into English were marvelous, but both literary historians and translators indicated repeatedly that his translation of
The Tin Drum
needed revision. I heard the same thing about the early translations of
The Tin Drum
into other languages.
Thus, in the early summer of 2005, ten translators, including Breon Mitchell, joined me in Gdańsk with one set goal in mind: to create new versions of my first novel in their own languages. To prepare myself for their questions, I reread
The Tin Drum
for the first time since I'd written it, hesitantly at first, then with some pleasure, surprised at what the young author of fifty years ago had managed to put down on paper.
For eight days the translators from various lands questioned the author; for eight days the author talked with them, responded to their queries. During breaks I would take them to this or that spot mentioned in the rapidly shifting narrative of the novel.
How much more relaxed the reader's attitude toward
The Tin Drum
is today, even in Catholic countries like Poland, was evident one Sunday when the author and his translators visited the Church of the Sacred Heart in the Danzig suburb of Langfuhr, where I was born and raised. In my autobiographical memoir
Peeling the Onion,
I recounted the story:
And there, in this neo-Gothic scene of a youthful crime, a young priest with a cryptic smile, a man who bore not the faintest resemblance to Father Wiehnke, asked me to sign a Polish copy of the book in question, and the author, to the astonishment of his translators and editor, did not hesitate to place his name below the title. For it was not I who broke off the Christ Child's little watering can that day at the Altar of Our Lady. It was someone with a different will. Someone who had never renounced evil. Someone who did not wish to grow...
Lübeck, January 2009
Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can't see through blue-eyed types like me.
So my keeper can't possibly be my enemy. I've grown fond of this man peeping through the door, and the moment he enters my room I tell him incidents from my life so he can get to know me in spite of the peephole between us. The good fellow seems to appreciate my stories, for the moment I've finished some tall tale he expresses his gratitude by showing me one of his latest knotworks. Whether he's an artist remains to be seen. But an exhibition of his works would be well received by the press, and would entice a few buyers too. He gathers ordinary pieces of string from his patients' rooms after visiting hours, disentangles them, knots them into multilayered, cartilaginous specters, dips them in plaster, lets them harden, and impales them on knitting needles mounted on little wooden pedestals.
He often plays with the notion of coloring his creations. I advise him not to, point toward my white metal bed and ask him to imagine this most perfect of all beds painted in multiple hues. Horrified, he claps his keeper's hands to his head, struggles to arrange his somewhat inflexible features into an expression of manifold shock, and drops his polychrome plans.
My white-enameled metal hospital bed thus sets a standard. To me it is more; my bed is a goal I've finally reached, it is my consolation, and could easily become my faith if the administration would allow me to
make a few changes: I'd like to have the bed rails raised even higher to keep anyone from coming too close.
Once a week Visitors Day disrupts the silence I've woven between my white metal bars. It signals the arrival of those who wish to save me, who find pleasure in loving me, who seek to value, respect, and know themselves through me. How blind, nervous, and ill-mannered they are. Scratching away at my white bed rails with their nail scissors, scribbling obscene, elongated stick figures on the enamel with ballpoint pens and blue pencils. My lawyer, having blasted the room with his hello, routinely claps his nylon hat over the left-hand bedpost at the foot of my bed. This act of violence robs me of my inner balance and good cheer for as long as his visit lasts—and lawyers always have plenty to say.
Once my visitors have placed their gifts on the little white oilcloth-covered table that stands beneath a watercolor of anemones, once they've laid out some future plan to save me, or one already under way, once they've managed to convince me, by their tireless attempts to rescue me, of the high quality of their brotherly love, they find renewed joy in their own existence and depart. Then my keeper arrives to air out the room and gather up the string from the gift wrappings. Often after airing he finds time, sitting by my bed and disentangling the string, to spread a silence so prolonged that in the end I call the silence Bruno, and Bruno silence.
Bruno Münsterberg—I'm talking about my keeper now, I'm done playing with words—bought five hundred sheets of writing paper on my behalf. Should this supply prove insufficient, Bruno, who is unmarried, childless, and hails from the Sauerland, will revisit the little stationery shop, which also sells toys, and provide me with whatever additional unlined space I need for my recollections, which I hope will be accurate. I could never have requested this favor of my visitors, my lawyer, or Klepp, say. The solicitous love prescribed for me would surely have prevented my friends from anything so dangerous as bringing me blank paper and allowing my incessantly syllable-excreting mind free use of it.
When I said to Bruno, "Oh, Bruno, would you buy me a ream of virgin paper?" he looked up at the ceiling, sent his finger pointing in that same direction to underline the comparison, and replied, "You mean white paper, Herr Oskar."
I stuck with the word virgin and told Bruno to ask for it that way at the shop. When he returned later that afternoon with the package, he seemed a Bruno lost in thought. He stared long and hard a few times at the ceiling, that source of all his bright ideas, and then announced, "That word you recommended was right. I asked for virgin paper and the salesgirl blushed bright red before she gave me what I wanted."
Fearing a long conversation about salesgirls in stationery shops, I regretted having emphasized the paper's innocence by calling it virgin, and said nothing, waited till Bruno had left the room. Only then did I open the package with the five hundred sheets of paper.
I lifted the resilient stack for a moment and tested its weight. Then I counted off ten sheets and stored the rest in my bedside table. I found the fountain pen by my photo album in the drawer: it's full, it won't fail for lack of ink; how shall I begin?