Germany’s most consistently controversial writer, the Nobel-winning Günter Grass, has died at the age of 87. But true to form, he has not left the reports on his passing solely in the hands of the media. He had already figured out how to have the last word almost 20 years ago, when he published the poem Wegzehrung (Food for the Road) in his 1997 collection, Fundsachen für Nichtleser (Found Things for Non-Readers). Posted to the website of the Günter Grass house in Luebeck, this poem has become his epitaph in all German media reports:
I want to be buried
with a bag of nuts
and my newest set of teeth.
The crunch and crackle
of where I lie
will lead to the supposition:
With its emphasis on a simple bag of nuts, troubling chomping teeth, and the writer’s ability to disturb from beyond the grave, the poem sums up a life that thrived on uncomfortable interventions in contemporary debates. And these debates went well beyond literature.
Beginning with his polarizing decision to campaign for the German Social Democrats in the 1960s and continuing right up to his polemical poems on Greece and Israel that were published in multiple countries in 2012 and 2013 respectively, global political media wires have “crunched and crackled” around this author. With his passing, the age of the self-understood European public intellectual is well and truly on the wane.
For many critics in Germany, Grass’s literature is the product of this self-important, stoic, and traditional male figure. While the global success of The Tin Drum (1959) meant that his literary star status was little questioned in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, since the mid-1980s he came increasingly under fire for being “out of touch,” authoritarian, and just plain annoying.
Grass continued to develop the arresting literary techniques he first used in his highly successful Danzig Triolgy (1959-63) in order to present readers with an uncomfortable image of all-too-human behavior. But his later long novels The Flounder (1977) and The Rat (1986) were seen as too monolithic, too dominated by a public author figure that many had come to dislike.
The outward-looking German society of the late 20th and early 21st century no longer wishes for guidance from on high. As early as 1986, hostile voices were metaphorically hammering nails in the querulous author’s coffin, believing he was holding back German literature with his insistence on changing the world. These voices have introduced a culture of not reading Grass, which has dogged much of his later career. The striking image of Germany’s lead critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, tearing up the anti-unification novel Too Far Afield in an apparent fit of rage on the cover of the news magazine Der Spiegel, for example, has gained far more attention than any actual analysis of the text itself.
Yet for those who read carefully, Grass‘s literature is defined by humor and playful posturing as much as piously delivered moral messages, and this humor makes his writing resonate across different cultural contexts in many ways, as well as being a valuable counter to his own public presence in Germany.
With a cast of scurrilous, semi-fantastical animals and plots that jump creatively across time and space (The Tin Drum, Dog Years, The Flounder, The Rat, Too Far Afield all fall into this category), Grass always believed in literature as a space for ambiguity, doubt, and self-distance. He applied this philosophy as much to his own person, the über-famous, self-important German author behind the text, as to contemporary German or global politics.
We can see this too in the poem which will perhaps become his epitaph. While the “I” of Food for the Road sets out decreeing how he is to be buried as a simple, humble soul, in just five lines he has flipped into an objectified “he” who continues to ruminate and offend his wider public. He is having a good chuckle at all this, and inviting his readers to laugh too.
In quick-fire media reports, Grass’s career will be explained and remembered in terms of the major political controversies and singular literary successes that have marked it. But his literature has also repeatedly opened up unusual spaces for reflection. In a world of increasing distraction and soundbites, these spaces are more valuable than ever.
This is Grass’s true legacy and the voice with which he will speak from now on. The public exposure that has characterized his career right from the late 1950s forced the author to reflect more than most on life in the media spotlight. The lasting result is a series of literary explorations that aim at helping people to find a meaningful place in this media-driven world. Grass’s literary voice will continue to crack nuts from beyond the grave—but it will be up to us to go and find him in the body of writing he has left us.