The Tin Drum In Retrospect

Günter Grass

Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim


In the spring and summer of 1952 I hitch-hiked back and forth across France. I lived on nothing. I sketched on wrapping paper and, infected with logorrhea, wrote and wrote. Along with a number of exceedingly derivative cantos about the pilot Palinurus who fell asleep at the helm, I turned out an endlessly proliferating poem in which Oskar Matzerath, before assuming that name, made his appearance as a stylite saint.

A young man, an existentialist in accordance with the fashion of the day. A mason by trade. He lived in our times. A savage, rather haphazardly well read, not afraid of quotation. Even before prosperity erupted, he was disgusted by prosperity and in love with his disgust. Right in the middle of his small town (which remained nameless), he therefore built himself a pillar and chained himself to the top. His vituperative mother handed up his meals in a dinner pail fixed to a pole. Her attempts to lure him down to earth were supported by a chorus of young girls with mythological hair-dos. The small town’s traffic circled round his pillar, friends and enemies gathered, and in the end a whole community was looking up at him. He, the stylite, high above them all, looked down, nonchalantly alternating fixed leg and free-moving leg; he had found his perspective and expressed it through a volley of metaphors.

This long poem was a flop. I left it somewhere, and I remember only fragments, which show, if anything, how much I was influenced by Trakl, Apollinjaire, Ringelnatz, Rilke, and the wretched German translations of Lorca, all at once. Its only interesting feature was my quest for a perspective. But the stylite’s elevated situation was too static: it would take a diminutive three-year-old Oskar Matzerath to provide both distance and nobility. You might call Oskar Matzerath a converted stylite.

In the late summer of that same year, while crossing Switzerland on my way from southern France to Düsseldorf, I not only met my future wife Anna for the first time, but also saw something that brought my saint down from his pillar. One afternoon I saw among a group of adults drinking coffee a three-year-old boy with a tin drum. I was struck by the three-year-old’s self-absorbed concentration on his instrument, his disregard of the world around him (grown-ups chatting over their afternoon coffee), and the image has stayed with me.

For at least three years my find remained buried. I moved from Düsseldorf to Berlin, changed sculpture teachers, met Anna again, married her a year later, dragged my sister (who had got herself into a mess) out of a convent, sketched and modelled bird-like figures, grasshoppers and filigree chickens, and botched my first attempt at a prose piece–that was called The Barrier, patterned on Kafka, and derived its plethora of metaphors from the early Expressionists. Only then, being more relaxed, did I succeed in writing my first occasional poems, casual offerings accompanied by drawings, that were detached and independent enough from their author to be publishable. The Advantages of Windhens was the title, my first book.

With the baggage of stored-up material, vague plans and precise ambitions–I wanted to write my novel and Anna was looking for more rigorous ballet training–we left Berlin early in 1956 and, penniless but undaunted, went to Paris. Not far from the Place Pigalle, Anna found an exacting Russian ballet teacher in the person of Madame Nora. And I, while still putting the finishing touches to my play The Wicked Cooks, set to work on the first draft of my novel, whose title changed from Oskar the Drummer to The Drummer to The Tin Drum.

At that precise point my memory cuts off. I remember drawing up a number of outlines mapping out my epic material, and filling them with catchwords, but the outlines cancelled one another out and were dropped as the work progressed. The manuscripts of the first, second and finally third drafts fed the furnace which was located in my work room.

‘Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital . . . .’–with that first sentence my block was gone. Words pressed in on me; memory, imagination, playfulness and an obsession with detail gave themselves free rein: chapter engendered chapter. When a gap emerged, breaking the flow of my story, I hopped over it. History came to my aid with local offerings–as if little jars were sprung open, releasing smells. I took on a wildly proliferating family. I argued with Oskar Matzerath and his clan about tram lines, about simultaneous events and the absurd pressure of chronology, about Oskar’s right to tell his story in the first or third person, about his desire to beget a child, about his real transgressions and his feigned feelings of guilt.

My attempt to give Oskar the loner a vicious little sister was thwarted by Oskar’s objection; it seems quite possible that the excluded sister later insisted on her right to literary existence under the name of Tulla Pokriefke in Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.

Far more distinctly than the process of writing I remember my work-room: a damp hole on the ground floor. It was also my art studio, but once I started putting The Tin Drum on paper, my sculpture casts crumbled away. My work-room was also the furnace room for the tiny two-room apartment upstairs. My activities as fireman and writer were closely meshed. Whenever the writing met with a snag, I’d go and get two buckets of coke out of the cellar. My work-room smelled of mould and the cozy aroma of gas. Dripping walls kept my imagination flowing. The dampness of the room may have encouraged the dryness of Oskar Matzerath’s wit.

Because my wife is Swiss I was allowed once a year to write for a few weeks during the summer in the fresh air of the Ticino. I would sit at a stone table in an arbour of grape-vines, gaze at the shimmering subtropical stage set and, sweating, write about the frozen Baltic.

Sometimes for a change of air I’d scribble outlines of chapters in Paris bistros straight out of old movies: surrounded by tragically enlaced lovers, old women hidden in their coats, wall mirrors and Art Nouveau decorations, I’d write something about elective affinities: Goethe and Rasputin.

And yet during all that time I must still have lived energetically, cooked usefully, and, owing to the pleasure I took in Anna’s dancing legs, danced whenever opportunity offered. Because in September 1957–I was in the midst of the second draft–our twin sons Franz and Raoul were born. The problem wasn’t literary, only financial. We lived on the carefully apportioned 300 marks a month that I earned more or less in passing. Sometimes I think that what saved me–much as it distressed my father and mother–was the mere fact of not graduating from secondary school. With a degree I’d have become a night programme television director and kept my manuscript in the drawer and, prevented from writing, I’d have developed an increasing grudge against all those free-ranging scribblers whom the heavenly father feedeth all the same.

In the spring of 1958 my work on the final draft of the chapter about the defence of the Polish Post Office in Danzig necessitated a trip to Poland. Hüllerer arranged it; Andrzey Wirth wrote out an invitation, and I went to Gdańsk via Warsaw. Looking for Danzig in Gdańsk, and on the assumption that some of the defenders of the Polish Post Office would still be alive, I inquired at the Polish Ministry of the Interior, which maintained a bureau devoted to documenting German war crimes in Poland. There I was given the addresses of three former Polish postal clerks (the most recent address dating from 1949), but I was also informed that these alleged survivors had not been recognized by the Polish Postal Workers’ Union, or any other official body: because in the autumn of 1939 both German and Polish official sources had reported that these men had all been court-martialed and shot; that their names had accordingly been inscribed on a memorial tablet; and that people incised in stone are dead.

Eventually, I found two of the former Polish postal clerks. They’d since gone to work in the shipyard, where they were earning more than they had at the post office. All in all, they were content with their lack of recognition, but their sons wanted to regard their fathers as heroes and had tried without success to get them acknowledged as resistance fighters. From the two Post Office employees (one had delivered money orders) I obtained detailed accounts of what happened in the Post Office during its defence. Their escape routes were something I could not have made up.

In Gdańsk I retraced the routines of a Danzig schoolboy, spoke in graveyards with tombstones that made me nostalgic, sat as I had as a boy in the reading room of the municipal library, leafing through piles of the Danziger Vorposten. I smelled the Mottlau and the Radaune. In Gdańsk I was a stranger, but in fragments I rediscovered everything: bathing establishments, walks in the woods, brick Gothic, and the apartment house on Labesweg between Max-Halbe-Platz and Neuer Markt; and revisited, on Oskar’s advice, the Church of the Sacred Heart: still the same old Catholic fug.

Then I stood in the kitchen-cum-living-room of my Kashubian grand-aunt Anna. She didn’t believe who I was until I showed her my passport: ‘My goodness, Günter child, you’ve got so big.’ I stayed a while and listened: when the defenders of the Polish Post Office surrendered, her son Franz had indeed been shot. I found his name incised in stone on the memorial tablet: officially recognized.

In the spring of 1959, when I’d finished work on my manuscript, corrected the galleys and dispatched the page proofs, I was given a four-month travel grant. Once again Höllerer had pulled strings. The idea was for me to go to the United States and answer students’ questions now and then. I never went. To get a visa in those days you had to submit to an exacting medical examination. I submitted and was told that tuberculomas–bone-like nodules– had been found here and there in my lungs; when tuberculomas break open, cavities form.

For that reason, and also because after one night in the custody of the Paris police (by that time de Gaulle had come to power) I was overcome by a positive longing for the West German police, we left Paris soon after The Tin Drum was published (and soon after it left me), and moved back to Berlin. There I had to take afternoon naps, do without alcohol, be examined at regular intervals, drink cream, and three times a day swallow little white pills called Neoteben–all of which cured me and made me fat.

While still in Paris, however, I had done some preparatory work on my novel Dog Years. Originally it was called ‘Potato Peelings’, a short-winded project that got off to a bad start. It took my novella Cat and Mouse to make me drop it. By then I was already famous, though, and no longer had to stoke the furnace while I wrote. Since then I’ve found it harder to write.