Nobel-laureate novelist and public intellectual Gunter Grass was a towering figure among German writers and social critics from the 1950s until his death in 2015. After rising to prominence with the novel The Tin Drum (1959), he assumed the role of the conscience of the German nation. He sustained that position throughout his life despite multiple controversies, particularly the revelation, in his 2006 autobiography Peeling the Onion, of his brief service in the Waffen SS, and the 2012 publication of his poem "What Must Be Said," which sharply criticized Israel.
This monograph argues that the ethos of "speaking out" is fundamental to Grass's life and work. His approach to the dynamics and manifestations of speech acts has been marginalized in Grass criticism, but is crucial to understanding his fiction. Looking back at Grass's career, this book identifies four phases in terms of communicative strategy and style. Whereas the Danzig trilogy abounds in judgmental and oppressive speech acts, the mid-career novels express the writer's hopes of using dialogue in support of democracy. In turn, the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired novels that feature critical conversations on memory culture amid German unification and the upheaval of the 1990s. Finally, the late autobiographies reveal a search for the private and political self in meditative, internalized monologues about a life lived in language.
Nicole A. Thesz is Associate Professor of German at Miami University, Ohio.