GUNTER GRASS' long books are myths; his short ones, fables. A myth, like a dream, makes what sense it can of historical moments so large and extensive that they can only be expressed in symbols. The Tin Drum, Dog Years, and The Founder, Grass' long novels, defy systematic interpretation. Their boundaries are liquid and shifting; their depths go down and down.
In a fable you know exactly what you're talking about. Its meaning has a shape; its meaning is focused. Grass has tended to follow up his long books with short ones. Cat and Mouse, which comes after The Tin Drum, is a fable about totalitarianism, whereas The Tin Drum itself is the full myth of totalitarian darkness.
The Meeting at Telgte is the fable that follows the deeply mythical The Flounder, which was written with the intuitive, poetical, prophetic side of Grass' brain. This smartly shaped new book is critical, witty, bright. We can think of all Grass' work as night books and daytime books. He himself would smile at how this pattern discloses German culture's ambiguous, alternating allegiances to Northern mysticism (Faust, Luther, Hitler) and to Mediterranean clarity (Mozart, Lichtenberg, Mann).
The Meeting at Telgte is an imaginary conference of German writers toward the end of the Thirty Years War when, as after another disastrous and unbelievably violent 30 years (from 1915 to 1945) every detail of civilization had been raped, mutilated, and dishonored.
Ostensibly, Grass' gathering of literary people is to assess what can be saved from the rubble. Their concern is for the German language: which dialect is most "German," what authors from ancient times are to be used as models, what literary forms best fit their needs. They think in terms of healing a ravaged language. The answer is that literature needs every form it can have, every kind of sensibility. The most unlikely person at the gathering to figure in German literature is the soldier of fortune, swashbucker, and knave Christoffel Gelnhausen, a rascal out of the woodcuts of Urs Graf or the pages of Rabelais or Thomas Nashe. He finds the writers an inn for their meeting by emptying one of fat businessmen with a trumped-up tale of plague. He butters up the innkeeper, who is none other than Brecht's Mother Courage herself. He steals the fare for their banquets. And yet, innocent of all the talk about classical forms and diction, he is the one who will write (under the name Grimmelshausen) the 17th-century picaresque novel Simplicissimus, about his own exploits and those of Courasche the Innkeeper.
It is clear that Grass sees himself in this fable as Grimmelshausen. After the Second World War various German intellectuals held an annual meeting chaired by the writer and editor Hans Werner Richter (to whom Grass' book is dedicated, as a 75th birthday present). Of the writers who attended these "Group 47" conferences, Grass was the one who could write the archaic vigor of Grimmelshausen. The Tin Drum is our century's Simplicissimus, with its child protagonist Oskar who is wiser in his childishness than the adults of the Nazi epoch whose identity he declines by simply refusing to grow.
Grass, who dropped out of school at 15, became at once the most archaic and the most sophisticated of German novelists. In a real sense he is the first German novelist of modern times. Place him beside Mann. Grass is wholly Northern European, angular, almost shapeless, earthy, folklorish; Mann began as a conscientious imitator of French forms (Zola, Flaubert). Mann's content is German; his narrative sense is foreign. Even Doktor Faustus, his most "Germanic" work, was inspired by Conrad and Joyce.
So The Meeting at Telgte is a fable about Grass' own world. We can match up the concerns of the Renaissance writers in his story with those of modern Germans: they remain curiously the same. A language belongs to everybody who speaks it. It is the one common bond of a society. Its usefulness, its native genius, its expressiveness are always a reflection of the cultureal flexibility and clarity of its speakers. Totalitarianism bruises, constrains, and warps a language. Whatever else writers are doing, they are constantly refining and caring for words. Grass' fable is about how this happens.
Alexander Haig, for example, speaks for most of the time in rubbery chunks of English caught in a grammatical mayhem, but in a moment of awesome drama, he reverted to a soldier's honest planness, and said, "The president has taken a round." That's Grimmelshausen language, sharp and lean. Grass shows us how the diction of poetry, apt to be mooney about the beauty of the human body, can be scorched by the sight of corpses choking a river; how music from Italy gives religious grace to German hymns; how theology and politics and philosophy must find words in masters of those disciplines; how shoddy and brutal languages spawned by violence must be replaced by words born of sense and decency.
Of all Grass' fables, this is the one that has universal application. We live at a time when the film version of The Tin Drum can be banned in North Carolina as "pornographic" -- the film itself being a cry against censors, bullies, and dictators. We are ruled by politicians who will not give a straight answer to any question, for whom language is so much noise. Advertising uses language soley to deceive. Voices from all directions -- pulpit, stump, soapbox, little magazine -- resemble more the gibbering of hysterical monkeys than rational, skilled human discourse. A Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adjectives is what we need, and Gyms for Trimmer Grammar, and a Crusade against Verbal Sludge, Let's all join.