In John Simon's review of My Century by Gunter Grass (Book World, Dec. 19) the German chancellor who laid a wreath at the site of the former Warsaw ghetto in 1970 should have been cited as Willy Brandt, not Conrad Adenauer. Adenauer was chancellor from 1949 to 1963, and died in 1967. (Published 01/09/2000)


By Gunter Grass

Harcourt. 280 pp. $25

Reviewed by John Simon

Already the title should give us pause. Do we emphasize my or century? Is it, modestly, the century Gunter Grass happens to inhabit? Or is it, cheekily, his view of a century he gathers up in his arms and takes possession of? Grass, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, is being both self-effacing and arrogant, and therein lies this flawed book's undeniable charm and lasting fascination.

The concept is sassily original: one vignette of two to four pages for each year of the century. The focal point is some historic event that took place or phenomenon that came to a head in that particular year, as seen by an observer or participant who may have benefited or suffered from it. The form may be monologue or dialogue, a speech or a letter, an immediate account or backward glance. The vignette may be a well-rounded short-short story with its climax, or a mini-essay that fades away almost anticlimactically into the flow of history.

For certain memorable periods, such as the years of the two world wars, several interconnected vignettes form a longer sequence. More and more often Grass himself appears as witness or participant. Often the main event is treated obliquely, with the emphasis elsewhere. Sometimes there are several focal points. The historic protagonist, e.g. Eichmann at his trial, is almost never the speaker. At times, it is even a guessing game, with the historic personage named only near the end, or left up to you to identify. You're watching a sort of movie, the images dissolving into one another to yield a graspable continuum.

The author is taking chances, what with the reader having to shift gears and get reinvolved 99 times, and having to become a bit of a sleuth to boot. And having to know a good bit about Germany in the past century, one may feel overextended or excluded and quit. For even though the book includes events of global significance, the overwhelming emphasis is on Germany. Perhaps the English edition should have included explanatory notes; but that, too, might have been offputting.

Then again, Grass -- especially the later, more politicized and current-event-oriented Grass -- may not be for the average reader, American or European. Such a reader may find My Century too disjunctive, lacking a hero or heroine on whose ongoing fortunes the mind can hitch an easy ride. An alert and literate reader, however, may be stimulatingly challenged by the work's intricacies, and enjoy Grass's narrative and stylistic mastery. The momentum derives not from a lulling flow or titillating suspense but from astoundingly acrobatic leaps from perch to unexpected perch.

Readers of Grass's fiction (there are also his poetry, drama, essays, political and travel writings, plus his fine graphic art) will recall the amazing authorial transformations into such diverse characters as a mischievous hunchbacked dwarf with a glass-shattering tin drum or a bunch of simultaneously past and present writers at one another's throats during a literary conference. And no one save Zeus has changed himself into more animals: Hitler's dog, a fabled flounder, a female rat, a snail, a toad, even a merely figurative cat and mouse. But whereas Zeus did it to seduce women, Grass seduces male and female readers alike. German has a word for it: Einfuhlung, feeling yourself into another, at which Grass is a champion.

Although never as narrators, many representatives of different disciplines figure strikingly here: such poets as Georg Heym, Paul Celan, and the communist-prosecuted bard Wolf Biermann; such novelists as the popular Erich Maria Remarque, the elitist Ernst Junger, and the feminist Sarah Kirsch; such artists as the painter Max Liebermann, the architect Hans Scharoun, and the sketcher Gunter Grass; and such influential thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Jurgen Habermas.

Equally prominent are various scientists, athletes in different sports, politicians like Helmut Schmidt, Franz Josef Strauss, and Konrad Adenauer. And, of course, Hitler and his devastation, the divided Germany and its balefulness. Also included are problems from inflation to deforestation, from disabled war veterans to resented foreign workers, wars (even far-away ones, in Vietnam, the Gulf, the Falklands), political assassinations, and the ups and downs of German industry.

Still, writing about a century involves making choices. It is like the ascent of a mighty mountain by a single climber. However cognizant and respectful of competitors, he concentrates on his angle of vision; even the view from the summit may not be the same for all. The open question is whether Grass's century, his panorama, is inclusive and shared enough -- whether My Century is bigger, more truly universal, than the sum of its parts. Opinions will differ, but the very disagreement should prove provocative and profitable.

The task of the translator, Michael Henry Heim, must have been daunting. An endless variety of styles, slang, dialects, wordplay, topical references and idiomatic jokes had to be somehow conveyed in English, and Heim's achievement is prodigious; my few quibbles pale before his marathon with added hurdles. To be sure, there are untranslatables, such as those great German compound vocables, pre-existent or Grass-made (e.g., stinknormal, reeking of ordinariness) that Heim's rendering as "run-of-the-mill" can only ruefully trail after.

How to illustrate in brief Grass's wit, poignance and variety? Take Chancellor Adenauer, in 1970, at the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, laying a wreath. A journalist first tells it the way he saw it, starting "like the same old routine . . . But no, he's got something up his sleeve; down he goes, down on the wet granite, with no support from his hands, no, he clasps his hands in front of his balls and puts a holier-than-the-pope look on his face, holds out for a good minute or so till the shutters stop clicking, then picks himself up, but not the easy way . . . no, in one go, as if he'd practiced it for days in front of the mirror, and then he stands there as if he'd just seen the Holy Ghost, as if to show the Poles -- no, the whole world -- how photogenic eating humble pie can be." There is more; then comes the publishable version, markedly different, ending with Adenauer gallantly "taking [Germany's] guilt upon his own shoulders, though he did not in fact bear the guilt himself."

Or here is a working-class mother in 1932, in the midst of Depression and unemployment: " `I'll get us through,' she'd say, and laugh happily if she had some lard to spread on the bread she gave me to take to school, or joke sadly -- `Bread sandwich today' -- when all she had was dry bread." Her son, grown old, reminisces: " `It couldn't happen now,' I told my grandson the other day when he started bitching about things again. `You're right,' the kid said. `No matter how many people are out of work, the stock market keeps going up.' "

A gathering of World War II veterans looks back, much later, on 1943, as a photographer reviews his war pictures. "The one that became world famous after the war was the one showing a group of women and children with their hands up and our men . . . pointing their guns at them. And a nice little Jewish kid out in front. In knee socks. With a peaked cap sliding off his head . . . It's been reproduced thousands of times. All over the world. Book covers even. Made a real cult figure of the kid. And not a word of credit to the photographer. Not a penny have I earned . . . But once I estimated that if I'd got fifty marks each time it came out, I'd have chalked up . . ."

In 1959, Grass and his first wife, a dancer, escape from the brouhaha of the Frankfurt Book Fair to go dancing, and "with the rhythm of our youth -- Dixieland," they recall the days of happy poverty in Paris. They were invited to the fair upon publication of Grass's first triumph, The Tin Drum, "so we could experience, no, savor the acclaim together, from foretaste to aftertaste, but mostly what we did was dance, later too, after making a name for ourselves, though having less and less from dance to dance to say to each other."

Asked in 1985 to convey how senior citizens lived in the '80s for her grandson's master's thesis, an old woman tells of watching tennis on TV with her friend, Frau Scholz. There was "Bobbele" Becker, whom the crones adored. "On the other hand, I've never been able to warm up to Steffi -- Miss Forehand, Frau Scholz calls her -- and as for her tax-dodger father with his dirty dealings, well, the less said the better. It didn't bother me that my Bobbele could be unbending, even flip, but neither of us was happy about the way he moved to Monaco to get out of paying taxes."

The most daring gamble in this book of gambles is the last vignette, 1999. Here Grass imagines that his mother, who died at age 58, is speaking as if she were alive today. It is to show how history and fiction can melt into each other, but some may think it mere virtuoso grandstanding. Even then, should one blame a whole mosaic for the vainglory of a single tessera? There is a German verb, grassieren, which means "to be rampant, rife, prevalent, to prevail." The word might as well derive from Gunter Grass, rampant with bravura showmanship, rife with impudent trickery and, in the end, prevailing.

John Simon is the drama critic of New York magazine and the film critic of National Review.