Günter Grass's Tribute to Uwe Johnson

Kurt J. Fickert, Wittenberg University, Ohio

The friendship between Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson was a significant factor in their lives and, in regard to Grass, in his work. The high esteem Grass accorded his fellow novelist and close friend has been aptly demonstrated by Grass's having listed in Too Far Afield (2000), the translation of his earlier novel Ein weites Feld (1995), the date of Johnson's death as a historic event in the year 1984. It can readily be assumed that Grass prefaced this English version with a list of important political and literary happenings in Germany because he was certain that its readers would have little ready knowledge of them. However, if these readers were acquainted with Grass's previous works, they would at least be prepared for the length and complexity of the text that indeed constitutes ein weites Feld.1

The close relationship between Grass and Johnson and their families began when they were next-door neighbors living in the no-man's land in Berlin that lay between the German Democratic Republic and West Germany. In the literary realm they soon became the unequal Dioscuri among the writers of a divided Germany.2 The more acclaimed of the pair, Grass achieved greater recognition because of the gargantuan proportions of the diverse and intellectually stimulating fiction he wrote and published. In turn Grass himself held Johnson in high esteem and considered the somewhat smaller number of his publications to have a literary significance equal to if not even superior to his own. In my view Grass paid particular tribute to his fellow novelist in Too Far Afield, written after Johnson's early death. In addition, I should like to propose that a less obvious allusion to Johnson in Grass's fiction depicts him as a member of the group of authors who sought to reestablish German literature in the seventeenth century, after the Thirty Years War had demolished it. Grass devotes his short novel Das Treffen in Telgte (1979; The Meeting in Telgte, 1981) to this theme.

Too Far Afield has the hallmark of all of Grass's major fiction: great length, a text that relates historic events from the viewpoint of a Jonathan Swift-like mind, and a plentitude of characters. Some of these appear in a series of guises; thus the narrator in this story considers himself to be a "we," a group of storytellers. Appearing without fictional embellishment as a close friend of this central figure in Too Far Afield is Uwe Johnson, one of postwar Germany's eminent authors. References to and appearances by Johnson in the novel constitute a tribute to him by Grass.

The main character in Too Far Afield is Theo Wuttke, whose resemblance to Grass, particularly in regard to his obsession with the written word, constitutes the basic motif in the story. Theo, called Fonty, is preoccupied both with the nineteenth-century German novelist Theodor Fontane and, as a civil servant, with the official documents he is employed to store away in a massive building in East Berlin during the era of a divided Germany. The book's German title, Ein weites Feld, is a line taken from one of Fontane's best-known characters, namely, Old Briest, who, in one of Fontane's finest novels, Effi Briest, has a penchant for saying "That's too broad a field for us to go into at the moment," whenever he is pressed for his opinion. Thereby, Grass comments ironically on his own daring in undertaking to write about the difficult time when defeated Germany was a pariah among nations.

The dilemma of divided Germany's reunification and simultaneously its redemption or, in the opinion of the East Germans, its ultimate downfall is depicted by the symbol of the elevator in Fonty's cubby-hole-ridden workplace, which goes not only up and down but also from one side to the other. (This feature indicates perhaps the all-encompassing nature of Grass's fiction.) The collapse of this house of archives subsequent to the reunification of Germany expresses the author's chagrin in that regard. Fonty also plays an active part in the casual meetings of Berlin's literati. Under these circumstances, the Günter Grass aspect of his character comes to the fore. On one occasion the novel's "we"-narrator describes discovering the presence of the authentic Uwe Johnson at the gathering. Grass reports: "(A) few contemporaries insist they spotted Uwe Johnson, destined to die too young, gazing speculatively over the shoulder of the surrogate Fonty, who held a quill pen at the ready" (TFA 38).3 In describing further aspects of his close friendship with Johnson, the storyteller states that "we know that until the mid-sixties he (Grass) corresponded with Johannes Bobrowski, for a while with Fritz Fühmann and other authors, probably even with Uwe Johnson before and after his departure [for England]" (TFA 290). Johnson had chosen to leave the troubled confines of Germany and to settle down in a quiet town on England's seashore.

Grass's lengthiest reference to the friendship between the two renowned German authors appears as an appendage to his description of the monument to Frederick the Great, beneath which the emperor's bier, hidden away during the Second World War, had just been reinterned. Grass interjects the comment that Johnson had ignored the presence of Fonty on this occasion: "He showed no interest at all in Theo Wuttke the file courier" (TFA 507). Nevertheless, in a letter sent home to his wife, Fonty as one aspect of the "we"-narrator relates a nonfictitious account of Grass and Johnson in conversation: "And then my colleague, so unhappy and so engaging, surprised me withcan you guess, Mete? [Fonty's wife]a present. He reached into his briefcase, black leather of course, and pulled out some handwritten pages, from the fourth volume of his demanding, yet all in all outstanding Anniversaries, pages that had my Schach [Old Briest, Fontane's celebrated character] as their subject, an episode of only a few pages, but a real gem!" (TFA 509).

Bringing to a close his description of this meeting between Grass and Johnson, the narrator, here unabashedly Grass, abandons the pretense of fiction and writes a panegyric on the subject of the early death and true worth of his colleague. "When it came to literature, he was number one," Grass proposes, "and without a doubt a solitary, whose appalling death, reported not long afterward, left me feeling lonely.... Ah, if only I had had a laurel wreath! If a trip to England ever became possible for me, I would go to Sheerness-on-Sea, where he met his wretched death, and place a wreath of immortelles [sic] there" (TFA 510).

In paying tribute to another German novelist, Fontane, whose creativity he also holds to be on a level with his own, Grass chose the title Ein weites Feld to indicate the broad area he would undertake to survey. It is, in addition, a phrase put to use in casual conversation, indicating subject matter too deep to be considered superficially. Quite appropriately Grass has borrowed the saying, "That's too broad a topic for discussion now," conveniently used by Fontane's character Schach when pressed to supply some words of wisdom on spur of the moment. The title of the translation Too Far Afield, however, is too wide of the mark and itself too far afield. The broad area that Grass set out to explore in his novels, including those of lesser girth than Too Far Afield, he considered to be similar to that which Johnson dealt with within the smaller compass of his work. Both sought to analyze the problem of being a German in modern times, that is, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Grass's Too Far Afield undertakes to investigate the two recent instances of the reunification of the German nation; Johnson's Jahrestage depicts a failed attempt to escape the results of having grown up in the years that fostered the advent of the second one.

Grass's novella The Meeting in Telgte imaginatively depicts a congregation of poets supposedly assembled in the German town of Telgte toward the end of the Thirty Years War. The poets have been invited to come to the town in order to participate in the task of salvaging the little that has remained of the heritage of "German" literature. The description of this fictional event serves the additional purpose of bringing to the reader's mind the actual postSecond World War meetings of the German literati who were members of the so-called "Gruppe 47." In 1947 and until 1977 they gathered together once a year to support the postSecond World War revitalization of German literature. Grass has deftly related the characters in his fiction to contemporary authors familiar to his readers. Thus the modern author Hans Werner Richter, who founded "Group (19)47," can be associated with the Baroque poet Simon Dach, whose fatherly presence, it is suggested, held in check the raucous meeting at Telgte. The liveliest and most rambunctious figure present at the gathering is Gelnhausen, the only writer of prose in attendance; the name is one used by the most prominent novelist of the Baroque period, Grimmelshausen. Grass has subtly evolved a self-portrait in depicting this character.

Although it is to be assumed that no composers have been invited to join the gathering at Telgte, one appears in Grass's novella, notably the most gifted of the age, Heinrich Schütz. In characterizing this musical genius, Grass has craftily compared his composing to the writing of a prose text. Thus the narrator of The Meeting at Telgte reports: "Since no one valued the word as highly as he [Schütz] and his music was meant only to serve the word, to interpret it, enliven it, to express its gesticulations as sound in the deepest depths, to extend it, heighten it, Schütz was strict with his words."4 In all likelihood this reverence for the written (or printed) word is a hidden reference and tribute to Uwe Johnson, who attended many of the meetings of Group 47. On one occasion in 1966, Johnson and Grass flew together to New York in order to attend the Group's sole non-European assemblage. It took place at Princeton University and in that setting was even more acrimonious than usual. As Schütz left Telgte some time before the end of the meeting, so Johnson left Princeton behind him without staying for the session's close. He had previously informed Grass that he intended to set out at the earliest opportunity to seek out and visit his idol, the American novelist William Faulkner. (At that meeting Faulkner told his admirer "I am not a literary man," and bid him farewell.) Although it has duly been noted, for example, by Alan Frank Kale in his study Günter Grass, that the composer Hans Werner Henze had at times attended sessions of the Group, neither his music nor his biography would have provided Grass with a model for the imposingly religious baroque musician Schütz. However, the closeness of the friendship between Grass and Johnson, established by an extended period of daily contact and the fervor and brilliance of Johnson's work, could well have led Grass to select him to play a double role, as prominent as his own, in The Meeting at Telgte. Like Johnson, who was not as talkative as Grass in general and during the meetings of the Group, Schütz, as Grass depicts him, takes no noisy part in the contentious discussions of the assembled authors. He adds some words of wisdom when speaking up is appropriate. In one such moment, he returns to the theme of the writer's reverence for the word: "Authors [Dichter] are denied having any power, except for the one: to compose the correct, even if ineffective words" (Treffen 92; my translation). Johnson also shared with Schütz a rigorous sense of morality. (Because of the obsessive nature of this trait, Johnson ended his marriage.)

Both The Meeting at Telgte and Too Far Afield deal with the relationship between the author and his function as a critic of the political controversies of his time. In the latter book Grass passes judgment on the recent reunification of East and West Germany that, in some sense, reestablished Bismarck's imperial and warring state. By interweaving history and the lives of prominent authors (Fontane, Johnson, his own), Grass demonstrates that it is the task of literature to help shape the political future. The literary association called Group 47 sought, but ultimately failed, to accomplish a reintegration of literature and politics within a democratic purview. As the description of the failure of a much earlier attempt to achieve the same aim, The Meeting at Telgte nevertheless confirms the brilliance of Grass's writing. As a much lengthier restatement of his convictions, Ein weites Feld gives ample evidence of the perpetuity of his authorial abilities.


1. The English translation of the title Too Far Afield is an example of unsuccessful wordplay: A Far (Vast) Field; the latter was used in critical literature before the publication of the English translation. See Günter Grass, Too Far Afield (New York: Harcourt, 2000). Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text in parentheses following the abbreviation TFA. Cf. Grass , Ein weites Feld (Gttingen: Steidl, 1995).
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2. See Bernd Neumann, Uwe Johnson (Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1994) 392.
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3. A sketch of Grass's hand holding a quill pen accompanies his novella Das Treffen in Telgte, to which I shall refer subsequently in this essay.
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4. Günter Grass, Das Treffen in Telgte (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1981) 55; my translation.
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