A Writer’s Progress

A Writer’s Progress

From the Diary of a Snail, by Gunter Grass. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 310 pp.

In some sense, all writers and artists are politically engaged; they have to protect the integrity of their work from the heavy hand of the commissar and the censor. In defense of freedom of expression the nonpolitical painter and the political poet share an ethos. A smaller number, whose work itself takes shape from political events, often feel compelled to make a personal commitment. These men and women choose parties, frame policies, enroll in movements. They could not do otherwise, even if, as Auden kept saying in his later years, a life in literature carries no special warranty of wisdom for a life in politics. Orwell, Malraux, and Silone come to mind as contemporary examples. Gunter Grass, one of West Germany’s most celebrated novelists, belongs in such company. His novels, The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Local Anaesthetic, are about the Nazi nightmare and the morning after in postwar Germany. His characters, at once grotesque and deeply human, wander across the German landscape, buffeted by war or made restless by postwar affluence, moved to and fro by “the state.” And in the context of the more personal political commitment I am describing, Gunter Grass has been, and is now, an activist in the Social Democratic party and a friend of the SDP’s leader and ex-Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt.


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