On September 30th, Sweden’s Nobel Committee righted what many have long considered an egregious wrong by awarding its 1999 Prize for Literature to Germany’s greatest living novelist. Grass remains most celebrated for his early masterpieces, The Tin Drum and Dog Years, but forty years’ worth of vigorous fiction, poetry, and sociopolitical commentary testify eloquently to his ongoing creative vitality, as do a highly controversial recent novel (to appear here next year as Too Far Afield) and his ingenious new fiction, My Century: a mosaic history of modern Germany, comprising a hundred brief stories, one for each year of the present century. Thus: a young Bavarian soldier recounts his experiences in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900; a pieceworker at the Krupp munitions factory explains how a (then) ultimate weapon was named “Big Bertha” after her; a “peat cutter” forced to help build a concentration camp comments on Jesse Owens’s domination of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games; and unnamed representative citizens offer their perspectives on such watershed events as the “economic miracle” of the late 1950s, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Grass varies these narrating voices, which, though engagingly differentiated, are uniformly lively and seductive. The war years 1914-18 are discussed, in conversations held nearly a half-century afterward, by prominent German novelists Erich Maria Remarque and (the now centenarian) Ernst Juenger. A nameless war correspondent fills in details of the period 1941-45. And Grass himself chimes in, first in 1927 (the year of his birth), then with increasing frequency from the 1980s forward, as he wryly observes his country’s resurgent militarism, gathers material for the aforementioned Too Far Afield (which was published in1995), and, when in the 1990s geneticists begin cloning sheep, expresses his fear of a coming “fatherless society.” And in the mischievous and dazzling final chapter (“1999”), Grass’s late mother (d. 1954) tartly laments the prospect of her now elderly son, who’s “made quite a name for himself…bringing me to life again for one of his stories.”
A masterly synthesis of fiction, history, and autobiography. My Century is one of Grass’s most skillfully crafted books and proof positive that the Nobel Prize – passing this year from José Saramago to Günter Grass – once again rests in good hands.