01 May 2015

Monosyllabic snails

In an essay in Campo Santo (2003), a posthumous collection of prose writings, W. G. Sebald provided a critical review of From the Diary of a Snail (1974) by Günter Grass. The critique in "Constructs of Mourning: Günter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer" was consistent to Sebald's championing of factual context in fiction, instead of unsupported imagination, to deal with episodes of the war and war bombings.

Grass died less than a month ago at the age of 87. One read his many obituaries and found there a coverage of a literary life that inevitably highlighted, that never failed to mention, the novelist's controversial revelation of serving in the Waffen SS at age 17. The admission came very late in his life, recounted in the autobiographical work Peeling the Onion (2006). For some this has tainted the legacy of a novelist who had been seen as a leading voice or conscience of a generation.

Why did it take so long for him to share this information. He wrote in his memoir: “What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.”

In Sebald's essay, published way back in 1983, a detection and analysis of this tendency was already apparent. The insight into a writer's internal anguish was spot on.

From time to time a sense of fraternity in a common cause spreads among the generation of "quadragenarians" who hope for a new political dawn and who, Grass thinks, "seem to be trying to compensate by overproduction for the reduced achievement of a few decimated war years." The reader almost feels that the author finds absolution for what still irks him about the German past, although he knows himself innocent of it, in his practical commitment to a better German political system, and that only in active politics and the hectic taste of traveling—identified by [Heinrich] Böll in his Frankfurt Lectures as a particularly German form of desperation—can he keep a little way ahead of those resolute, monosyllabic snails Guilt and Shame. [emphasis supplied]

Sebald provided the source for the monosyllabic snails in a footnote.

In Tagebuch einer Schnecke (From the Diary of a Snail), Grass tells his children: "It's true: you're innocent. I, too, born almost late enough, am held to be free from guilt. Only if I wanted to forget, if you were unwilling to learn how it slowly happened, only then might words of one syllable catch up with us: words like guilt and shame; they, too, resolute snails, impossible to stop" (p. 13; Eng., p. 13). The most notable feature of this passage is the less than convincing logic of the last couple of lines.

His negative assessment in that last sentence, in the light of Grass's revelation, took on a double-edged meaning. There was hindsight in that sentence. A leveling of the insurmountable burden of guilt progressing into the field with a pace as slow and as laborious as a snail's.

Campo Santo was translated by Anthea Bell, From the Diary of a Snail was translated by Ralph Manheim, and Peeling the Onion was translated by Michael Henry Heim.


  1. Hindsight is a wonderful thing & only becomes wiser the older one gets, or further away from the original sight.

  2. In hindsight, one can only judge hindsight after a long time has passed, and only after zooming out of the original tree to see the whole forest.

  3. Glad to see you back blogging again, Rise, and glad to be reminded of Sebald's criticism gifts again. One of these days, I must find some time for one of his nonfiction offerings.

  4. I was terribly busy at work and I was traveling. But still reading books.