Grass novel probes the role of the post-war artist; The Meeting at Telgte, by Gunter Grass. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Afterword by leonard Forster. New York Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $9.95.
Group 47, the controversial post-World War II gathering of German-language writers, was not a literary clique, according to a writer in Hamburg's weekly Die Zeit during the group's heyday. It was "a literary fair, held once a year, and the way things happen there is as cheerful and as ridiculous, as cruel and as loud, as colorful and as entertaining as a real fair."
This definition might almost have provided an outline for the compact new novel by one of the most celebrated alumni. Gunter Grass, from a roster including Heinrich Boll, Uwe Johnson, and Group 47 founder Hans Werner Richter. But since this is Grass, a slavish realism is not the order of the day. And the story is likely to be as entertaining as a real fair only for those prepared to wade through a certain amount of horror and ribaldry to a midway of such rarefied pleasures as literary gamesmanship and political allusion, along with depth charges of irony.
The book begins with: "The thing that hath been tomorrow is that which shall be yesterday." Lo, the scene is not 1947 but 1647, and Group 47 becomes a congregation of poets meeting in Westphalia amid lingering violence as negotiations proceed to try to end not World War II but the Thirty YEars' War. What if there had actually been such a meeting then in this "spooky sort of town , but clearly suitable for a congress"? Would anything have been different in later years? What if there had not been a Group 47 300 hundred years later? Would anything be different now? The questions hang in the air as Grass juggles the parallels and differences.
Though "The Meeting at Telgte" is a mere canape beside Grass's last big novel , "The Flounder," it similarly uses the imaginary of food with almost moral resonance. Not to mention with the kind of concrete detail through which Grass gives narrative life to various elements in what could otherwise seem a carnival of abstractions.
As these men of the past/present read their works to each other, wrangle over matters of taste and style, congratulate themselves on the natural superiority of poets over princes, they reveal themselves to us rather more than to themselves. Perhaps Grass is settling old scores here or having second thoughts about his own role as a postwar artist. At all events he forces these literati to confront a nagging proposition -- that it's hard to remain holier-than-thou when accepting the fruits of others' unholy deeds. Hard, but for some not impossible. It's enough to nudge people besides the poets of Telgte toward a little self-examination.