Jack’s Naughty Bits: Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum

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Jack's Naughty Bits

of what comes to pass for poignancy in the lives of men are isolated events of particular intensity. We remember vomiting in third grade math class, hitting a winning home run in Little League, smoking our first cigarette, making love badly and furtively on the practice football field under winking, mocking stars. Yet perhaps these moments of seeming poignancy are simply conspicuous stoppages along the axis of what really makes life beautiful and tragic: the long lazy awakening to the realities of desire and mortality. We live and slowly learn that no rose could symbolize love could it not also symbolize death.


I say these things by way of introduction to this excerpt from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. The novel is spectacular, from the opening scene of a potato farmer hiding a fugitive under her four skirts, to the visit to the liquorless “bar,” the Onion Cellar, where one goes for a slice and a good cry, to and through the allegorical Bildung of its principal character Oskar, the drummer boy who decided at age three to grow no more. The excerpt is Oskar’s first brush with sexuality (told in both first and third person), but even more it is his flash recognition of what normally takes years to realize: that mingled in every moment of sweetest joy is an ashy tinge of finitude.

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From The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

translated by Ralph Manheim

It was quite beyond me why Maria . . . should whistle while removing her shoes, two high notes, two low notes, and while stripping off her socks. Whistling like the driver of a brewery truck she took off the flowery dress, whistling she hung up her petticoat over her dress, dropped her brassiere, and still without finding a tune, whistled frantically while pulling her panties, which were really gym shorts, down to her knees, letting them slip to the floor, climbing out of the rolled-up pants legs, and kicking the shorts into the corner with one foot.


Maria frightened Oskar with her hairy triangle . . . Rage, shame, indignation, disappointment, and a nascent half-comical, half-painful stiffening of my watering can beneath my bathing suit made me forget drum and drumsticks for . . . the new stick I had developed.


Oskar jumped up and flung himself on Maria. She caught him with her hair. He buried his face in it. It grew between his lips. Maria laughed and tried to pull him away. I drew more and more of her into me, looking for the source of her vanilla smell. Maria was still laughing. She even left me to her vanilla, it seemed to amuse her, for she didn’t stop laughing. Only when my feet slipped and I hurt her — for I didn’t let go the hair or perhaps it was the hair that didn’t let me go — only when the vanilla brought tears to my eyes, only when I began to taste mushrooms or some acrid spice, in any case, something that was not vanilla, only when this earthy smell that Maria concealed behind the vanilla brought me back to the smell of the earth where Jan Brodski lay moldering and contaminated me for all time with the taste of perishability — only then did I let go.

© Random House, Inc.