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Günter Grass: Das Treffen in Telgte (The Meeting at Telgte)

Though actually set in 1647, this novel has many references to the present. It is the story of a meeting of German writers in the town of Telgte, located between Münster and Osnabrück, where negotiations were currently taking place for what became The Treaty of Westphalia, an important foundation of relations between nation-states, till Tony Blair officially rejected it in 2004. Few, if any writers, will mean anything to those not versed in German literature. I had heard only of Heinrich Schütz (a composer) and Grimmelshausen, author of Simplicissimus. However, the group is clearly meant to represent the Gruppe 47, with the coordinator of the meeting, Simon Dach, representing Hans Werner Richter, to whom this novel is dedicated. As most non-Germans will have difficulty in recognizing any of the seventeenth century writers, it is not easy to determine whether any of the twentieth century ones – Richter apart – are represented by their seventeenth century counterparts. It has been suggested that Schütz, who arrives late, criticizes current German poetry and then leaves early, is Hans Werner Henze, while Andreas Gryphius, the doom-and-gloom man might be Heinrich Böll. If this is a roman à clef, it might be more a portrait of a general group of writers rather than any individual.

The meeting is fictitious, at least as far as we know. Indeed, that a group of writers travel from various parts of Europe during The Thirty Years War is itself a bit of a stretch. Though most come from what is now Germany some come from what is now Poland and other parts of Europe. Weckherlin, for example, comes from England, which gives Grass an opportunity to knock both English cooking and Oliver Cromwell, a then rising military star. However, they do all manage to get there. As with all conferences, they have their issues. Their accommodations have been taken over by Swedish troops so Grimmelhausen gets them another inn by frightening the current guests with stories of the plague. There are problems with the food (it is very plain, given the political situation), the accommodations (they have to share) and, of course, the younger members are after the serving girls. The conference itself focuses on key issues. Language is, of course, important, with Grass stressing the regional variations are discussions about whether the language is deutsch or teutsch. Manuscripts are read and discussions take place, with religion, politics and the nature of poetry to the fore. Reality does, of course, intrude. One of the writers goes for an evening walk and sees bodies floating in the river.

The landlady of the inn is Mother Courage, whom Grimmelshausen will use in his novel and who will be made famous by Bertolt Brecht in his play. She is, of course, somewhat larger than life and certainly larger than the writers, a dig Grass clearly intentionally makes. Indeed, when it comes to story-telling, she does a better job than the professionals. Indeed, the writers have little influence on events. They draft a feeble manifesto, calling for peace but it, like the inn in which they are staying, is burned down. In short, poets should stick to poetry but they can have little influence on the real world. The book was also made into an opera.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1981 by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich
Translated by Ralph Manheim