BERLIN — Guenter Grass was to Germany what William Faulkner was to the old American South: The bard, scourge and pathfinder of a society ruined by moral disgrace and humiliated by military defeat.
For much of his adult life, the Nobel-winning writer held the rare status in the literary world of both national historian and inventor. Grass, who died Monday at age 87, often angered his fellow citizens by reminding them of their shared Nazi past. But through language of renewed freedom and lyricism and stories that were surreal yet recognizable, he also assumed the even greater challenge of imagining what they might become.
"His literary legacy will stand next to that of Goethe," German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said in a statement following the news of his death.
Grass' first and most famous novel, "The Tin Drum," came out in 1959 and ranks with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" as a modern, international classic and as a mini-encyclopedia of a country's state of mind.
Combining naturalistic detail with fantastical images, Grass captured the German reaction to the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the war and the guilt that lingered after Adolf Hitler's fall. The book follows the life of Oskar Matzerath, the boy in Danzig who is caught up in the political whirlwind of the Nazi rise to power and, in response, decides not to grow up. His toy drum becomes a symbol of this refusal.
"There are books that open doors for their readers, doors in the head, doors whose existence they had not previously suspected," Rushdie once wrote, citing "The Tin Drum" as a youthful rite of passage.
"This is what Grass's great novel said to me in its drumbeats: Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be ruthless. Argue with the world."
Grass' novel, later adapted by Volker Schloendorff into an Academy Award-winning movie, became the first installment of his so-called Danzig Trilogy. The series also included "Cat and Mouse" and "Dog Years" and was named for the town of his birth, now the Polish city of Gdansk. The books return again and again to Danzig, where Grass was born on Oct. 16, 1927, the son of a grocer.
"My sister and I did not have our own rooms, or even a place to ourselves," he told The Paris Review in 1991. "In the living room, beyond the two windows, was a little corner where my books were kept, and other thing — my watercolors and so on. Often I had to imagine the things I needed. I learned very early to read amidst noise."
Grass added, mischievously: "As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies."
Starting in the mid-1950s, Grass was a member of Group 47, a gathering of German writers and critics that also included Heinrich Böll and Uwe Johnson and had the mission of ridding the German language of the stilted, overwrought style of the Nazi era. Grass worked on "The Tin Drum" with the help of a stipend from the publishing house Luchterhand.
"The annual meetings of Group 47 provided a context for us from which German literature could re-emerge," Grass, who cited the German writer Alfred Doeblin and such Americans as Faulkner and Herman Melville as influences, told The Paris Review.
Despite initial shock in Germany over such a candid take on the then-recent Nazi reign, "The Tin Drum" became a worldwide success — a fact that Grass told The Associated Press in 2009 surprised him. Asked to reflect why the book was so popular, he noted that it tackles one of the most daunting periods of German history by focusing on the minutiae in the lives of ordinary people.
Then he quipped: "Perhaps because it's a good book."
Grass — winner of the Nobel in 1999 and the picture of the urbane intellectual with his pipe, gravelly voice, bushy mustache and slightly disheveled look — became a force in Germany's cultural and political discussion.
He argued passionately, and unsuccessfully, against the reunification of East and West Germany after the 1989 tearing down of the Berlin Wall, fearing even the potential of German dominance. He wrote speeches for one of Germany's most prominent liberal politicians, Willy Brandt. To much criticism, he wrote a prose poem, "What Must Be Said," in which he assailed Germany for allegedly aiding Israel's nuclear program and worried that a military strike "could annihilate the Iranian people."
Grass had faulted Germans so often, and for so long, about not confronting the Nazi era, that his opponents took special delight when the author admitted to his own slip of memory. He had always acknowledged being a Nazi supporter in his youth, but in 2006 he revealed in his memoir "Skinning the Onion" that, as a teenager, he had served in the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of Hitler's notorious paramilitary organization.
Recalling the pull of Nazi propaganda, he said that when he was assigned to the 10th SS Panzer Division "Frundsberg" he found "nothing offensive" about the prospect.
Grass offered an unheroic picture of his service with the division, which fought Soviet troops in the last days of the war in eastern Germany. It ended with his capture by the Americans in May 1945 after a shrapnel wound left his arm so stiff he couldn't move it. His division was delayed getting into the fighting because it was waiting for tanks that never came.
In a letter written to the mayor of Gdansk amid calls for him to be stripped of his honorary Polish citizenship, the author insisted that he had needed time to reflect on how to deal with what he called "this episode from my young years that was brief, but which weighed on me heavily."
His belated apology appeared to have been accepted in Poland. In Gdansk, officials planned to set up a condolence book Monday. Lech Walesa, a fellow Nobel laureate, said he remembered Grass fondly, adding that he and the author once exchanged books.
"My dedication to him was: "To a native of Gdansk — from a Gdansk resident by choice,'" Walesa recalled.
Grass also wrote short stories and essays and published volumes of his drawings and etchings. His more recent works, which included the novels "Call of the Toad" and "Crabwalk," received mixed reviews at home and abroad, with many questioning whether he had lost his incisive ability to critically comment on the darker side of German history.
In a 1972 speech delivered in Athens, Greece, the author argued that writers should reject the separation of art and politics, of creativity and citizenship.
"A writer must face up to the test of reality, including political reality; and that can't be done if he keeps his distance," he explained. "A literary style cultivated like a hothouse plant may show a certain artificial purity, but it won't really be pure."
Funeral plans weren't immediately known. Grass is survived by four children from his first marriage to Anna Schwarz, two stepchildren from his second marriage to Ute Grunert, and two children born to other partners.
Frank Jordans and David Rising in Berlin and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed