The Meeting at Telgte

by Gunter Grass. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,$9.95. Mr. Grass imagines that writers from various German states gathered in a battered town at the end of the Thirty Years War to discuss their art, the German language, and the disastrous state of the world. Since his seventeenth-century authors are all historical figures (identified in a glossary by Professor Leonard Forster), Mr. Grass has counted on a German audience’s familiarity with them to fill out his quick, simplified characterizations. American readers, barring German specialists, may have some trouble distinguishing one of these hymn writers from another but will have no trouble enjoying their activities. Their critical debates are a wonderful muddle of disinterested aesthetics and self-serving maneuver, and there is much comic irony in the contrast between their high moral principles and the illegal activities that enable them to survive at Telgte. In a short space, Mr. Grass says a great deal about the cultural importance of literature and about its practical limitations. Translated by Ralph Manheim.