PEN American Center mourns the loss and celebrates the life of German PEN member, honorary PEN president, and Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, whom many called his country’s moral conscience. According to Grass’s publisher, Steidl Verlag, the 87-year-old writer died in a clinic in the northern German city of Lübeck. No cause of death was given. 

Geoffrey Mulligan, Grass’s long-time British editor, was quoted in The Guardian saying that Grass was “one of the giants of world literature”, adding: “Whereas most people would be delighted to excel in one artistic discipline, Günter Grass was an accomplished artist, sculptor, poet, playwright and novelist. In person he was funny, generous and wonderful company.” 

As a young man, Grass found himself involved in a group of artists and intellectuals known as Group 47 in Dusseldorf and Berlin, but soon abandoned a potential career in visual art to devote himself to literature. In 1956 he began work on The Tin Drum, a wildly inventive book that propeled him to worldwide fame, inciting as much criticism for its view that Germany had failed to prevent Nazism as it did praise. Twenty years later, the book would find popularity again when it was turned into a film by reknowned director Volker Schlondorff and awarded the Academy Award for Best Forest Language Film in 1979. 

In 1999 Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Speaking to the Swedish Academy, Grass explained that the reaction to The Tin Drum taught him “that books can cause offence, stir up fury, even hatred, that what is undertaken out of love for one’s country can be taken as soiling one’s nest. From then on I have been controversial.”

His last novel, 2002’s Crabwalk, dived into the sinking of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, which saw the deaths of four times as many as those on the Titanic. His three volumes of memoir—Peeling the Onion, The Box, and Grimms’ Wordsalso explored the suppression of German history in the aftermath of international defeat.

Filled with prodigious energy and life, Grass spent many of his older years involved with political debate and discussion, and was a strong supporter of many international causes, from the environment to cleaning up world debt. He was dedicated to PEN’s fight for freedom of expression, and was most recently the first signatory to a joint PEN International, German PEN, and English PEN appeal calling for greater protection of refugees in Europe. Of his writing, J.M. Coetzee said: “His strengths lie…in the acuteness of his observation of German society at all levels, in his sense of the deeper currents of the national psyche, and his ethical steadiness.” 

Read the full obituaries at The New York Times and The Guardian.

Read PEN International’s statement.