Headbirths, or The Germans Are Dying Out
The Safety Net
Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll have both amply demonstrated their staying power and (more strikingly in the case of the former) their versatility. In their new books they have both (Grass more strikingly than Böll) turned into what in my childhood were called “worrits.” Since we can worry well enough by ourselves, and in any case lack no assistance or guidance from newspapers and TV, this may seem oddly supererogatory. However, these are at least distinguished worrits. Böll has the benefit of a degree of “psychological depth,” characters to dip into, and a story which like all good stories keeps the reader wondering what will happen next. Grass has the benefit of himself, or his “manner,” and the Matter of Germany (including the World): his characters here are the shadows of caricatures, extreme instances of the average, the somewhat intellectual, the representatively serious-minded man in a fairly busy street, while his package tour of a plot moves too fast for the Grass we know, and nearly always admire and sometimes even love, to grow under its hastening feet.
In Headbirths Grass has visited China (1979), and speculates on how things would be if there were as many Germans as there are Chinese, namely some 950 million. “Could the world bear it? Wouldn’t the world have to defend itself (but how?) against such a multitude?” As it is, there are barely 80 million Germans, counting both Germanies, and so, if you reckon without the foreigners (“which was the only natural and obvious thing to do”), you are forced to the conclusion that the Germans are dying out. “Living space without people. Is such a thought possible? Is such a thought permissible? What would the world be like without Germans?” How Americans may react to this I don’t know, but the British reader will smile sourly: he lives in a country where the essential services are operated chiefly by “foreigners”—well, they are colored—except when white union leaders fall out with white managers and a strike ensues. The Germans should worry!
Grass poses the second of his not altogether outré questions: “Isn’t there a certain grandeur in stepping out of history, in forgoing progeny, turning into a mere object of study for younger nations?” (The British reader will stop smiling sourly and burst into tears.) Thereupon he creates two characters—headbirths which can hardly have given him much of a headache—two well-intentioned German worriers, Harm Peters and his wife Dörte, who cannot make up their minds whether or not to bring a child into the world, “this world,” whose most frequent utterance is “on the one hand” followed by “on the other,” and sends them on a package tour of darkest Asia.
The purpose of the tour is not, of course, to visit temples (though Dörte gets carried away temporarily by mysticism induced by self-frustrated maternalism), but to “confront reality,” and (the souvenirs of the serious-minded?) bring it back to show to study groups at home. The travel agency they use bears the name “Sisyphus,” unlikely but symbolic: that’s what life is, pushing stones uphill again and again, or writing books even though not one of them actually changes the world. Sisyphus specializes in catering for people like Mr. and Mrs. Peters. It computes for its clients the protein deficiency in each place on the tour, the infant mortality, the per capita income, and (“cynical, but honest,” the Peterses decide) for an extra charge lays on such side trips as a night spent in a slum dwelling in Bangkok. The guide, who would probably have attained to mythic significance had he been given time, congratulates them on the “courage and love of reality” shown in taking up these extras.
To mention but a few, the worries of the Peterses include the third world, poverty versus wealth, overpopulation, the environment, nuclear reactors, and NATO. “Every month a million more Indians”—with a pun, surely the author’s, on “fast breeders.” The Chinese have done better than the Indians in the matter of the birth rate; the Indians have been corrupted by the West, by “neocolonialism”; the Chinese regulations—no premarital or extramarital sex, the subsidy on the first baby withdrawn if a second comes along, etc.—are “inhuman, cruel, constrictive” etc. On the other hand…on the other….
However, a novel, however exiguously a novel, needs a story. Harm Peters is provided with a kilo of German liver sausage to hand over to an old schoolfriend living in Bali: “I’m sure it will make Uwe happy. You can’t get it down there. And I remember like it was yesterday how he loved liver sausage.” Much is made of this “plot-fostering sausage,” or at least held out: for a brief while it looks as if Harm might get involved in a “not undangerous subplot” owing to his friend’s hypothetical smuggling of arms to an independence movement in Timor. But no, “we won’t get mixed up in that,” the author rules: the friend isn’t located, the sausage is left to fester. What a pity! We might have had an adventure story as well as a string of elegant ironies.
Grass and his headbirths are at one in their antipathy for Franz Josef Strauss and in campaigning for Helmut Schmidt in the 1980 elections. Indeed, Harm Peters is a “model democrat,” a Social Democrat, yet he declines to espouse one of Grass’s proposed reforms: the abolition of compulsory education or miseducation in the hope that unmiseducated children will turn naturally and eagerly to books and teach themselves to spell their way through them. On the one hand Harm might be expected to sympathize with the reform; on the other hand he and Dörte are themselves teachers.
Grass has another good cause, of his own: the two Germanies should be reunified as one cultural nation—that is, while remaining politically separate, they should come together under the roof of a common culture. (Which would frighten nobody.) “Only literature (with its inner lining: history, myths, guilt, and other residues) arches over the two states that have so sulkily cut themselves off from each other.”
We have, Grass continues, nothing better than our writers: the dead Heine and the living Biermann, Christa Wolf “over there” and Heinrich Böll “over here,” Goethe and Schiller, Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann, Luther and Uwe Johnson…. It might be thought that all this (eminently suitable for a lecture tour in China) was sparked off by an unfortunate generalization of Franz Josef Strauss’s, that “homegrown apocalyptic,” who once described writers as “rats and blowflies.”
Actually it is a hangover from the author’s previous novel, in which a group of writers assemble in Westphalia toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War in order to give “new force to the last remaining bond between all Germans, namely the German language.” The Meeting at Telgte is as playful and as ambiguous as Headbirths—and in some sense more modest: the manifesto drawn up by the writers (“the other, the true Germany”) appealing for peace, justice, and tolerance is finally consumed by a mysterious conflagration. But the earlier work has the advantage of “real” characters (the composer Schütz, the poets Gerhardt, Gryphius, Angelus Silesius, the novelist Grimmelshausen), who are neatly differentiated and carry more weight than the Peterses, those cardboard brainchildren.
Headbirths is a collection of footnotes, endowed with Grass’s free-spluttering intelligence, satirically pointed but not too sharp: if the author is flagellating himself at all, it is with a feather duster. Conceivably he is mischievously reminding the good that the better is their enemy, and that not all things at once does the Highest intend. In conclusion, “Murderously we’ll survive and be merry,” he says. “We shall adapt, defend, accommodate ourselves, and take safety measures. We will want to chuck it all and reproduce….” And so, it appears, will Dörte and Harm. As for the author himself, he looks forward to his New Year’s Eve party, at which (since books alone are certain good) fish will be served: “Flounder, it goes without saying.” Or, to say it by referring to the title of Grass’s last novel but one, Butt, or Turbot. Major writers must be allowed a generous helping of solipsism, but here Grass seems to be cannibalizing himself.
The worries in Böll’s more novelistic novel, The Safety Net, are fewer in number, but more pressing and (deliberately or not) well-nigh comic in their complications and ramifications. Fritz Tolm, an aging newspaper owner and newly (and rather incongruously) elected president of “The Association” (of tycoons from industry, energy, and the media), is—together with his family—the object of terrorist interest. Among the terrorists are several members of his family: an ex-daughter-in-law and her lover for certain, and possibly his two sons, one of whom is a former political activist while the other has joined the “alternative society.” The police and security men assigned to the case outnumber the potential victims and their potential attackers put together. Despite which, Tolm knows “that all these measures had to be yet would prevent nothing.”
The “safety net” which is flung over the Tolms inevitably traps a number of small, apolitical fish. The mildest peccadillo committed by a neighbor comes to light, privacy whether of present or past has ceased to exist, and the neighbors might be held to have stronger reasons than do the terrorists for hating the Tolms. Not that Fritz is what you might call a contented capitalist; he is humane, gentle, he radiates “capitalist melancholy,” he has been driven out of one handsome house because coal was discovered underneath and is about to be driven out of another to make room for a power station. A poor little rich man, it might seem.
His charming daughter Sabine is married to a vulgar, energetic businessman whose “modes” are made in East Germany and the sweatshops of the third world. Like the others, she risks “psychic damage” from fear of terrorists and the eternal presence of policemen. The rich are different from us: they have more worries. Sabine falls in love with Hendler, her security guard—the policemen are a decent lot, and this one is a distinct advance on her husband Fischer, the nastiest character in evidence here. So, if no terrorists, then no guards—and hence no great love affair….
Böll’s creation of his characters, largely through their interior monologues, though making for difficult reading (family “voices” have much in common), is admirable, even though not so rich and sharp as in his Group Portrait with Lady, and notably in the lady of the title. Böll’s sweetness of nature (there is no other description, and credit is due to the translator for preserving the characteristic tone) is reflected in Sabine, her mother Käthe, and—among the males—Tolm himself and Hendler. As in his previous work, touches of humor and a twist of wryness just save the sweetness from thickening into mawkishness. Sabine is a serious and loyal person, as is Hendler, and Hendler has a good, loyal wife to make him less blissful, and more serious. Of Sabine’s adultery, her father, thinking of the porn, pop, and dope currently in fashion, suggests that “perhaps she was longing for the good old sins, the way others long for the good old days”; his wife adds, “For which we never longed.”
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” Jane Austen wrote. “I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort and to have done with all the rest.” There is something of the same inclination in Böll; at any rate, he has an endearing preference for a happyish ending for as many of his people as may be. Which is not to suggest that he cheats: Sabine and Hendler and Hendler’s wife cannot all live happily ever after, and Hendler must surely (who is to guard the guards?) lose his job, at least.
But Böll’s terrorists turn out to be paper tigers. They have burned cars—thus aiding capitalism as much as communism or the environment. The leader, Tolm’s erstwhile activist son’s first wife’s lover and a hard man, blows himself to pieces, taking a Turkish policeman with him. (At the very end of Headbirths the Peterses nearly run over a symbolic Turkish boy, whose survival is cheered by a symbolic mob of children, all foreign, Indian, Chinese, African.) The first wife herself reaches the Dutch border, mounted on a boobytrapped bicycle (known in the trade as a “bucket”) which she then hands over to the police.
In a final strike Tolm’s seven-year-old grandson arrives from Istanbul—a “time bomb” created by “them”—and burns down the manor house. This is a device which would once have been called “diabolic,” and which smacks of science fiction: it misfires because no one is in the house at the time. True, these revolutionaries don’t need to do much, but simply to be, in order to tie up half the country. Every telephone call must be monitored in case it comes from one of “them,” every cake that enters the house has to be taken apart lest it should be stuffed with gelignite, any duck on the pond could turn into a robot-bomb. Is this how the state is to wither away? Under a safety net?
All the same, and much as the gentle reader desires the story to end in tolerable comfort, and little as he wants blood all over the walls or even loud voices prophesying doom, it does seem that Böll is excessively emollient in this novel. It is hypocrisy that chiefly draws his fire—for example, a clergyman who inveighs against his parishioners’ moral decay while sleeping with his housekeeper—and this is a target he hit more effectively in his novel of 1963, The Clown.
What happens with peculiar gratuitousness on the penultimate page needs more accounting for. Tolm confides to his wife that there are two things he has to tell her: first that (as she knows) he has always loved her, and secondly that “some form of socialism must come, must prevail….” This stands out like those stickers publishers insert on the title verso when they have forgotten to print the ISBN or the country of manufacture. Does Böll feel he has forgotten to tell us something? (And how vague and airy is that “some form of”!) His admirers may be reminded of the bien-pensant element in his makeup, of that conscious “balance” or too-deliberate insistence on being fair all round, noticeable in the essays in his collection, Missing Persons. On the one hand…on the other…. It might be that in their new books both Grass and Böll are making fun, more or less obviously, of the liberal tradition to which they belong. And that would really be the way to incur “psychic damage”—or worse. It is not recorded that Sisyphus’ stone ever rolled back on top of him.