I think that a personal approach to Günter Grass’s new novel is right because it is a work about which one is certain to be wrong. Grass read a couple of chapters from it aloud last year to a New York audience that included “most of New York’s German intelligentsia,” and Miss Marilyn Moorcroft, who was among those present, reported in Commonweal that “oddly enough, even after the reading, the content of the excerpts of the two chapters…were still hazy in the minds of many of the German listeners.” There is a small grammatical error here, but I am sure that “content” was the word intended because I am sure that nobody could possibly be hazy about The Flounder‘s contents. I did feel hazy, and even surly, when I got to the end of the contents, but that was only because there seemed to be no end to them. Trying to pin down the content was my chief problem all along the way, and always being unsure about the content was the main reason why I balked at the endlessness of the contents.
But other people don’t seem to have been worried. The prepublication sale in Germany was 100,000 copies, thanks largely, Hellmut Jaesrich reported in Encounter, to “the praise which four thousand people who received complimentary copies had lavished on it.” And here, thank God, is a statement that gives me courage and makes me believe in my own opinion of the book—that it makes a very bad novel. I never heard of four thousand people receiving complimentary copies of a book, still less of their reading it conscientiously if they did. And if they all lavished praise on it, that was (1) to save themselves the trouble of reading it (it runs 200,000 words), (2) because they were all booksellers and politicians, (3) because they were not bowled over by reading the book but by the fact that Grass had written it.
I think the third explanation is the most probable as well as the most generous. Germany seems to need Grass. It needs to be able to say: “Once again people know great prose” (a critic in Bonn) and “This novel proves who among contemporary German narrative writers is the most original, and the most masterly in handling the German language” (Die Zeit). It has been suggested that the Nazis destroyed the language completely—blitzed it as if it were an enemy city, and that Grass, wandering tenderly through the ruins, picked up the thousands of dumb fragments and exalted them with the glory of his voice. But I think this shows the need for romance in modern Germany—probably a very serious need. It has nothing to do with Grass’s prose, which is saturated with the very romance that is required by the nation and gets its effects with a curious mixture of sentimentality and crudeness. It is not notable for energy, but for plain determination—to …