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The One That Got Away

The Flounder

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 547 pp., $12.00

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 go on writing, the literary equivalent of “growth” in industry. It gives me the impression of having had extra chunks poked in like incessant afterthoughts: this may have been what gave New York’s German intelligentsia such hazy feelings. The same feelings, I believe, afflicted Grass when he was writing it.

I don’t want to say too much about The Flounder‘s contents (as opposed to its content) because it is one of those books in which the contents serve as a kind of elephant-pit. The clumsy book-reviewer bashes along the trail and disappears suddenly below the surface; however much he may struggle and trumpet, he can never get out again, or avoid impalement on inescapable stakes. It is enough to say that the contents consist chiefly of numerous pseudohistorical sketches, each with its own set of characters; sometimes these characters, or their points of view, repeat themselves throughout the book in the manner of a running gag, sometimes they are present only in one episode. The common string on which they are supposed to hang is the string of history itself, stretched from neolithic times to the present day but frequently doubling back on itself in the course of being brought forward.

Grass’s homeland, Pomerania, is usually the area in which the episodes are contained, with Danzig as the focal point of the historical development. Grass’s non-hero, or principal character, forms a part of the string, in that he is reincarnated through all the ages, as are some of the women in his life. In his last reincarnation, he is Günter Grass himself—or rather, he turns into Grass whenever Grass feels the need to make him Grass. In earlier reincarnations, he is little more than a narrator, despite being a distinguished swordmaker in the days of the Teutonic knights, a friend of August Bebel’s in 1913, and a Pomeranian sculptor in neolithic days. In the last-mentioned embodiment, the females of the species are warned that their domination of men does not extend to the artist: he will always lick the ladies. My hair stood on end when I read this: is it possible, I wondered, that Bernard Shaw is to be born again as Günter Grass? But Grass, too, seems to have spotted that impossible possibility: we hear little more of art, although all the episodes of the book concern woman’s place in society and have heroines and female martyrs.

I don’t mind the reader’s being confused by what I have said: that is the nature of the case, and I shall have more confusing things to say later. But he shouldn’t imagine that he will be amused as well. Grass has said that he wrote the novel as a fiftieth-birthday present to himself, and a birthday present need be pleasing only to the recipient. Much of The Flounder seems to have been pleasing to Grass—a nice change, probably, from all his political involvements of previous years. It must have been fun getting the heroine pregnant on the second page and dividing the rest of the book into nine hunks, each hunk celebrating one month of parturition. It may have been fun fiddling with the number nine and finding other notions to apply it to, such as providing the book with nine sub-heroines who are also nine cooks. But what if none of the nine is interesting to read about? Even the greatest rambling novelists—those who work by whim and self-indulgence—run the risk of being bores; even Rabelais and Sterne, the greatest of the ramblers, are most decidedly bores from time to time. Grass is a much smaller man, and a much greater bore. He becomes interesting only when he is interested himself. There is a subsidiary section on how the potato was introduced into Pomerania, for example: this makes good reading because Grass likes potatoes. Later, I shall have more to say about his nutritive value.

The novel is called “The Flounder” because a fish of that species (borrowed from one of Grimm’s fairy tales) is the mock-villain of the piece and stands trial at the hands of the libbers of Bonn through all the stages of the book. The charge against him is that throughout history he has risen from the sea to whisper antifeminist propaganda in the narrator’s ear. So, one may say of this theme—“That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along,” as Pope puts it—that it brings Genesis into the picture, but with Adam seduced instead of Eve. Happy sucking Eve’s teats (a neolithic habit, apparently, three times a day), Adam is persuaded by the talking fish to start acting like a real man. Had Adam hung on and refused to be detached from Eve’s teat, we would, The Flounder suggests, be living in a very different world, because women would have run our lives for thousands of years, and women rule “by ever loving care” and don’t go in for aggression, or domination, or fighting.

Grass knows as well as I do that this is quite untrue. The open message that runs through the book is that he adores women when they are what they rarely are—compliant, unaggressive, kitchen-hearted, and chubby. To suggest that they are as mean and domineering as we are only when they are perverted by the masculine principle may enable a man to get on with his book; but I think the intelligent woman-reader will see through his pretense very easily and become fond of Grass—if she ever does—because he is a baby. The coarse, permissive words that overwhelm the sentences much as the author’s vast mustache overwhelms his face do nothing to revitalize a language struck dumb by the Nazis, and less than nothing to inject reality into a dream. The more one is titted and twatted and cocked and cunted, the more sentimental and scatty the work appears to be at heart, and I think it is very probable that the soft and flaccid element is what has pleased the Germans. When God made Frankfurt-am-Main, Grass says, he shat a lump of concrete, and much as his countrymen have the right to admire the strength they have shown since 1945 in emulating the deity, the need for a warmer, softer element—for tears in the Biergarten and sentimental laughter—is as strong today as it was in the times of the Prussian Reich. A loving neolithic mistress-and-mother with six tits provides a crude sort of humor, a warm sense of bed and Schmalz, and the illusion that the writer is gifted with a rich imagination. This is all very unfortunate.

Valéry, writing of his sterner, younger days, said: “I would have given many masterpieces that I believed undeliberated for one evidently fully considered page.” Grass’s story of males and females from the Stone Age to the Libber Revolt becomes “fully considered” only occasionally, and most markedly so when his stomach is excited: this seems to concentrate his mind. He is said to have a passion for cooking, and in particular for the country cooking of peasants. Certainly his recipes for cooking eels, fish, birds, and pigs are inspiring enough to make any husband insist that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. And how wonderful it is to find recipes that are not hazy, as they so often are in cookbooks.

* * *

The high quality of the cookery does not improve the quality of the fiction; it only means that this bad novel has something of a good book in it. Of three other short sections of the work, the same may be said. Two of these, puzzling as this may seem, are little items of autobiography which are far more imaginative than the parts of the book that are supposed to be imaginative. There is nothing really puzzling about this, because we have all learned from the movies that a good documentary is always more imaginative than any but the best of features.

The first of these sections shows Grass in his native Danzig, which has been razed to the ground by RAF pattern bombing and is now in process of being rebuilt (in concrete, of course) by the Polish commies. But what fascinates Grass, who is playing the dual role of his modern self and one of his hero’s earlier reincarnations, is that the bombing has caused the historical past to rise up into the present. Great vaults that were once buried far below their Gothic or baroque superstructures have now become the surface of the city; the dead of hundreds of years ago are yielded up in the fragments of their coffins to share the world of the living. A German television documentary is being made, and the director orders the removal of some medieval human remains. “Too macabre for the television audience,” he explains, meaning: how could they distinguish the bones of long ago from those of only yesterday? This little bit is beautifully done: it is what imagination is. One can ignore the novelese that is mixed up with it and carry away the tiny, memorable pictures.

The second inspired section is a visit to Calcutta. This time, Grass is the reincarnation of India’s “discoverer,” Vasco da Gama, and also the famous Günter Grass of today—lodged in the Governor’s palace and waited on by silky Indian servants. But, out in the streets, he joins in the full horror of life in the world’s most terrible city—the throng of the starving, the diseased, the dying; the world of the leper, the death-cart, the filth, and the fly. The little shantytowns that find an existence on every street corner and allow their sickly inhabitants to indulge the art of cookery—garbage, cooked on the sweepings of coal dust—press right up against the decent houses of the rich and the middle-class, so that misery can never be escaped, only taken for granted and hardly noticed. And here again Grass provides the perfect imaginative touch—the neat, well-dressed little schoolgirl from a well-to-do home walking quietly to school with her satchel of books, and picking her way in the most natural manner through the hordes of the half-naked and the diseased. Here, indeed, are a few “fully considered” pages.

The third impressive section confirms D.J. Enright’s adaptation to Grass of Cyril Connolly’s well-known aphorism: in every fat novel by Grass, Enright remarks (NYR, June 3, 1965), there is a slim masterpiece struggling to get out. In The Flounder it is a hideous story of four lesbians going for a picnic and three of them “raping” the fourth. She, poor creature, runs away, resolving to change her way of life, but only runs into a gang of brutish motorcyclists, who not only repeat the rape in earnest but murder her as well.

This story would make a fine short novel—in the hands of another writer. For Enright has also observed that there is a flabbiness in Grass that takes the edge off his best efforts, and that the old-fashioned elegance of, say, Thomas Mann can cut much deeper. Such is the present case, in spite of the help Grass receives from his translator, Ralph Manheim. Those who care to make the comparison can read the accounts of the murder in the original and the translation; they will find, I think, that although Mr. Manheim is faithful to his author, his American-English version is the more impressive. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Mr. Manheim uses a cooler hand and chooses his words from a harder vocabulary.

I hope that as time passes these three extracts will grow stronger than ever and reach the maturity that memory bestows on good things; the process will be helped by the fact that the bulk of the work will fade away to nothing. The cookery, of course, should belong to the residue, but unless one is to the kitchen born, as Grass obviously is, there is the difficulty of remembering so many recipes. I would like to think that one of those rich foundations that devote their wealth to the advancement of the arts will see to it that these many small works of devotion are removed from the general muddle of The Flounder and given to the world in a decent, orderly manner.

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