Too Far Afield was published in Germany five years ago, and stirred up a huge literary rumpus. Reviewers for and against the novel tore into it and each other with a savagery rarely experienced in English-language criticism, and enough indignant articles and letters were produced to fill at least two sizable collections in book form. They were published, one in Göttingen by Grass’s publisher, Steidl Verlag, the other by the Zeitungsarchiv (Newspaper Archive) in Innsbruck.* The man who fired the first shot was the famous and famously fierce literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, writing in the not particularly literary magazine Der Spiegel. His photograph made it onto the cover: he looks beside himself with rage and is shown literally tearing the book in half. He claimed—he hardly needed to—that the photo was a montage. Still, the extra protest added to the decibels, and the photo caption became the title for the continuing debate in the press: Zerreissprobe—a neat pun. Zerreissprobe is a term for “uncorrected proof”; but the literal meaning is “proof to be torn up.”
Any book by Grass is an event, even though there is a body of opinion that maintains his best work is long past. Still he remains the most prominent of the older German writers, and his first, ebullient, unpredictable, savage, crude, prodigal, riotous, opulent, poetic novel The Tin Drum (filmed in 1979 by Volker Schlöndorff) is without doubt a milestone. It is very long, and Too Far Afield is longer still, 781 pages in German, 658 in Krishna Winston’s heroic but brio-free translation.
Grass has always been a politically committed writer (as well as a tireless participator in politico-literary gatherings). He leans to the left, and his latest commitment—reaching back well before the great historic event whose tenth anniversary has just been celebrated (though not by Grass)—has been opposition to the reunification of Germany. This is what has infuriated most of his critics. They pounced on the fact that, although born (in 1927) and brought up in Gdansk—now part of Poland, but then still the autonomous German-speaking city of Danzig—he has chosen to live either in West Germany or, at various times, in France and India. His stays abroad have usually had an element of grumpy protest against whatever was going on in the DDR, or later on in the Federal Republic.
Too Far Afield is a tract disguised as a novel. There are two messages, one general, one specific: the first is that doubt is good; and the second is that German unification is and always has been bad (i.e., under Bismarck). The book also has two heroes—heroes in the sense of principal characters, not of heroic figures: Grass cuts them both down to size. One is his invention, Theo Wuttke (known as Fonty for reasons to be explained later), a retired former lecturer employed by the East German Ministry of Culture, then demoted to delivering files in the same organization, and finally an “adviser” to the Treuhand (“Handover” in the translation; “the agency in charge of privatizing former East German state enterprises” according to the jacket copy). After unification the Treuhand occupied the building which was constructed to be the Nazi Air Ministry, then became the Communist Ministry of Culture: Fonty works there under all three regimes, and the narration hops from one to the other in time.
Grass’s attitude toward Fonty seems ambivalent until halfway through the book (page 344, to be exact). Still, he presumably agrees with Fonty’s view that “remaining skeptical is better than turning cynical.” Fonty addresses this maxim to his friends from the Prenzlauer Berg—a neighborhood of East Berlin inhabited by writers, artists, and students. He goes on to remind them of his fictional speech to the real audience of 500,000 famously gathered in the Alexanderplatz and all the streets around on November 4, 1989, just after the fall of the wall: “I was called to the podium after a whole succession of frightfully clever speakers, suddenly all brave, intoxicated with freedom, and from there delivered my speech, which could not help being overcast with skepticism—’It’s all fraud and sleight of hand!’ It was clear to me that slogans like ‘We are the people!’ are inherently fickle. Change one little word [he means change “the people” to “one people”], and poof! democracy was gone and unification took its place. That’s how fast our most recent revolution ran out of powder….” Bellowing into the microphone, he had told the Alexanderplatz crowd, “In Germany, unity has always made a hash of democracy!”
Fonty was born in 1919. He celebrated his seventieth birthday on December 30, 1989, less than two months after the fall of the wall. His whole existence has been dominated by the fact that he shares this birthday, a hundred years on, with the Prussian writer Theodor Fontane, who was born on December 30, 1819. Fontane is the second hero or antihero in Grass’s novel. Its title is a quotation from the nineteenth-century novelist’s best-known work, Effi Briest, which was made into a beautiful and successful film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “That’ll take us too far afield” is the signature tune of Effi’s father, a lovable, liberal, humane country gentleman, a bit weak perhaps, since he uses his favorite remark to stave off any potentially disagreeable discussion of causes and motives. But even that is to his credit, since it springs from an aversion to judging people. Fonty is nicknamed Fonty because he worships Fontane, knows every line he wrote, and identifies with him to the point of living his nineteenth-century life for him. He equates not just himself with his idol, but others, including his own devoted, bustling wife, Emmi, and disagreeable daughter, Martha, with members of Fontane’s family and circle of acquaintances.
Too Far Afield uses postmodern methods and is not easy to follow. The first-person narrator on the first page of the novel—usually “we” rather than “I”—is a member of the “Archives,” i.e., the archive of the Stasi organization on the Normannenstrasse (you need to know that that’s where it is, because Grass tends to give the address without explaining what goes on there). This narrator is sometimes a he and sometimes a she, and crops up right through—a spy doubling as a structural device with no role or personal identity in the story, but able to report twists in it that no one else could know about. Fonty and Fontane are third-person characters, but they talk a lot, cogitate a lot, and write a lot of letters (in Fontane’s case, letters written by the real Fontane); so then, of course, they use the first person. It’s not always obvious whose voice is speaking, and that may be the point. The difficulty of hanging on to the thread is great unless one happens to be familiar with Fontane’s life and his milieu of writers (some very minor) in nineteenth-century Berlin; also with his family circumstances, his romantic passion for Scotland, and his hatred of Bismarck (which backs up Grass’s opposition to reunification). One also needs to be able to recognize the characters in even the most obscure of Fontane’s early, unread novels, and what happens to them, because Fonty thinks and talks as though they were his own acquaintances, and the reader’s too: Grass provides no introduction or explanations.
Nor does he do so for real present-day people. Take Professor Charlotte Jolles, for example: her name crops up at least eight times—I lost count. She is an academic specializing in Fontane studies and based in London. Grass is mildly satirical about her: certain passages read like a private tease. He condescends to her—as indeed he does to Fonty—on account of her age. One could call it ageism, or else self-irony. Still, even German common readers can hardly be expected to be familiar with Professor Jolles’s stand on Fontane. As for anyone not steeped in recent German politics and literature, he must be drenched anyway under the downpour of dropped names—many in tones of contempt and disapproval—belonging to politicians like Joseph Dohnanyi, former mayor of Hamburg, and Oskar Lafontaine, former leader of the Social Democrats, or else to East German writers like Anna Seghers and Uwe Johnson. Never mind: as Oskar Negt, the editor of the Steidl Verlag collection of commentary, points out, “It wouldn’t be easy to understand Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities unless you were familiar with the historical constellations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and especially with its milieus and casts of mind.” And he quotes another critic (Christoph Dieckmann), who recommends using Grass’s novel “as a quarry, not a temple.”
The third most important stone in the quarry is Fonty’s shadow, Hoftaller, the Stasi informer who has never left his side since he began to work for whichever government was in power: both of them were employed, first by the Nazis, then by the Communists. The shadow’s name, Hoftaller, is an anagram, more or less, of Tallhover. This is because in 1986 the East German writer Hans-Joachim Schädlich published a novel called Tallhover, about a police spy. So that makes another double. All the same, Grass doesn’t seem interested in the spooky psychology of doubleness in the way that James Hogg and E.T.A. Hoffmann were—though he does mention the latter’s Peter Schlemihl. For him, doubleness seems to be more of a symbol for life’s endless repetitive lack of invention. Besides, doubling helps to complicate the story. Weaving tangled webs has always been part of Grass’s technique, and here it comes in particularly useful: Too Far Afield, unlike most of his other works, has almost no story line, beyond Fonty’s progress from being sixty-nine to being seventy—with flashbacks to Fontane and to Fonty’s own past.
Most of this hopping backward and forward through time is actually quite a leisurely amble, and takes the form of endless conversations with Hoftaller, whom Fonty resents, but also needs, in spite of “his perma-smile, his persistent expression of menacing omniscience, and his obtrusive unobtrusiveness.” The two old boys jaw away in pubs, in restaurants, on park benches, and especially in rowboats (good places for not being overheard); and they trundle around Berlin on foot and into the Brandenburg countryside in Hoftaller’s old Trabi car. Of course they pay a visit to the little town of Neuruppin, where Fontane (and Fonty) was born, and one of their longest and weightiest conversations takes place by the bronze statue that commemorates him.
In the line of duty Hoftaller has to attend the Wuttkes’ family celebrations—interminable meals with interminable speeches for Fonty’s birthday and, shortly after, for his daughter Martha’s wedding to an older man (though she is no spring chicken either). The bridegroom is a Roman Catholic West German developer called Grundmann. Grass dislikes Catholicism as only a lapsed Catholic can, and at the wedding he performs one of his characteristic coups by introducing a very unforeseeable priest to conduct the service. Father Matull turns out to be not quite lapsed, but lapsing, and in his speech at the wedding breakfast he startles everyone by announcing that he will
Der Fall Fonty: "Ein weites Feld" von Günter Grass im Spiegel der Kritik, edited by Oskar Negt (Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 1996); Zerreissprobe: Der neue Roman von Günter Grass "Ein weites Feld" und die Literaturkritik, edited by Georg Oberhammer and Georg Ostermann (Innsbruck: Innsbrucker Zeitungsarchiv, 1995).↩
Der Fall Fonty: “Ein weites Feld” von Günter Grass im Spiegel der Kritik, edited by Oskar Negt (Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 1996); Zerreissprobe: Der neue Roman von Günter Grass “Ein weites Feld” und die Literaturkritik, edited by Georg Oberhammer and Georg Ostermann (Innsbruck: Innsbrucker Zeitungsarchiv, 1995).↩