Günther Grass
Günther Grass; drawing by David Levine

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

serve henceforth only the cause of doubt, and…sow doubt wheresoever I may go. For, my dear guests, was there not too much faith and for too long in this land? Was not faith to be had too cheaply, like a whore? And is not the new faith, this time the all-powerfulness of money, now cheap to acquire, yet too highly rated?… Do not believe blindly. Leave God out of it, for Heaven’s sake.

At this point, the bridegroom rudely shuts him up. “As a developer, [Grundmann] viewed both his immediate and his more distant fields of operations as one vast building lot by the grace of God.” He embodies one of the reasons why reunification is bad. In 1990 he moves from Münster in Westphalia to Schwerin in the former GDR, where he intends to make his fortune by buying up property cheaply, while banging on about how beneficial his activities are for the poor Ossies. His objection to Father Matull—Grass is evenhanded at the wedding and takes a swipe at Protestants too—has the support of one of Fonty’s two sons, both of whom fled to the West many years ago. This one is a publisher of Protestant tracts who “exported missionary writings to the far corners of the Third World, thereby realizing profits both in this world and the next.”

The book is full of symbols, and the two that crop up with quite irritating frequency are a paternoster elevator and a diving duck. The paternoster is a now obsolete open elevator that moves so slowly from floor to floor that there is no need for doors: people get in and out as it crawls by. The building where Fonty works—the ex-Nazi Air Ministry, ex-Communist Ministry of Culture—is now the home of the Handover Trust, and has such an elevator; Fonty and Hoftaller use it a lot. Fonty met Emmi in the paternoster when she was somebody’s pretty young secretary in the Air Ministry days. Promoted from file courier to cultural adviser to the Treuhand when it takes over the building, Fonty initiates a heritage-saving campaign to retain the paternoster, which has been scheduled for replacement.

The other symbol—the diving duck—makes its first appearance on a pond in a Berlin park. Fonty and Hoftaller watch it disappear under the water: after a long absence it reemerges on the farthest side of the pond. There are lots of lakes, ponds, and rivers in the country around Berlin, so the duck has plenty of opportunities for diving. I counted ten, but, again, I may have missed some. The creature symbolizes the political turncoat who can disappear for a while when the system changes, and then resume his or her activities under the new regime, smoothly moving from National Socialism to communism and then to capitalism. But because of Fonty’s (and Grass’s) laid-back Fontane-like tolerance, the duck is more of a Vicar of Bray than a dyed-in-the-wool villain. After all, Fontane himself, when he was a poor young newspaper correspondent in London, did a short regretful stint for Bismarck by feeding the British press with news items skewed to favor German policy, and also a bit of reporting on German political émigrés in London. The last fact didn’t come to light until 1990, so it was still fairly hot and shocking news to Germany’s many Fontane fans when Grass was writing his novel.

The first time any kind of dramatic turn takes place in the private lives of any of its characters is on page 344, where, as I have said, Grass’s attitude to Fonty begins to change, and the reader’s has to change, too. Fonty and Hoftaller have been out in a rowboat again, chatting for almost a whole chapter, when the shadow suddenly announces that Fonty’s French granddaughter Madeleine has arrived in Berlin. Fonty never knew he had a granddaughter, but Hoftaller is an efficient shadow and has known all along.

The story is this: during the war Fonty was a young airman stationed near Lyons. He had an affair with an innkeeper’s daughter. She came from a Communist family of Huguenot extraction—the best possible provenance in Grass’s book. In spite of their austere-sounding background, the girl and her brother were charming and giggly and took Fonty out rowing on a lake nearby. Fonty brought along a transmitter, and the three of them broadcast seditious propaganda to the German troops and news of German troop movements to the French. After Fonty was posted to another unit, the French boy was caught, tortured, and killed. His sister found herself pregnant by Fonty, ran away to hide in the Cévennes, and gave birth to a daughter. At the end of the war, her neighbors shaved her head and paraded her through the streets as a German whore.

Her daughter left home when she was seventeen, married young, and produced Madeleine. Madeleine’s grandmother became a recluse. But Mad-eleine loved her and would visit her whenever she could, and the grandmother—who bore Fonty no grudge—taught the girl German and to love Germans, especially Fontane. So now Madeleine is writing her master’s thesis on him, and that’s why she’s come to Berlin. She has also come to pin the ribbon of the Compagnons de la Résistance on her grandfather’s chest for what he did in the French rowboat—an extremely unlikely mission, since outside France it’s usually the French ambassador who does the pinning. Still, we now have to accept Fonty as a hero because of his broadcasts, which means that Grass’s attitude toward him becomes less ironic.

Altogether, from the moment Madeleine enters the story, the mood becomes more upbeat and the tone occasionally sentimental. Grass, like Fontane, is very good at evoking charm. Fonty himself is full of old-boy charm, while twenty-two-year-old Madeleine is pretty, affectionate, and solicitous; but also clever, feisty, and argumentative—a real little intellectual—and with a fetching French accent too: “Monsieur Offtaler” is how she addresses the shadow. Emmi happily accepts her, because she “hadn’t expected the little one to be so adorable,” and Fonty fondly calls her “my bittersweet person” when he writes to her after her return to France. Madeleine has disagreed vehemently with him about reunification: “You can’t always fuss about the details, you have to look at the big picture…. The whole of Germany has to learn some time or other to be a real nation. ‘Without a strong Germany, France will fall asleep!”‘ she maintains. And on the day huge crowds celebrated reunification by singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in the streets, Fonty happily sang along with her and his Emmi.

He also gets along surprisingly well with his new boss, the West German director of the Handover. The director is in charge of the “winding down” of East German industry, a process which, in Fonty’s view, simply consists of killing off potential competitors to West German industry and creating unemployment. Still, the man is a well-intentioned fellow, a workaholic so obsessive that he whizzes around the office corridors on roller skates by night—one of “these driven, energetic men in their late forties,” Fonty muses, “who are determined never to grow up. (In the West they are called ‘Sixty-eighters,’ a reference to a pseudo-revolution that we were spared.)” The man is assassinated, as was his real-life prototype, Karsten Rohwedder—though he never resorted to roller skates. “Nothing worse than being condemned to success,” is Fonty’s comment.

The boss’s successor is a control freak. She doesn’t sack Fonty, but she takes away his room. (Her real-life prototype, Brigit Breuel, complained in an article republished in the Steidl Verlag collection.) After that, the story accelerates and becomes a whirlpool, sucking people, institutions, and buildings down a plughole. Fonty predicts that “our communist system, which did itself in, will pull its twin brother, the capitalist system—at the moment still gloating robustly—into the pit as well.” The prediction comes in a letter to his old friend Professor Freundlich, a Jewish academic at Jena University. Freundlich fled to Mexico as a child to escape the Nazis, returned to East Germany after the war, suffered reeducation, first by the Communists, then by the new capitalist regime, and finally commits suicide: a reminder—though his sad career doesn’t exactly bear out the point—that anti-Semitism never dies in Germany. Still, it’s not a theme Grass could allow himself to omit, and he alludes to other racist incidents as well.

In Fonty’s view—he’s thinking of Grundmann’s land-grabbing operations—“the victory over communism has made capitalism rabid.” So he announces to Emmi that he’s going to emigrate. Her response is to go to live with the Grundmanns in their brand-new lakeside villa in Schwerin. Fonty is about to board a plane to London when Hoftaller looms up at the airport and blackmails him to stay put: if he doesn’t, Hoftaller will disclose damaging evidence of suspect activities by Fonty’s second son, a civil servant in Bonn. The episode is perfunctory and not very convincing. Fonty returns home and falls sick. Emmi rushes back to Berlin, so does Martha. Both of them fall sick too; in Martha’s case it sounds like hypochondria.

Hoftaller moves in and nurses them all. He’s “in the middle of an existential crisis.” The terminal whirlpool is speeding up, with credibility disappearing down the drain faster than anything else. News comes that Grundmann has been killed in a car crash. (Even this is attributed to reunification: the other driver was an East German, and East Germans are not used to Western cars or roads.) Emmi and Martha rush back to Schwerin. Martha inherits her husband’s fortune, takes over the running of his business, and employs a chauffeur to take her mother shopping; she also joins the Socialist Party (you can hear the sneer in Grass’s voice). Madeleine reappears from France. She boots out Hoftaller and nurses Fonty back to health.

The depressing thing about Fonty’s recovery is that it enables him to make another speech. The occasion is the hundredth anniversary of a famous Schultheiss brewery building in East Berlin, now a cultural performance and exhibition center. “Fabulous to think how a brewery of vulgar beer has been transformed into a brewery of culture,” Madeleine enthuses. “À la bonne heure! Avery nice job you did there, Monsieur Offtaler. Everything planned so carefully. Grandpapa and I owe you a debt of gratitude….”

Fonty’s appearance draws a large audience. “Not only Prenzlauer Berg came; all of Berlin did.” He starts off in a historical mode, then complains that Prussia’s ancient manor houses and castles, which belonged to the people until reunification, are now being sold off by the Handover. The audience grows restless. Fonty switches track, to Fontane, bringing on his characters in swarms, pairing them off for rides in the paternoster elevators, and listing all the fires they lit—from burning love letters to revolutionary acts of incendiarism. Here postmodernism gives way to a wild, Max Ernst-like surrealist dance. Fired up himself, Fonty fires up the audience until they are hardly surprised to hear fire engines blaring outside: the Handover Trust is on fire!

“By the light of morning, everything looked different,” the next and final chapter begins. The damage is not great. A short circuit burned out the paternoster, which will not now be repaired or replaced. Fonty is missing, but Hoftaller finds him and Madeleine riding the ferris wheel in an amusement park. Grass dots the i by mentioning Graham Greene. Hoftaller is recruited by the CIA. Fonty and Madeleine disappear once more. A few months later, the Archives receive a postcard from France: “With a little luck we find ourselves here in a colossally unpopulated region. La petite asks me to greet the Archives for her, a request with which I am happy to comply. We often go mushrooming. When the weather is calm, one can see far. By the way, Briest was wrong; I, at least, believe that although we have gone far afield, an end is in sight….” The italics are mine: that part of Fonty’s remark is not in Grass’s German text: “Übrigens täuschte sich Briest; ich jedenfalls sehe dem Feld ein Ende ab…”—“By the way, Briest was wrong; I, at least, see an end to the field”—nothing about having gone far afield.

Translating Too Far Afield must have been fiendishly difficult, not to say exasperating, because the book is so self-important, so self-indulgent, and so repetitive too. Unlike The Man Without Qualities, it does not draw the portrait of a society so much as plunge the reader into furious and too often cryptic political controversies. Allusions fly like swarms of (often poisoned) arrows. Only an insider with an exceptional memory could recognize them all. Great novels have been written about politics. But Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Trollope, et al. didn’t stick as relentlessly as Grass does to day-to-day feuds as they are reported in the press. For all his wit, vitality, pathos, commitment, and charm, Grass has condemned his giant opus to oblivion.

This Issue

November 30, 2000