Not long ago, I translated “Aging as a Problem for Artists” by the German expressionist poet and essayist Gottfried Benn, written a couple of years before he died, in 1956, at age seventy. There is not much literature on the subject, Benn says, apologizing for his magpie methods, before, with impressive assiduity and imagination, he stuffs paragraphs with examples of artistic longevity and finds individual instances in which age and artistry stand in interesting relation to one another. He talks about the idea of late style, or late work: in Immanuel Kant, in Lorenzo Lotto, in Edward Burne-Jones, in Hokusai, in Hugo von Hofmanns-thal and Beethoven and Leonardo. “In Hokusai (1760–1849),” he writes,
I found the following: “From the age of six, I was mad keen on drawing. By the time I was fifty, I had published a great many drawings, but everything I did before my seventy-third year is worthless. Approaching the age of seventy-three, I began to understand something of the true nature of animals, plants, fishes, and insects. By the time I am eighty, I shall have progressed further, with ninety I shall be able to see through to the secret nature of things, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything of mine, be it no more than a line or a dot, will be full of life.”
In the end, though, perhaps Benn’s best example is himself:
Probably I’m too old to get to the bottom of all this, tiredness and melancholy fog my brain. I have heard Pablo de Sarasate on the violin and Caruso in the Met. The Astors were sitting in the diamond horseshoe. I have seen Bergmann operate, and paraded in front of the last Kaiser. I learned to read by the light of an oil lamp, and studied Haeckel’s forbidden Riddles of the World. I have driven and flown, but I have also seen clipper ships and skies without vapor trails—past—gone.
Bergmann was the surgeon Ernst von Bergmann, a pioneer of asepsis and an early wearer of white; the Kaiser was Wilhelm II; Benn served as a doctor in the German army in both world wars.
Benn’s secret, and perhaps the secret of one kind of old-age writing, lies in the nouns, including the names. Nouns—if you are able to select the right nouns—age well. Good nouns are good bones. What is a life, when it comes down to it? What will it have been? Sentence by sentence, as his text emerges here, it is music—or more broadly, artistic experience. It is social distinction and setting. It is work. It is education and enlightenment. It is technology and travel. These few sentences of Benn’s prose, chosen almost at random, are exquisitely balanced. Horseshoe and diamond (the wealth-encrusted diadem, I guess, of the first row of boxes). The names, Kaiser and Caruso, Astor and Sarasate. The paired experiences and stimuli. The looking and reading. The driving and flying. The clipper ships, once the fastest mode of intercontinental transport, crammed with sail, and devised originally for the transporting of tea; and the skies, then without any manmade steam in them. A line or dot, but, as Hokusai says, full of life.
There is no one better than Benn at this kind of ecstatic summary, which has something both giddy and unerring about it, but I’d like at least to take one other successful instance of Vetscribe, to give it an Orwellesque name. This comes from an author Benn admired, another controversial hard case like himself, the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (1859–1952). Both had been compromised by their politics. Benn had briefly sympathized with the Nazis when they came to power, hoping they would overcome Germany’s economic and political instability and share his cultural pessimism and expressionist aesthetics. He became head of the Prussian Academy’s poetry section and signed a declaration of loyalty to Hitler. By mid-1934 he had come to detest the Nazis and returned to the army, calling it “the aristocratic form of emigration”; the regime declared his work “degenerate” and banned him from writing in 1938. Immediately after the war the Allies banned him from publishing because of his early support of the Nazis, but by the time of his death he was once again recognized as a major poet.
Hamsun, who had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920, was also in the doghouse when the war ended. He had met Hitler, and had many admirers among the other Nazi high-ups. During the German occupation of Norway, he had sided publicly and openly with the occupiers. Now, like the Fascist broadcaster Ezra Pound, he faced the dual—though at least mutually exclusive—diagnoses of treason and insanity. The Norwegian state would have him declared mad or bad.
In his last book, On Overgrown Paths (1949), Hamsun describes the three years of his ordeal. He writes out of various sorts of captivity and obloquy, from house arrest and a hospital and an old people’s home, but what he writes is anything but an apologia: “I see a flag at half mast. Someone has died, but it’s not me. It isn’t anyone else among us either, we are so durable. Our daily lives rattle along, without any escapades.” Benn wrote in a review of the book:
He reminds me of a big old lion, blinking contemptuously from his cage at the zoo visitors, and, when he thinks he sees a lawyer or doctor among them, spitting in their direction through the bars.
Under attack from two authorities, psychiatry and the law, Hamsun mounts a sort of double defense: a parade of defiance, yes, but also a show of harmlessness (as Benn of course sees, with his image of the king of the beasts in his cage). “You can see I know what I’m about. How can I possibly be mad?” it seems to say, but also “how can I possibly hurt you?” He writes, near the beginning:
At the same time I didn’t want to completely give up my walks over the hill either. I had dreamed them up myself, there were trees and rocks that I recognized, and I knew there was a friendly rustle around me, even though I was deaf and could no longer hear it.
It is a discovery of age that something can be there—as here the rustle—even when not or no longer perceived.
This is Vetscribe as performance, as hum, as noise. The thing here is not nouns, but the habits of mind, the seeming perplexity, the burbling voice. Things appear, disappear, reappear again. It is the book of someone rather deaf, talking to himself. Hamsun is mostly solitary and within his body. Plot or intrigue don’t much interest him. He writes about going for walks, about tending a little spruce tree he has adopted. He goes to an oculist, indulges in reveries about old times in America, fifty, sixty years earlier, passes acerbic judgments on life in the home where, a little to his mystification, he finds himself. For company he has strangers—peculiar people, impostors even, people posing as strangers, could there be such a thing—or pretty nurses, who are gradually taken away from him. Sometimes old readers visit him and shake his hand, or give him presents:
A nice lady in Java has sent me a box of cigars via Holland, she and her husband have read some of my books, she says, kind regards and thanks. How wonderful of her to do that, I think to myself, being a foreigner and so far away, bless her! People favor the old. But some day I will be out of cigars, what then? Then I’ll quit smoking, just quit. I’ve done it three times before, for one year each time, to the day. I’m going to have that much control over myself as to quit. Good. But of course I’ll start again, so what is it all for? I’m also going to have that much control of myself as to start again.
Hamsun concludes that there is no purpose and no reason to human behavior. (The implication is that the difficulties he is in and the accusations he is facing are not quite real either.) Meanwhile, the shapes he makes in his mind are self-involved curls; they go away from him, and then return to him, in short order; the gift of cigars makes him think, almost immediately, of the time when they will be finished, and then of his determination still to go back to smoking again afterward. Time is a beach, a comic or absurd arena, where things are washed up, washed away, washed back. What are manmade categories like insanity or treason? Time overwhelms all possibility of a single or definitive outcome. The climax, not of the book, but of the events of the book, is handled like this:
After my talk the prosecutor spoke, after him again the defense attorney. Once more I sat for hours on end not knowing what was going on. Eventually I was handed a couple of written questions by the court, and I answered them.
The day went by. Evening darkness came on.
It was over.
In its way, this is extraordinary, even rather magnificent, in its show of indifference. Is he to be acquitted or hanged by the neck until dead? He doesn’t even care to tell us. (He was fined.) He is all alone in time. His book goes on for another thirty or forty pages of crusty grandeur.
It would be wrong to suggest that Günter Grass (1927–2015), the chief luminary of postwar German fiction and leftish political engagement, was ever in as much trouble as Hamsun, or, before him, Benn, but following the award of the Nobel Prize in 1999 his reputation did take a few buffets, and it is not unexpected to find him reduced and melancholy and truculent in old age. In the autobiography of his early years, translated in 2007 as Peeling the Onion, he revealed that although throughout his career he had aggressively insisted on full disclosure and repentance in others, he had himself as a seventeen-year-old briefly belonged to the Waffen-SS. (It was not so much the revelation itself as the delay and the atrocious style of revealing it that should have been the story.)
In 2012 he published a poem entitled “What Must Be Said” on the subject of the Israeli bomb, which caused further controversy (“Why only now, grown old,/and with what ink remains, do I say:/Israel’s atomic power endangers/an already fragile world peace?”). He brought out Grimms Wörter: Eine Liebeserklärung, a wildly punning “declaration of love” to the German language of Grimm’s dictionary that will presumably remain untranslated. His last novel was Crabwalk (2003). And his for now last work, a collection of reflections, poems, and drawings, was published a few months after his death in April 2015, and is now out in English, in the translation of Breon Mitchell: Of All That Ends.
The work is very much of a piece: ninety-six reflections, recollections, miniatures. Grass’s soft, rather sour, smeary, seaweedy drawings illustrate the prose, which is recapitulated or simplified in the poems. Probably the single most impressive aspect of the work is the persistence of Grass’s ability to shape (his Formwille, I am thinking) over the length of a whole short book. It is like a sequence of minor chords: the images of dead birds, withered leaves, misshapen nails and molted feathers, dried mushrooms and wizened frogs, severed fingers and ends of rope, the author’s stubby extinguished (and forbidden) pipes and his toothless mouth; the little essays or poems on politics, memories, old books, unwelcome cultural developments, dreams and fears, the countryside and the author’s increasing physical decrepitude.
Not so much a memento mori as a litany of decay and a Novemberish nature, the book is Baroque, like most of Grass, in its redundancy and piling on and curdled rhetorical power. Truly his home is the morbid, unlovely, war-torn seventeenth century of Gryphius and Grimmelshausen, of Zurbarán and El Greco, Hals and Rubens, all pessimism and carnality and mercenaries. His element is the pungent twilit cloud, his mascot the dimpled Cupid, his weapon of choice the satirical musket or prophetic arquebus that goes off in many directions, and has every chance of detonating the man wielding it.
What to my mind distinguishes good Vetscribe, for all its many variants, is that it remains dry to the touch. It doesn’t matter whether something is trim and its own index, like Benn, or all-over-the-shop even as it goes about setting one foot in front of the other, like Hamsun; it should aspire to the condition of Hokusai’s line or dot, an ideogram of life. It should be austere, astringent, superior. Perhaps a little effortless. A moist confusion of feelings, a fussy deployment of too many means, or a surplus of intentions, all are equally undesirable and, in Grass, equally present. It is enough to give a bad name to the writing of old age. The graphic work (which reminds me of the disappointing late “American” period of the Weimar caricaturist George Grosz) and the writing alike are squishy and corrupt; they resemble not clean, simple, calcified fossil or bone as much as something Grass recalls when contemplating final arrangements for himself and his wife:
The bodies buried in the bog in Schleswig-Holstein, now placed on show under glass in the Schloss Gottorf Museum. Those bones turned soft; you could still see tissue, skin and knotted hair, as well as bits of clothing, relics of a ghastly prehistoric age.
But this is almost exactly what you get in Of All That Ends: soft tissue and cartilage; half-commerged, half-corroded, semi-identifiable, and abundantly lived in detritus.
Grass was rarely if ever a graceful writer, but this shows his progress from the “windfowl” (of his early book of poems, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner) to the windbag. The bloom of his vices is in full decay: error-strewn and pedantic, militant and mannered, whimsical and ponderous. Here are undesirable ornament, allusion, personification, cliché, weary polemic, and irony, all in invariably overstuffed and blathering formulations:
As the general decline of values was being universally decried around the clock by the man in the street, in lengthy essays, and on flat-screens and the Internet, arousing general assent and cynical commentary, money too went into a consumptive decline, though new currency was constantly being printed and circulated as a spur to speculative profit through virtual transactions on the global market.
I can’t remember when I last read sentences so ungainly that they had me doing that slicing “Cut!” gesture at every break. Each phrase or clause here seems terminal—and still they keep coming. “Universally decried”—“around the clock”—“by the man in the street”—“in lengthy essays”—“and on flat-screens”—“and the Internet.” “Enough already!” you say—and there are eight segments still to come. Truly, it’s a form of torture. Here is someone by now so crabwise, so musclebound in his epic posture, that the only way he knows of getting into a sentence is sidling or reversing into it:
When, like other young men and women in the Düsseldorf Art Academy, a cigarette clung to my lower lip as a badge of existentialism, bobbing up and down at every word, it was Albert Camus who rolled the boulder of Sisyphus our way—in German translation—just after the war.
Poor Camus. Or poor Rabelais: “Rereading books that were my lifelong companions: time, that voracious shredder, has not subdued the flood of words, the biting scorn of François Rabelais” (“With Staying Power”). How many partial metaphors are going off at half-cock in that little monster? Five? Six?
Grass’s poems, being simpler and a little plainer, are usually preferable to the prose. Here is the first and better half of one called “To Pass the Time” (the second half, for some reason, is all about sand castles):
Reread the books you finished long ago,
deliver indignant diatribes,
redate history, this time in reverse,
restore words you once crossed out,
plant young trees where the storm
felled the old,
see butterflies with closed eyes,
patiently count dead flies
fallen from the windowpanes,
chew memory like gum
that still has a little flavor left,
pass time with guessing games
and twiddling thumbs,
visit that spot in the cemetery
and now and then lie to the clock.
But it’s not a patch on the poem called “Pleasures” on which it’s very evidently based, from Bertolt Brecht’s late “Buckow” period (this is Michael Hamburger’s sheepish translation):
The first look out of the window in the morning
The old book found again
Snow, the change of the seasons
Taking showers, swimming
Taking things in
This has an honesty, a quiddity, an economy, a capacity for surprise (“New music,” “Being friendly”), and an absence of straining that Grass has never been able to offer. With the objectivity of a real “Classic,” Brecht supplies neither commentary nor anxiety; his poem is all about him, but his own presence in it is unnecessary; Grass is wearisomely and very characteristically half-there in his. As often, he is saying “look at me”; not so Brecht.
It may be supposed that something here has been lost in translation, and so it has. For instance, the “indignant diatribes” above are “ungehaltne Reden” in the original: furious speeches that may or may not have been given. Ungehalten, literally “unheld,” is perfectly equivocal on this point. It can mean intemperate, and it can also mean unspoken. But this sort of Grassian ornament, really a sort of tic or foolish pirouette, is perhaps better out than in anyway.
Michael Henry Heim, Grass’s previous translator, came up with a sort of slimline Grass (in Peeling the Onion, in My Century). Breon Mitchell is generally more indulgent, and hence reads less well. What really baffles me, though, are his mistakes, especially in the longer prose pieces, where he sometimes quite loses the thread. He misreads Bildersturz as Bildersturm (it’s a flood of TV images that’s bothering Grass, not Cromwellian iconoclasm); renders gesotten (sautéed—it’s the same word) as “boiled” (an especially horrid mistake to make with the epicure Grass—“boiled mushrooms”). Grass hopes to be reborn as a cuckoo; and then: “Promises were called out year by year.” What’s this? Some uncharacteristic optimism? No, the sentence is in the conditional, and he’s looking forward to his annual annunciations of spring: it’s what cuckoos do. “Jahr für Jahr liessen sich laut rufend Versprechungen machen.” I might say: “Think of the noisy annunciations I could make each spring.”
In a dream of jealousy called “Yours and Mine,” involving Grass’s (organist) wife and a baritone, one reads: “My dreaming ear took in the nuances of the performance that had just faded away.” Not so: he overhears them talking about nuances of the performance. “Es ging…um Nuancen.” Not a rare or difficult construction. There are more as well. In a sense, it doesn’t matter much, and one can understand how it might happen with this author, simply because of the indifferent fussiness and general pincushion quality of Grass’s sentences.
Perhaps the thing that’s worth doing is worth doing badly. Or the thing not worth doing, for that matter. What’s odd, though, is that Mitchell is not just the translator of Grass’s best-known novel, The Tin Drum, but its retranslator, after Ralph Manheim’s original version. In other words, he is supposed to offer superior accuracy. Puzzle me that one out.