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My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, 2009, 588 p + iii p introduction. Translated from the German Die Blechtrommel by Breon Mitchell. First published by Herrmann Luchterhand Verlag GMBH 1959.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Tin Drum cover

The Tin Drum’s first words are, “Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution,” – about as clear a marker of an unreliable narrator as you’re liable to find. This voice wanders randomly between Oskar and I to describe his experiences, often within the same passage, even the same sentence. Of uncertain parentage, “I” never quite decides if he is Oskar Matzerath or maybe Oskar Bronski. The book’s starting scene predates his birth with the conception of his mother, under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field near Danzig, by a fire-raiser, fugitive from justice, who adopts a pseudonym. This concatenation of circumstances and attributes is typical of the novel as a whole, which is by no means an easy read but will repay the attention a dutiful reader gives it.

Oskar is a precocious baby, able to understand things while newly born, in particular his mother’s promise to buy him a drum for his third birthday. On this happy event he decides to stop growing, staging a fall down the cellar stairs (blamed on father Matzerath for leaving the door open) to account for it. He also has the ability to shatter glass by screaming, a tactic he frequently employs to avoid being separated from his beloved drum. When Oskar’s first day in school ends less than well (shattering the teacher’s glasses and the school windows) he never goes there again. Part of the scene’s translation is rendered as, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Though the couplet’s wording may indeed have arisen around the time, a variation on an older rhyme, I would be interested to know what the original German was. Oskar goes through unnumbered amounts of his red and white tin drums in the course of the book, being able to affect people’s actions through his drumming. This is only one of the many aspects of magic realism which pervade the novel, another example is that of a green ship’s figurehead which is somehow a bringer of doom. Oskar pretends to be unable to speak but gets some education from a neighbour who reads to him from books on Rasputin and Goethe, the twin poles from which he views the world. Later, from opposite walls of the flat where Oskar is brought up, pictures of Hitler and Beethoven glower at each other.

The perspective allows Grass to approach Oskar’s life and encounters with the world at an oblique angle. Given the times he was writing about this is perhaps as well, the distorting effect, its layering of grotesquerie, in part shielding the reader from the full impact of events which might otherwise be too disturbing. For Grass knows what he is doing. The text’s meanderings and reflections underline the madness of the times. As might be expected from such a full-on literary endeavour there is a full measure, here, of love, sex and death. Too much focus on sex apparently, when the novel was first published. Sexual encounters in the book are frequently bizarre and are often described with their accompanying far from romantic nitty-gritty. (I note here that even in between-the-wars Germany it seems a Scout Master – later subsumed into the Hitler youth – could be overly “fond” of his charges.)

Though Oskar’s life is related almost linearly in retrospect from the viewpoint of his thirty year old self lying in bed in the mental institution, within The Tin Drum’s pages there is cycle and recycle, events being come back to again and again, emphasising the predilections of Oskar’s life. Time seems to be fluid yet static, streaming past Oskar, yet carrying him headlong. Events rush past him but he instigates them too.

Along with Oskar’s story we are also provided with a history of Danzig, its many layings to waste, the stories of the peoples of its hinterland plus the degradation of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. “An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the Gasman.” Of the war situation there are sly references to “improving the army’s situation with planned withdrawals,” and a soldier is said to be, “spending time in Courland.” After the war Oskar I restored to growth (another blow on the head as the catalyst.) He is misshapen but manages to make a living from drumming. He, “discussed collective guilt with Catholics and Protestants, shared that guilt with all who thought: Let’s get it over with now, be done with it, and later, when things get better, there’ll be no need to feel guilty.”

Oskar observes variously, “Even bad books are books, and therefore holy,” “You have to keep the Muses at a distance, otherwise the Muse’s kiss will start to taste like everyday fare,” “Lost wars seldom if ever provide a museum with trophies.”

There is an afterword where Breon Mitchell writes about the translation process, saying original texts remain fresh but translations fade with time. Grass cared about translations and for each book gathered his translators together to discuss them and answer questions on their texts. This new translation of Die Blechtrommel apparently preserves all the sentence lengths from the German, and tries to replicate its awkward syntax, which the first translation didn’t. To translate such a complex novel is undeniably a difficult task and Mitchell’s achievement is commendable. Nevertheless there are entries for Pedant’s corner:- All that was left to me were (all was,) fleur-de-lis (fleur-de-lys,) gas metre (meter,) at one point Oskar tells us the tin “rusted” (tin will corrode but does not form rust; only iron rusts,) a vicar ran the Catholic journeymen’s club (a vicar? Surely a priest?) Eight-comma-eights (in English these 88 mm [8.8 cm – rendered in German as 8,8 cm] anti-aircraft guns – but used particularly effectively as anti-tank guns – were known as eighty-eights,) sitz bath (my dictionary has sitz-bath,) doughboys (is a USian term for World War 1 enlisted men, not a German usage I’d have thought.) The Platters sing “The Great Pretender” in 1944 (The group didn’t form till 1952, that song wasn’t released by them till 1955.)

Günter Grass

I see that Günter Grass has died.

I haven’t actually read any of his novels – he’s one of those novelists whom I meant to get round to sometime. The closest I have come was when I watched the film that was made of his novel The Tin Drum. The film was excellent.

There was a stooshie when he revealed he had been a member of the Waffen SS – mostly because he had managed to keep the fact to himself for 60 years and in the interim had been outspoken about Germany’s post-war attitude to the Nazis. I doubt, though, many German seventeen year-olds would have resisted being called up in 1944. In any case his war record can have had no bearing whatsoever on his abilities as a writer. As a person perhaps; but not as an author. (There were doubtless many more in Germany, Austria and various parts of Eastern Europe who may have had more reason to keep theirs quiet.)

The Nobel Committee saw fit to award him its prize in literature in 1999. That puts him in good company.

Günter Grass: 16/10/1927 – 13/4/2015. So it goes.

10 Great Books You Didn’t Know Were Science Fiction or Fantasy

So it says here.

The ten are:-

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Stories by Karen Russell
Smilla’s Sense of Snow* by Peter Høeg
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
Golden Days by Carolyn See

I’ll perhaps look out for some of these now.

*I have read this as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and as I recall the SF elements were the least convincing thing about it.

The others I haven’t read at all – but I’ve seen the film of The Tin Drum** and would have no problem with its inclusion in this list. I have read another by Bulgakov – though a glimpse of the cover of Heart of a Dog in the link would suggest that it is fantastical – and a short story by Kobo Abe.

The link shows Stories by Karen Russell variously involve girls raised by wolves, and vampires so where is the difficulty in categorisation there?

**I have since read The Tin Drum. See my review here.

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