Monday, April 13, 2015

In Memorium: Günter Grass

"Ich bin dabei gewesen" by Günter Grass (lithograph)

Günter Grass October 16, 1927 - April 13, 2015
Günter Grass, a Nobel Prize winning novelist who was fond of using fables and fairy tale motifs in his work, died this morning, aged 87.

He was Germany's best known post-war novelist and his most well known work is The Tin Drum. He's not the sort of author you can read lightly, despite his humorous turn of phrase and observations. His stories are difficult, layered, visceral and sometimes difficult to process.

Grass also wrote - and illustrated!* - a small novel based on the fairy tale The Fisherman and His Wife, titled The Flounder, or, in German, Der Butt. It's an eclectic work, certainly not for everyone and is the sort of novel you might recommend to someone, only to find they hate it, then be surprised that someone else you'd never think would read it, likes it as much as you do. (At the very least, it's good for discussions!) Here's the description:
It all begins in the Stone Age, when a talking fish is caught by a fisherman at the very spot where millennia later Grass's home town, Danzig, will arise. Like the fish, the fisherman is immortal, and down through the ages they move together. As Grass blends his ingredients into a powerful brew, he shows himself at the peak of his linguistic inventiveness.
Since the above doesn't really describe what the book is like, I'm going to post a brief but informative review I found on Goodreads by "Jos":
Deftig (ribald)! This would be the one-word review. Grass is explicit in his extensive descriptions - mostly of food, in parts sexuality or other body functions and sometimes violence. 
The story:Der Butt has three narrative dimensions. 1. Today, the narrator and his wife Ilsebill - who is of legendary fame due to an old fairy tale - are receiving a child. The book is divided into nine chapters, one for each month of the pregnancy.2. The second dimension consists of the narrator's multiple reincarnations through time, starting from neolithitic age. The focus is on his relationships, nine in the past plus two parallel to his current life.3. The third dimension is the tribunal (feminal) against the flounder who is accused of helping the male case, hurting womanhood through all ages.
Grass uses these dimensions to tell the history of the area around his home town Danzig through time, to criticize nowadays (the 70's) society coined by the male dominance throughout history, to make a case for feminism while parallely dissembling the 70's women's movement and to celebrate the joys of a primary sensual life - natural food, uninhibited attitudes, simplicity. In parts, it's a book of its time, especially the 'politics' are outdated. At the same time the conflict of the sexes never gets old. The sensual pleasures he celebrates were as far away from the 70's as from today.
Grass certainly knows how to write. Some paragraphs are plain brillant. But he also doesn't know when enough is enough and he's fond of preaching. Still, an extraordinary book.
I also found this note in a fairly long tribute by The Guardian today:
His third and final memoir, Grimms’ Words: A Declaration of Love (2010), took the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm as the starting point for an exploration of the political and social side of his life, noting, for instance, how the figure of Tom Thumb lay behind that of Matzerath.
Gunter Grass self-portrait

From an older Guardian article on Grass' final memoir:
Growing up with the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Grass said the pair went on to influence his own creative work: Tom Thumb "lives on" in Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum, and the brothers themselves play a role in many of his manuscripts. "In The Rat, for example, they are portrayed as a minister and a deputy minister who try to stop forests dying (from acid rain)," he said.
After my experience with The Tin Drum (amazing book but I couldn't get through it, it was so brutal, and the movie version - also amazing but I can never watch it again), I'm reluctant to pick up The Flounder, to read the rest of it (I've read the first few pages via a preview), even though it's a fairly short work in comparison (about 500 pages). Still, I am completely fascinated by the premise and how Grass came to write this in the first place. Clearly, he was the sort of writer we need, asking those difficult questions, examining life from different angles, finding different resonances in tales. He will be missed.

*27 difference drawings, some of which are in this post.

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