The Flounder
Gunther Grass, translated by Ralph Mannheim
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, $12.50

More stories, more stories. Keep going! As long as we can tell stories, we’re alive. As long as stories keep coming, with or without a point, dog stories, eel stories, scarecrow stories, rat stories, flood stories, recipe stories, stories full of lies and school book stories, as long as stories have power to entertain us, no hell can take us in … Tell stories as long as you love your life.

Dog Years

Gunther Grass tells stories for children. At least he would have it that way. In From the Diary of a Snail, he speaks directly to children (the first words are: “Dear children. . . “), but here he is just stating bluntly what he does throughout all his novels. Not only does Grass write for children, he writes about them. Children figure prominently in each of his novels, with the exception of The Flounder which marks a new direction for Grass.

The children for whom Grass writes are anything but sweet young boys and girls. Many are more than fifty years old. Grass’s audience is the Wirtschaftswunderkinder, the children (Kinder), which is to say the heirs, of Germany’s swift economic recovery after World War II. They are Germany’s postwar generation which includes those born during and after the war as well as people like Grass himself (born 1927) who lived through the Nazi era.

There are two reasons why children in a literal and metaphorical sense are so important in Grass’s fiction. One concerns the artistic function they serve while the other involves Grass’s understanding of his role as a writer.

Contemporary psychological theories about childhood stress the developmental aspect: we are not born little men and women but must progress through stages to adulthood. Whatever Grass might personally think of this approach to childhood, as an artist he will have nothing to do with it. In his novels children are born adults and usually nasty ones. Rotten little Oskar who, in The Tin Drum, comes into the world with adult intelligence and guile, is the most obvious example, but his playmates who treat him to a bowl of brick and urine soup are hardly much better. In Cat and Mouse most of the young men are impatient to transfer their aggressions from the ball field to the battlefield; Dog Years is replete with children abusing children, and in Local Anaesthetic two more-leftish- than-thou high school intellectuals display contempt for the older generation and for anyone who does not see everything precisely in their terms.

Such an unflattering conception of childhood is enough to make Grass the literary counterpart of W.C. Fields, and indeed he is a great comic writer. Another element, however, adds a deeply troubling dimension to the activities of Grass’s children. This is World War II. Grass is haunted by the memory, meaning, and implications of that ordeal. and it is only through children that he can make some sense out of what happened.

For Grass, Hitler’s “great” achievement was to allow grown-ups to cling to infantile fantasies. In The Tin Drum the SS destroy the shop of a Jewish toy salesman and defecate on his broken toys. According to Grass, this marks the end of whatever was innocent in childhood. What remained and what was so characteristic of the Hitlerzeit was juvenile narcissism gone berserk; it was a time when people were incited to pursue their childish fantasies unchecked by rationality and law. Right up until the end, the Nazi era was fun for many Germans because they got to act out their delusions of grandeur and uniqueness in a way “normally” denied adults. Among Grass’s strengths is his ability to depict the weird excitement of the war years, not for the Nazi leadership, who scarcely appear in his novels, but for those traditionally labeled “the little people.” Almost all of Grass’s characters have a nostalgia, usually unconscious, for the Hitler period. Oskar, who is one of the frankest and most perceptive figures in Grass’s novels, admits that he has had a terrible time getting an erection in postwar Germany. The narrator of Cat and Mouse fights the boredom of the Adenauer years by writing about the adventures of his friend, Mahlke, during the war. In Dog Years war guilt gives a purpose to the survivors while the middle-aged hero of Local Anaesthetic needs his memories of himself as a gang leader during the war to enhance his self-esteem (his girlfriend only comes alive when she exaggerates her terrible deeds as a member of the Hitlermadel). It becomes a detail whether one was for or against Hitler; what burdens the present is the exciting remembrance of things past.

The Nazi era terrifies Grass because he knows it was not just an aberration, a temporary holiday from humdrum reality. Hitler touched a chord which resides not simply in Germans, but in all human beings: the fantasy that one is special and superior to everyone else. This leads to the second function of children in Grass’s work. His constant use of and reference to children suggest that he views the artist as a teacher. Certainly, there is an obvious pedagogical tone in all his books, including The Flounder. Oskar tells his story for his son Kurt, Grass’s brattiest kid of all. Cat and Mouse and Dog Years have as their premises the desire to reconstruct the war years. From the Diary of a Snail is explicitly pedagogical, and the main character in Local Anaesthetic is a teacher. Although Grass wants to speak to his immediate contemporaries who knew the war firsthand, the importance he accords to children indicates that the younger generation is still more crucial. Left untutored, these young men and women are quite capable of changing uniforms and ideologies and then plunging into a full-scale repetition of the past. In Local Anaesthetic the students possess the idealism, self-righteousness, and narrow-mindedness of the elders they despise. The event that stirs their anger, the Vietnam War, is to some degree a pretext which allows them to abandon all restraint.

The pedagogical dimension in Grass’s writing also helps explain the importance he gives to German history, myth, and fairy tales. One of the bases of Nazi ideology was a rigorous distortion of all three, corrupting the German past, making the ancient Hakenkreuz a permanent symbol of horror, twisting whatever was valuable in Herder’s conception of das Volk, and peopling Germanic fairy tales with Aryan prototypes. Grass, the teacher, wants to give these things back to the Germans. So he tells what Danzig was like before and during the war, what people thought about and ate, how Germans, Jews, and Poles got along, together and separately. He shows too that the Nazi rallies really were exciting, even if at the time nobody understood exactly why. Grass frequently retells myths and fairy tales and in doing so permits them their rich, often ambiguous meanings.

The combination of Grass’s artistic gifts and didactic propensity does not always make for successful novels. Like the recipes he concocts in The Flounder, the ingredients are numerous, the preparation spectacular, but the elements do not always blend. At the beginning of From the Diary of a Snail Grass remarks that, “… like children, I can think things so hard I can see them” (p. 4). This Grass can do, he can embody an idea in an image as for example in The Tin Drum where the complicated issue of the Wirtschaftswunder (the industrial miracle) gets depicted through the renaissance in the tombstone industry. But Grass is rarely this good. What mars Cat and Mouse are not the thoughts therein, but how he expresses them. The story centers on Mahlke, the only young man in his group who has reservations about the Nazis. To the admiring and dull-witted narrator, Pilenz, Mahlke should be the hope of postwar Germany, but toward the novel’s end he disappears and has yet to resurface. Mahlke is supposed to be enigmatic, but Grass drowns him in an ocean of Christ imagery (including imitations of Christ like Parzival and Prince Myshkin) until he becomes the least interesting character in the book. These tedious analogies deprive Mahlke of any credibility and turn him into a transparently allegorical figure, much like the scarecrows in Dog Years.

The problem with Dog Years is somewhat different. Eddie Ainsel, a talented artist and scarecrow maker, and his friend Walter Matern grow up together in Nazi Germany. Political conditions drive them apart and in one sense the novel charts Eddie’s efforts, through various personae, to affect a reconciliation. Part of the tale deals with Hitler’s dog Prinz, whose checkered career and wanderings parallel the adventures of Eddie and Matern. What chokes the novel and bloats the book (it is 570 long pages) is Grass’s delight in playing literary games. Parodies abound. The opening pages are Grass’s version of the Liffey passage in Finnegans Wake. The epistolary novel and the epic form get a going over in Harry Liebenau’s Love Letters and the Materniads, and Martin Heidegger’s attempts at comprehensible prose get what are perhaps their just deserts: “Jutting out into the Nothing, the dog has surpassed the essent and will as of now be referred to as Transcendence” (p. 347). This from a Nazi colonel looking for Hitler’s dog. It is a tribute to Grass’s talent to say that these games are often fun, but the end result is the teutonic equivalent of the nouveau roman (which gets parodied too) where the hunt for allusions and admiration for verbal cleverness supersede any interest in the story.

Grass frequently compares cooking and writing. In Dog Years he says that to cook is to select. This is also true of writing and precisely what is lacking in all of his novels except The Tin Drum. In this his finest novel, ideas, allusions, images, and virtuoso writing blend unselfconsciously together. I have already mentioned the tombstone image, and since the novel is so well known I will limit myself to one further example:

Mr. Schmuh owns the Onion Cellar, a cabaret where Germans pay to hear Oskar on drums, peel large onions, and spend several pleasant hours crying over past guilt and current frustrations. Mr. Schmuh likes to hunt sparrows. Exactly twelve of them each time. One day he shoots a thirteenth and on his way home his car is driven off the road by flocks of sparrows and Mr. Schmuh is no more.

Grass tells Mr. Schmuh’s story as if it were a fairy tale. What is behind it, however, is an allegory of Germany’s crimes and subsequent destruction. The twelve birds periodically and senselessly killed represent the acceptable limit of depravity tolerated by “civilized” people. One day Schmuh, like Nazi Germany, goes a little too far, and the result is catastrophe.

A final problem with the novels preceding The Flounder is that Grass might have exhausted, at least temporarily, World War II as a subject. Local Anaesthetic reflects the author’s uneasiness with his role as an artist-teacher. Stortebeker, the gang leader turned teacher, is liked by his students but has trouble understanding and being understood by them. He is right to distrust their self-righteousness and simplistic version of the past, but his own views are too controlled by his war experiences. Stortebeker has difficulty appreciating that the horrors of the 1960s might not exactly coincide with what he witnessed in Nazi Germany. In any case, his best student wants to immolate his dog, Max, in an effort to shock complacent Berliners into an awareness of what is happening in Vietnam. (The boy believes, with some justification, that Germans are indifferent to human slaughter, but will arise, en masse, at any cruelty to a pet.) Stortebeker helps prevent Max’s destruction, but he remains confused about himself and his function in life. All that seems clear is the rather sterile notion that: “Nothing lasts. There will always be pain” (p. 255).

Gunter Grass is no miniaturist. He needs big canvases and big issues. If the war will not do, then he must find another vast and complex subject. In The Flounder Grass explains to today’s sexually liberated children why men have always feared and even hated women. By means of a narrator who has lived as different men from the beginning of time, Grass traces the male’s use and abuse of women throughout history. The narrator is ignorant, dishonest, and vain. But he is a man and that is all that matters for the greater part of Western history. He also has one good connection. The Flounder. In prehistoric times, when society was matriarchal and women three-breasted, the narrator caught the Flounder which is to say that the Flounder allowed himself to be caught by the narrator. The Flounder, as clever as he is unscrupulous, promises to serve the male cause and seals his oath with the pledge: “A man’s word is his bond.” The next 500 pages illustrate the ludicrousness of that statement. Why the Flounder gets involved as he does remains deliberately ambiguous, but he certainly does take charge. He engineers the passage from matriarchal to patriarchal society where everything is streamlined to fit male needs. For example, women relinquish three breasts for two because the latter proved too much for men to handle. More significantly perhaps, men take over the writing business and provide a slant on things that is as flattering to the male ego as it is contemptuous of truth. Take the fairy tale about the fisherman and his wife. The way the Brothers Grimm tell it, a fisherman caught a flounder who, in return for his freedom, promised to grant his captor and his wife whatever they desire. Well, the wife wanted everything, including the right to be God. In fact there were several versions of this fairy tale, only one of which was unflattering to women, but the Grimms chose the version that presented the wife as “a quarrelsome bitch who keeps wanting to have, possess, to command more and more” (p. 20). Through this distortion of truth, man’s fears and fantasies about women received an instantaneous mythic basis.

The same thing happens with culture. In a footnote to Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud suggests that it was a great moment in the history of civilization when man overcame his desire to urinate on fire and instead put the flames to work for him. Not so says the narrator, What actually ocurred was that a woman, the three-breasted Awa, stole fire from the Sky Wolf, and then in a gesture that expressed her feelings about him, his conception of culture, and his sexual prowess, she urinated on his fire. This is the truth then, that culture comes to us because of women and in spite of men, but it did not get into print that way.

The Flounder has a fine explanation for male dominance. It is not superior force or rationality. It is control over what gets published. “Everything looks normal in print” (p. 103), he remarks and that is really how men have controlled the world. One benighted male has a theory that “right after the final curtain in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Fortinbras led his troops to Kashubia and was defeated by Swantopolk!” (p. 127). This is crazy, but once it appears in some journal, it will be accorded the accolade of a scholarly contribution to something or other. The Flounder is no fool.

By the time the twentieth century rolls around, the Flounder has pretty much given up on men. They are just too stupid, too incapable of learning anything (the narrator remains the continuously living case in point). So the Flounder offers to ally himself with women, just as uncounted centuries ago, he offered men the same deal. Why he changes when he does is once again left deliberately ambiguous, although it is tempting to posit that the Flounder is the funniest embodiment ever of Hegel’s Weltgeist, just going with the flow. The century belongs to women, he explains to the acquiescing and uncomprehending narrator whose success in sleeping with several women activists has satisfied his curiosity about what “libbers” really want. At the end of the novel the narrator in all innocence and astonishment, watches his wife running toward him and then beyond him. All he can do is try and catch up.

In The Flounder little is made of World War II, even though the Flounder’s trial for contributing to the abuse of women throughout history has an eerie resemblance to Eichmann in Jerusalem. (The Flounder is enclosed in a bullet-proof fish tank and must speak through a microphone.) But Grass’s other concerns, his strengths, and weaknesses, are very much in evidence. Foremost among them is the tension between his pedagogical and artistic instincts. The Flounder is Grass’s teacher par excellence and with him the question, hinted at in Local Anaesthetic, “can one trust one’s teacher,î is explicit. Unlike Stortebeker in Local Anaesthetic, one does not wonder whether the Flounder is imprisoned in the past. Instead, the question is what he does with a knowledge that transcends the limits of time. The Flounder, with his mixture of learning, verbal fluency, and curiosity about how people will behave in situations he creates for them, is obviously an image of the typical, essentially amoral contemporary artist. Yet this conception of the artist is just as obviously at odds with Grass’s desire to spread the truth. The opinions expressed about women in The Flounder: that they have been wronged throughout history, that their historical moment might have come but that they must beware lest they reflect and repeat male stupidities, and that their progress, like any genuine progress, will be at a snail’s pace–all these ideas seem consistent with what Grass believes. Yet the ambiguity of the Flounder, doubtless intended by Grass, remains, as if to suggest that the author is more at ease depicting human folly than human triumph.

With the Flounder, Gunter Grass creates a character whose combination of intelligence, amorality, self-irony, and curiosity makes him almost the equal of Oskar. Indeed, there is much brilliant writing in The Flounder. For a writer justly famous for extended humorous and grotesque scenes, Grass also has a flair for one-liners. About the Middle Ages: “In those days flagellation was pretty much what pot smoking is today” (p. 118). Toward the novel’s end there is a lengthy description of a Pather’s Day celebration, a homage to maleness that Germans celebrate on Ascension Thursday. Four “liberated” women decide to participate as a lark, but as the day draws to a close, one of them is raped and murdered by a gang of motorcycle thugs. This chapter, alternately funny and grim, is the finest sustained writing in The Flounder. It could well stand by itself as a short story.

Unfortunately, such scenes are rare. Despite the characterization of the Flounder and some excellent passages, The Flounder is not completely successful as a novel. The plethora of literary and historical figures (Martin Opitz and August Bebel to cite but two examples) and the considerable historical documentation weigh down the narrative. One is impressed by Grass’s erudition, but not by what he does with it. The fundamental problem, however, concerns the main theme. Despite Grass’s efforts to avoid sounding fashionably chic on the subject of women’s liberation, this is exactly what he does. Were the novel shorter, were Grass’s pedagogical interests less pronounced, were more space given to The Tin Drum and less to the narrator, this would not be such a problem. Yet in a novel of more than 500 pages the reiteration far exceeds the development, and while the author makes his point, he fails to hold the reader’s interest. Gunter Grass wants to instruct the children of the modern world. This time, on this subject, they know as much and perhaps more than he does.

Originally published in the September/October 1979 issue of Boston Review