So after having had to do without my primary computer for a few weeks, I managed to switch it on last night for a while and what was the first thing I did? I opened iTunes and downloaded the most recent episodes of all the Podcasts I was subscribed to. As I saw the number of episodes that were being downloaded climb from one to ten to (in the end) 72, I was moved to contemplate the space I accord to podcasts in my daily life. I was also reminded of a friend to whom I had planned on recommending a few podcasts. So, in lieu of soulsearching and trying to figure out why I listen to so many different podcasts all day, I decided to offer a few recommendations to those not as bizarrely obsessed with the genre as I am. I am subscribed to way too many different ones but I will recommend a small handful that will not take up too much of your time, but that WILL provide a nice distraction on your car ride or during a work out. I primarily use podcasts so I don’t have to hear my own thoughts, but even for normal people, podcasts are a nice thing to have. You should consider this (short) list as it is intended: a recommendation for a friend (that I’ve been meaning to get around to since New Year’s).
1. So the first thing to know that if you want variety, the best bet is one of the millions of interview based podcasts. The classic choice here is NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. You’ll find tons of interviews on a vast variety of subjects. That’s not a real recommendation yet though. The main thing to know is that all 3 of the podcasts that I’m going to list are very uneven depending on their guest, but they do have very specific strengths that come out almost always.
- WTF with Marc Maron. Maron is basically the prototype of the bitter comedian. His podcast is among the most popular and that’s a well deserved popularity because as it turns out, he’s an amazing interviewer. Especially when it comes to other comedians. If you’re interested in a comedian, check whether that comedian has done an episode of WTF. Invariably, that’s going to be the best interview with that comedian you’re likely to find. Recently, he’s been interviewing well known Rock musicians and those interviews are almost as good. Maron is good in general, but with those two kinds of guests? Unbelievable. You have to pay to access older episodes, but there’s a high likelihood someone uploaded them to Youtube. Like this classic episode with Louis CK, or this one with Conan O’Brien.
- The Nerdist Podcast. Three self-described nerds, led by Chris Hardwick, interview various pop culture guests. I find their tone grating after a while, but with the right guests, they prodice very entertaining episodes. Unlike Maron, who tends to go through his guests’ careers chronologically, The Nerdist Podcast is more of a randomised affair, where, while the three hosts play some game of nerdy one-upmanship, you won’t hear much of the guest for up to 15 minutes. If this show is edited I can’t imagine what they cut. With the right guests though, this is magic. The Harrison Ford episode is amazing.
- Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. There’s nothing bad about this. If you are even vaguely interested in a guest of his I guarantee you that your time listening to one of his concise, smart, well prepared interviews is well spent. His interests and education are eclectic and so, unlike Marc Maron, he tends to know SOMETHING about all of his guests’ areas of expertise. Each episode consists of two interviews and a bit of extraneous hipster pop culture recommendations.
2. The second group of recommendations is just one Podcast collective. That collective is Radiotopia. Every single Radiotopia podcast is excellent. Excellent. Eminently worth your time. The thing that unites all of them is a mostly short runtime of roughly 20 minutes, a creator/host who is deeply invested in the format, and high quality content. Their best podcast is 99% Invisible, a design-based podcast by Roman Mars who’s also the driving force behind the whole Radiotopia enterprise. There is no other podcast that I have linked so many times to people. Like this episode about nuclear waste, or this episode about the criminalization of jaywalking, or this episode about the strange rebuilding of Warsaw. If you came to this blog post looking for recommendations, trust me on this. Listen to one or two episodes from all Radiotopia podcasts and see which ones you particularly enjoy. I can vouch for all of them except Mortified which sounds too much like other podcasts I have not enjoyed all that much despite their fame (like The Moth). To sum up: Radiotopia in general and 99% Invisible in particular. Go forth and listen. 3. The third group are what I call the science podcasts. Given that so-called nerds and geeks have seized the medium of the podcast it’s no wonder that science based ones rank among the most popular and generally excellent varieties. I’m subscribed to about ten of these but I’ll recommend 3 here.
- Radiolab. That’s probably the most famous one, with one of its hosts having appeared on Colbert and the other having been awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. They tackle various topics. They are always, ALWAYS excellent. It’s a mixture of reporting and banter, which is both enlightening and entertaining. I don’t have a favorite episode, but here is someone else’s list of favorites. It gives you a bit of an idea about the show, as well.
- Invisibilia. This podcast is currently on hiatus, but you can still listen to the full first season, and there’s just nothing to be said here: high production values, very smart, and in general follows the Radiolab template. All the first season episodes are equally good. I can’t wait for ‘season 2′. My favorite episode and one that I have recommended numerous times, is the one called “Batman” about how people’s expectations can limit what we can do and achieve. One of its segments has blind people do echolocation. ECHOLOCATION, people.
- Reasonably Sound with Mike Rugnetta. You might (or you might not) know Mike Rugnetta from Youtube where he does science education for PBS. Snappy edits, quick monologues, the works. As nice as these videos are, this podcast is better. It’s a sound centered podcast, on various sound related topics. There’s no segments. it’s just Rugnetta himself, one topic per week – if you are at all interested in the world of music and sound, you should add this to your list. The topics range from subliminal messages, to the sounds of space, misophonia and the drop in dance music. I don’t know where Mike Rugnetta gets his skills, cleverness and composure. But this podcast thing? He’s very good at it.
4. And the fourth and final group are odds and ends. I’ll mention 5 of my favorite podcasts from various networks and on various topics.
- Welcome to Night Vale. This is one of the best things. Period. I am a huge fan of this. This is more than a podcast. My relationship to this podcast is comparable to my relationship to favorite TV shows. Welcome to Night Vale is a fake local radio broadcast from a town that is unlike any other town. You HAVE to listen to this one in order, starting with the first episode. It gets better and better as we explore the various characters and the town. Have a quote:
Notice: there is no digital, static-y hum coming from the Dog Park, Mayor Pamela Winchell announced today. The mayor stressed repeatedly in her 90 second impromptu press conference that there is no unbearable, soul-tearing sound that rips at the sinews of your very being coming from the Dog Park. Mayor Winchell continued with a plea for all Night Vale residents to understand that there could not possibly be a deeply coded message emanating from a small, fenced-in patch of municipal grass and dirt. Citizens are not even supposed to be consciously aware of the Dog Park, so they could not possibly be receiving a menacing and unearthly voice instructing listeners to bring precious metals and toddlers to the Dog Park. “Dog Park,” she repeated. “That could never, ever be real,” the mayor shouted, pounding the podium with her bleeding fists.
and another one
Thursday night, the City Council is voting on a new measure that would prohibit breathing as an involuntary muscular action. Historically, the human body has been able to control breathing without the brain having to continuously activate the diaphragm. Under the new rule, all residents of Night Vale would be required to make the physical choice of whether or not, and when to breathe. The City Council said that we have too long taken the receipt of oxygen for granted and that this sense of entitlement must cease.
- A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment is a podcast hosted by the authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. It’s mostly about writing. Sometimes they have guests. Why should you listen to it? Because Sherman Alexie is a Great Writer and listening to Great Writers talk about writing is one of the best things, at least for me.
- Song Exploder is the podcast with the shortest episodes on this list. Every episode looks at the creation of a specific song. There’s no banter, no need to fill minutes. There’s about 5-10 Minutes of the band or artist or producer discussing various parts of the song and at the end, you can hear the song. It’s short, inspired and absolutely lovely. Trust me. You want to add this.
- The Mental Illness Happy Hour is, well, what is it? It’s a podcast about depression and mental illness. Its host, comedian Paul Gilmartin is open about his own struggles with depression, which makes him a very believable and reliable person to discuss this issue (I have complained about other people discussing this issue in this review). Most episodes run past the 2 hour mark, and that’s because Gilmartin appears to have no need for editorial self discipline. The main part of most episodes is an interview with a more or less well known person about their struggles with mental illness or difficult childhoods or both. On the website for the show you can anonymously submit answers to a questionnaire that Gilmartin then reads on air. The experience of listening to this podcast is like nothing else. If you have never experienced mental illness, maybe it’s a bit much for you, but even then, the interviews are certainly worth a listen. I don’t have a favorite episode but here is an interview at the AV Club where Gilmartin details 3 of HIS favorite episodes. It also gives you a good idea what the podcast is about. At the other end of the scale you’ll find Happier with Gretchen Rubin, a 20 minute podcast teaching its listeners how to be happier with easy to implement life hacks. Some of them work. It’s 100% worth a listen. In fact, if my description and/or the interview don’t convince you to get Gilmartin’s podcast, DO get Happier with Gretchen Rubin. It is fundamentally enjoyable so far, and short, and definitely helpful.
- This American Life is a classic by now. There’s almost no point explaining it except to say that you cannot go wrong with this. Hosted by Ira Glass, a notoriously hardworking man of broad tastes, each one hour episode consists of various segments touching on all kinds of issues. Most episodes are centered around a certain theme. As for the segments: An American Life is famously picky, which makes for remarkably consistent quality. Along with the aforementioned 99% Invisible, this is the most consistently excellent podcast on an episode by episode basis. I don’t have a favorite episode. They are all good.
Bonus: Bookbabble. How are you not listening to that yet? Shame on you. Mend your ways and subscribe.
There are whole swathes of podcasts I have not added. There’s languages: I listen to a very good German podcast (Kulturjournal), a very good French one (La Fabrique de l’Histoire) and a lovely Russian one (Ночной дневник) but I would honestly welcome recommendation in all three of those languages. And there’s sports. Among my most frequently updated podcasts are at least 10 that deal with my ungodly obsession for various sports. If you want recommendations for those, ask me in the comments or on Twitter. Meanwhile, I’m off drowning out my thoughts again.
[given that my computer is still out of order, the other texts from my HD are still on hold. I’ve written small pieces here and there. This is one of them.]
Addison, Katherine (2015), The Goblin Emperor, Tor
So when I read books in my non-PhD work, I tend to read them with a goal to maybe review them, and sometimes I just have these palate cleanser books that won’t turn up as a review or in a bibliography; at best they will make an appearance on Twitter. Especially comic books or fantasy novels – I’ve written numerous reviews of both genres and at some point one worries about repeating oneself. I don’t have something interesting to say about every book I read. Sometimes it’s just a shrug and a thumbs up or down. Brian Posehn’s Deadpool run? Very nice. Jan Peter Bremer’s Döblin Preis winning novel? A bit dull. Bryan Frances’s book on relativism? Very nice (but nonfiction that doesn’t fall into either category isn’t reviewed anyway). So when I started to read Katherine Addision’s “debut” novel The Goblin Emperor (I’ll explain the inverted commas in a moment) I didn’t expect it to end up here with its own review. However, as I thumbed through its last pages yesterday, I found myself intrigued enough by the book that I wanted to talk about it. So first things first: The Goblin Emperor is, as far as high fantasy goes, a fairly unique, very interesting book, that upholds many flaws of the genre, but, like The Copper Promise (see my review here), provides a very welcome light addition to fantasy that does not run the grimdark gamut. It’s a bit tedious in stretches but overall it’s a light and very enjoyable read if you like court intrigues in a very lightly steampunk setting. It has some of the nicest and most well rounded characters I’ve encountered in fiction in a while, but it relegates most of its truly intriguing characters and character developments to its fringes, whether that’s spare appearances or mere mentions. Look, if you like court intrigues and high fantasy and don’t need it to be “dark” or “realistic”, go for it. The world building in this book is fantastically accomplished, without the usual crutches. Everything that went into this book feels necessary to the structure and plot and doesn’t just add picturesque details or pretty mountains on one of those notorious epic fantasy maps. Despite the book never really leaving the confines of the capital city, we are made aware of the larger world around it. And the best aspect of the book is the way its narrative is restricted to the point of view of its barely-adult protagonist, it never falls into the trap that so much high fantasy falls into, of endless, helpless ruminations. The narrative is tight and the prose is perfectly adequate for its goals.
In fact, the book is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s anyone’s debut novel. And despite the coy author’s bio inside, Katherine Addison is really Sarah Monette, a more seasoned author, with 6 previous novels to her name, two of them co-authored with genre heavyweight Elizabeth Bear. So The Goblin Emperor doesn’t come from nothing, but that would have been hard to believe anyway, given the extraordinarily controlled style and environment we are offered by this twice-named author. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the “epic fantasy maps” that are so ubiquitous in the genre and which work as crutches for us as readers to not get lost in the multitude of names and places and things. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing and in fact, for many years I (raised as I was on the conscientious cartography of JRR Tolkien and D&D campaigns) thought that the miserable incompetence of Terry Goodkind’s terrible fantasy novels was prefigured in the poor and simple maps of Wizard’s First Rule. Many years of reading fantasy later I find that terrible books can sometimes come with very nice maps. While completely mapless, Addison/Monette’s book does come with a glossary and a brief morphology of names and titles, and while we can do without the maps, it’s hard to do without those things in a book like this. The Goblin Emperor feels like I’m told reading classic Russian novels feels to many readers: we are overwhelmed by an unbelievably large amount of names that all seem somewhat similar. More than once I had to browse earlier chapters to remind myself of who a person was exactly. That’s because, just like Russian novels can be disorienting due to their sheer amount of patronymics, Addison/Monette leaves us right in the thicket of a wealth of honorifics, family names, gender suffixes and much more. There’s no big infodump in the book that tutors the reader – instead, the author serves up a wholly realized world, and just expects us to find our way around all the strange words and names as we tag along with the story. In fact, for all that the world building is meticulous, the lack of maps and the elaborate nature of the names and terminology point to a world building that is based more on philology than topology, a point subtly driven home by the author when, during the course of a formal dinner party, we are allowed to eavesdrop on an actual philological debate between two minor characters. Yet even more than a clever way to deal with world-building, the dearth of explanation that happens in much of this has another effect.
The book’s protagonist is the youngest son of the recently deceased Emperor. Addison/Monette borrows from the stock of high fantasy races and has the main race of inhabitants of the capital city be elves. Maia, the protagonist, however, is half elvish and half goblin, being the offspring of the late Emperor’s ill-fated political marriage to a goblin princess. Despite being of doubly royal blood, Maia had been exiled to a faraway province where he lived a tranquil but unhappy life. The sudden death of his father, whose steam powered airship was the target of a political assassination [as an aside: what’s with crashing steam powered airships as a plot starting device?], as well as of everybody else that could have a better claim on the throne than the 18 year old half goblin, forces Maia to return to court where he hasn’t been in ten years and where he has never lived to begin with. As Maia arrives, he is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people and riches around him, not to mention the court intrigue and responsibility. A boy who has lived all his life on what basically amounts to a farm is now thrust into the hot cauldron of a vast empire’s capital city. And yet. we never despair for him, we are not scared or worried. This is because the author has set up her character with just the right amount of knowledge and, more than that, what they call “a good head on his shoulders”. We have all read these books narrated by less than bright characters, as readers most of us remember the anguish that comes with following a narrative of bad choices and impending tragedy or tragedies narrowly averted. Maia, in contrast to these books, has had very solid training and has developed fine instincts for how to relate to people, how to act when under pressure and how to deal with one’s fellow man. He manages to survive the first turbulent days and get himself crowned emperor (no spoiler here, it’s the title of the book). Now, whenever he is explained a fact about court, we are explained the same fact at the same time, so as he grows and learns, we do too. As readers, we cannot, however, duplicate his bewilderment when faced with the plurality of people, objects and the vastness of space that Maia has to traverse, inhabit and command. We are told he is bewildered, but we cannot share that feeling – which is where the author’s insouciant use of names and terms comes in. As a native speaker of the language, these are not things bothering Maia. but for the reader they are a kind of crutch that helps us approximate his confusion.
This is important because, at least through the first third of the book, I thought that the novel does an extraordinary job of being not a book about elves, goblins and court intrigue, but about foreignness, and isolation in a new culture that is not your own. Being myself “half Goblin” (well, half Russian), I found this part truly well executed. But not in the way adult books about foreignness are usually executed (say, Roth’s Call It Sleep) and more the way kid’s books work (say, Abdel-Fattah’s Does my head look big in this?). In many ways, the book feels as if its audience is young adults, more than with other fantasy novels, even though it is, as far as I can see, not categorized that way by author or publisher. But the kindness of the book, the way it takes its reader hy the hand and helps him understand the protagonist’s state of mind, as mentioned in rhe previous paragraph, it adds up to an impression of the author being as patient and careful with her readers as Maia’s tutors and new friends are with him. There are no pitfalls, as readers of the recently popular [I’m using the word recently as old people like me are wont to do. Not necessarily the dictionary definition] “grimdark” variety of fantasy writing would expect. Characters that seem trustworthy are trustworthy. The characters that seem like they have something bad up their sleeve, are generally bad news. This is not just us seeing the world through the eyes of someone with good instincts – this is a fundamentally balanced world. I mentioned The Copper Promise earlier. In a much different way, both books offer a genuine kind of escapism, a way of reading without your guard up. Everything is as it seems. It doesn’t make Maia’s life easy, and, in fact, the book doesn’t skirt dark moments, including executions and the weight that comes with having power over life and death. But at the same time, parts of this are worrisome. The world of The Copper Promise felt mostly democratic, despite one of its characters being a lord. Its main protagonist is a poor mercenary and her triumphs and losses are those of everyday people. Not so with The Goblin Emperor. Politically, it’s a very odd book. All that balance I mentioned? It’s balanced around a center and that’s Maia, the benevolent king.
All the concessions, all the niceness. all the emotions, they are all granted by this king. Maia is told to pick a wife, and that woman has to agree to marry him. And while he’s very nice and shy about it, it still happens that way and a woman who is clearly reluctant does end up marrying him. Many of the emotional bonds Maia shares are bonds with his servants and some of the emotional high points highlight how gladly and absolutely his close servants serve him. There are mere glimmers of their private lives and of lives in general that are not like Maia’s. One of Maia’s aunts lives with a wife as a Sea Captain somewhere and we know barely more than that, it’s just something that comes up in conversation. There’s also a gay couple at a dance one night, and that’s almost all we learn about that. In fact, while I enjoyed the first third as a very effective disquisition about alienness and migration, the longer I followed Maia’s narrative the more irritating I found the fact that racial difference is encoded in terms of elf and goblin. Political change, it’s implied, can only come from the top rungs of a hierarchy. Indeed, the novel is very careful to include a picture of revolutionaries that makes sure to have us understand that they are ruthless and maybe a bit insane. All of this is much more unpleasant by the overall didactic, balanced tone. I will say that part of my unhappiness with the way politics, race, gender and difference is handled in the second half of the novel is influenced by me having read as excellent a work of fantasy as N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books (review), both of which show the potential of this genre. I will say: this is my main complaint about the The Goblin Emperor (and it’s something many other books in the genre do, as well), which in most other ways, is very accomplished and a truly enjoyable read, if this be your genre.
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Due to smoke rising from my laptop – and a personal reluctance to set my apartment on fire – I cannot at this point properly use my laptop – or access the files on it. So if you are waiting for an article or manuscript or something, please be patient. I cannot afford to replace it. I have a very old backup computer which I can use to go online, so that’s not awful.
Due to the size of my audience and my irregular posting times I don’t get a ton of review copies (last one I got was the new Gila Lustiger novel, read my review here). This arrived last week and it’s lovely. Review forthcoming (after I finish my reread of Die Frequenzen, meanwhile here is my review of his debut):
There are very few writers in recent decades that have had such a rapid decline in reputation as German titan of letters Günter Grass who died Monday morning. After his death became public earlier this morning, many of my friends, well read students, writers and academics, didn’t manage more than a shrug in reaction to the news of Grass’ death. Grass’ career, since winning the Nobel Prize in 1999, has been marked by a shift in politics, and significantly worse writing. The first volume of his memoirs, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is, in my opinion, the only truly excellent piece of writing he had published between 1995 and his death this weekend. The rest of it – subpar poetry, atrocious novels and negligible prose – was often popular, but lagged behind even the worst of his earlier efforts. Yet literary decline alone is not enough of an explanation: for most of his literary career, Grass had also been politically active, including active campaigning for the center-left party SPD and its chancellor Willy Brandt. Many of his books bear the marks of a politically active mind. He wasn’t able to keep the politics of his day out of his books, leading to excellent novels like Kopfgeburten or Der Butt, which directly discussed and reflected on elections and policies. However, after winning the Nobel Prize, Grass, never one to eschew populism, increasingly sensed that a certain nationalistic brand of right wing rhetoric had crept into mainstream discussions and had become acceptable in polite company. Like his fellow traveler Martin Walser (not to be confused with Robert Walser, the Swiss genius), Grass played with tropes of nostalgia, nationalism and antisemitism, to an ultimately alarming degree. When he died, the crooked noises of his blaring populist trumpets had drowned out the memory of his much more sublime earlier work, in part because in the minds of many readers, late career Grass reminded them of the populist portions of his earlier work that had always been present. That’s why a shrug and an imprecise sadness was the main reaction among many of my friends and colleagues, despite the death of an enormous writer who was influential not just for German but world literature. Writers like John Irving and Salman Rushdie have acknowledged their debt to Grass’ voluminous oeuvre and among the highly praised writers of today in this country, few are untouched by his influence.
For most of my reading life, Günter Grass had been one of my favorite writers. Yet even I had conflicting emotions when I heard the news. despite Grass’ presence in my reading and writing life. Not just Grass the novelist, but also Grass the playwright, and, most importantly, Grass the poet. It’s not as well known or remembered today, but Grass’ first publication in 1956 was a collection of poetry and art, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner. His status as an broadly talented artist came from the place he was in after the ravages of the war. Born in Gdansk, he voluntary enlisted in the army in WWII and later was a member of the Waffen-SS. Contrary to many former soldiers or SS members, Grass (admittedly late, in 2008), was clear about the fact that he was not seduced, that he was a willing, even fanatic participant, but it was an experience that, he also claimed, cured him of all authoritarian impulses for the rest of his life. After the war, he became a stone mason apprentice and more generally an artist. Throughout his life, he had never really stopped being a well rounded artist. He was a painter, sculptor, a poet, a novelist, an essayist and an editor. If you’ve ever seen one of his books on the shelf, whether in German or in translation, the cover picture is one drawn or painted by Grass himself. I keep repeating these things because with Grass, they are not minor details. Grass was an unbelievably talented artist. He was not a novelist who dabbled in other genres or areas. I can’t properly judge his art (not my field of expertise) but I can certainly vouch for his poetry. Throughout his career Grass wrote poems and while his later poetry was never quite as good as his early work (true for many poets), he had kept his gift until the mid-1990s, when it, with his other gifts, slowly left him. I would not be who I am as a poet and writer today without Grass’ early poetry, and its influence was fairly wide spread in German literature generally. His gifts were so lavish that he started to write almost occasional poetry, poetry with lewd or odd subjects, poetry that was incorporated into novels, most notably Der Butt (The Flounder, 1977), which contains poems extolling the practice of going to the toilet as a group activity, among other subjects. I insist on this because writers so profoundly gifted in so many areas are very rare and for many decades, there was good reason to count him among the world’s foremost purveyors of literature.
It was Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), his very first novel that indelibly established his importance and skill. It’s part of the misleadingly called Danzig trilogy as all three of the books are set in Danzig/Gdansk. The term is misleading because, with a few exceptions, most of Grass work is either set in or refers back to Danzig, which is Grass’ Yoknapatawpha County. In her essential study of Grass’ work, Irene Leonard pointed out that “Danzig was a German microcosm. In Danzig, events in the Reich were repeated in slow motion.” Additionally, Grass makes all his characters into members of the petit bourgeois class, Kleinbürger in German, this being the class with the highest density of Nazi supporters. This obsession makes him give background characters, when they reappear in his later works, more petit bourgeous professions than they were said to have when they first appeared. It’s important to know that this shifting of truths is not an exception, it’s the rule in Grass’ work, starting with his debut novel. Grass is almost obnoxious in his insistence that not only are his narrators unreliable, he himself is not a reliable source regarding his own books and he crafted a prose intended to have a life of its own. I can’t speak for translations, but in German, Grass writes exactly the kind of prose that you’d expect from a masterful poet – he is highly attentive to even the most minute elements of his writing. A Grass sentence is instantly recognizable: Grass has a specific way of using objects and adjectives in his sentences, by omitting pronouns, stacking and shifting adjectives. He paraphrases and dismembers official jargon, figures of speech, commonplaces and sources such as Heidegger or Weininger. His fiction was first written by hand, then typed into a typewriter, then typeset by the publisher. In all these stages, it was continuously edited and refined. In Grass’ work, especially in the latter two novels of the Danzig trilogy, we are made to witness a writing that is highly cerebral and attentive, and yet also compulsively readable. It’s a visceral joy to read Grass, and that’s not just connected to his obsession with physicality, whether that’s young Tulla Pokriefke’s thin body or the rich physical multitudes of cooking, eating and crapping in The Flounder.
Grass’ influences are complex and varied. The most immediate influences are the nouveau roman for their use of surfaces and objects, the great poet Arno Holz (who almost won the 1929 Nobel prize) for his use of adjectives and Alfred Döblin for almost everything else. Döblin combined for Grass (and many other German writers) the influences of European avantgarde like dada or absurdist literature with the impact of Joyce and Dos Passos, all of which is wrapped in a strong dedication to narrative and readability. Other influences on Grass are Swiss classic Gottfried Keller (especially Der Grüne Heinrich), Goethe and a whole array of novelists ranging from Laurence Sterne to Grimmelshausen. From all these influences, Grass learned how to deal with narrators and reliability, how to use objects in order to fragment narratives of reality into episodes or scenes that are then co-determined by the presence of the objects arranged in the scene. Public language, molded into Grass’ syntax, becomes one more objects among many, all of which often ends up overwhelming the stories’ subjects. Grass as the author is intentionally elusive, pushing the text away even from himself. His is a writing heavy with symbols but on close reading, these symbols tend to shift, displace, elude. To an incredulous American interviewer he once said “Symbols are nonsense – when I write about potatoes, I mean potatoes.” At the same time, he was aware and adamant that as the author, he did not have final authority over the text, especially once the book was written and he got rid of his notes. The author as a dubious witness – it’s more than an application of Tristram Shandy to the shambles of post WWII Europe. In the light of his autobiography, it also reflects a profound mistrust of grand narratives. A writer with a social and humanist conscience who is aware that in his youth and young adulthood, he unquestioningly and voluntarily followed and fought for the Nazi regime in general and Hitler more specifically, this kind of writer can end up with a poetics as Grass': distrustful of narratives and distrustful of himself. Even in Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, doubt creeps in. Characters from the novels are given a voice, sowing doubt in the memoirist’s mind.
All of these things are already present in his first books. Die Blechtrommel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, a person of stunted growth, who writes down the book from within a sanatorium, a “Heil- und Pflegeanstalt”, the “cloisters of modernity” as Elias Canetti referred to them. According to its internal logic, Oskar wrote the book between 1952 and 1954, the book ending on the eve of his 30th birthday. There are two levels of story, one, Oskar’s life from conception uo to his 28th birthday, the other, the two years in the sanatorium during which Oskar writes down the book. There is no external authority verifying the truth of the events presented – in fact, it’s Grass’ own oeuvre that ends up factchecking his early books, confirming and denying various ostensible facts told us by Oskar. Oskar’s honesty is not the most importanr part. It’s his insistence, his obsession in marshaling the past to come back and give a record of the small and large crimes and sins that happened. The word “sin” is not randomly chosen here: Die Blechtrommel, is a book suffused with a sense of religion, reflecting Grass’s Catholic upbringing. Even more openly religiously influenced is the second book in the trilogy, the novella Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961). Numerous studies have shown that Grass carefully crafted the book to fit quite a few German theories of the form (ours is a nation obsessed with the genre of the novella, cf. Hartmut Lange for the probably best living practitioner of the form). For a writer enamored with excess and the fullness of story, this novella is remarkably strict and lean. It’s probably Grass’ most ‘perfect’ book, the one least flawed (we all remember Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel). It’s an exceptional achievement, and an unbelievable example of an already fantastically good writer rapidly developing and maturing. Katz und Maus tells a story of characters that we’ve already met. One has to imagine the Blechtrommel as opening a fount of stories that are all interconnected and that correct and discuss each other. The crowning achievement of this early work is Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963), which examines and interrogates guilt and complicity by putting on a virtuoso display of how to employ and undercut various forms of narration. It’s separated into three parts, using multiple kinds of voices, genres and perspectives, hiding and revealing identities, zooming in and out of smaller stories in order to discuss and illuminate the greater stories at length.
I discussed the Danzig trilogy at length for two reasons. One is the importance of its ideas, characters and methods for Grass’s later work that would continue to go back to this well until Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk, 2002), which is almost indistinguishable from parody. The other reason is that these 3 books, as well as the unexpected but excellent Das Treffen in Telgte (The Meeting at Telgte, 1979) are the most likely to endure. They are least shackled to the political events of the day. I don’t mean to say that those four books are Grass’ best work, but they are Grass’ most accessible work for an audience living at least a decade after the books were published. His very next novel after the trilogy, örtlich betäubt (Local Anaesthetic, 1969), published at the height of student protests, questions ideas of revolution and change, using history as a way to make sense of the present, not as a way to look at and interrogate the past. It’s also the first book not to include the writing situation as part of the story, even though its narrative setup is not dissimilar to Katz und Maus. While that one was constructed as an Augustinian confession in a very narrow sense, örtlich betäubt is basically a confession/rant delivered by a patient to his dentist (one is reminded of Peter Brooks’ precise analysis of the culture of confession). The present in question that’s being examined was the tail end of the Kiesinger administration. Long before Merkel, Germany was once, for three years, governed by a coalition of its two largest parties. The chancellor of that coalition was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member (who, like Grass, joined with enthusiasm). Other former members of the Nazi party included the foreign minister as well as the economics minister. This may explain the novel’s sense of gloom and doom, especially since Grass, a typical social democrat, did not believe in radical change either (Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!). The next novel, similar in intent, if differently structured, picks up at this point and ends in the election of Willy Brandt, the great hope of Germans center-left intellectuals.
With those two novels a new era of Grass novels begins that use not just the past, but also myth and fairy tales in order to examine a political issue of the day, whether that’s feminism (Der Butt / The Flounder), demographics (Kopfgeburten / Headbirths), environmental concerns (Die Rättin / The Rat) or the German reunification (Ein weites Feld / Too Far Afield). They all have their specific strengths and are often powerfully written and elaborately (and cleverly) constructed. They were not, however, as well received by critics, in part because their political content offered critics an easy way to dismiss the books without engaging with their extraordinary literary power. It’s not until 2002 that Grass scored another major success with both critics and audience. That book was Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). Now, by 2002, Grass work did not have the same potency as it had even 1995. His collection of short prose, Mein Jahrhundert (My Century, 1999) was uncharacteristically flat, by then, he hadn’t published a new book of poetry since 1993. Im Krebsgang was short, hurried and flat – it turned out that Grass’ high octane style didn’t work when it wasn’t powered by a writer working at the top of his game. It seemed -as I mentioned- like a lazy parody. It’s success -somewhat analogous to the lack of success of the earlier books – was due to politics. In 2002 another important and popular, if deplorable, book was published: Der Brand by actor and historian Jörg Friedrich. In it, Friedrich goes on at length about the hardships of the German populace during the Allied bombing, producing a heated amalgam of facts, fiction and some terrible turns of phrases (like “the bomb holocaust”). Grass’ novel about a German civilian ship, sunk by a Soviet submarine in the last weeks of the war perfectly fit the sudden craving in Germany of narratives of German victims. Starting roughly in 1999, a subtle (though increasingly less so) historical revisionism had created this need for counter narratives that emphasized German victims. Apart from the very good first volume of his autobiography Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion, 2006), the rest of his work published in the oughts was similarly bad. His collection of poetry Letzte Tänze wasn’t even a parody any more. It’s just a mostly inconsequential book of newfound righteousness and old man horniness. The nadir, finally, of Grass’ literary production was his poem “Was Gesagt Werden Muss” (“What has to be said”), a poem about Israel that is full of modern antisemitic rhetoric.
The young Grass used to take these phrases and twist them into art and truth. Old Grass just regurgitates right wing rhetoric. In the years between Im Krebsgang and the new “poem”, he had given numerous ill informed interviews. Famously, he invented the fact that 6 millions of German soldiers had died in soviet camps, a number clearly intended to balance the 6 million Jews Germans had murdered. His use of German myth and tradition in connection with present day concerns in his last volume of autobiography Grimms Wörter (no translation yet, 2010) suddenly didn’t seem smart and literate any more as it was in the 70s and 80s and more reminiscent of right wing nationalist nostalgia. As his work and reputations slowly disintegrated Grass pressed on, gave interviews, published more individual poems. More, more. Despite his misguided politics in the last decade of his life and his waning literary skills, he was still animated by an urge to say something, to contribute something, to do something. For me, there’s nothing worse than a writer without obsessions and urges. Günter Grass had both in spades and the best of his work ranks with some of the best literature published in the last century. It’s tempting to judge him in the light of his poor last decade. As someone who has been reading Grass for 20 years, who has read all of his books, most of them multiple times, I don’t want to do that. Today we mourn the passing of a Great Writer. Mourn with me. They don’t come along very often.
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