On hopes, disappointments and surprises: recent books by Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie and Günter Grass, two of my favorite living writers, have both published new books recently. Both writers have a mixed track record of late. Rushdie took a downward turn with The Ground Beneath Her Feet and hit literary rock bottom with the astonishingly bad Fury. He regained some ground since, with the mixed but good Shalimar the Clown. It wasn’t all good, in retrospect there were many problems with it but I for one heaved a big sigh of relief upon reading it. Especially the Kashmir passages were among his very best work, and in the WWII passages I felt he was slowly getting the hang of writing about the west without descending into self-parody.

Grass has started his bad years with Mein Jahrhundert (My Century), which showcased why he shouldn’t write more short prose, but wasn’t as excruciatingly bad as the poetry he published in the following years. Novemberland and Letzte Tänze were bad. Very bad. Embarrassingly bad. Lord knows, Grass was one of the best German post-WWII poets when he started his career, I’d still recommend his debut volume of poetry, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner to anyone who cares for poetry and my opinion. I can’t really explain what happened. He also published a novel that read like a bad parody of himself, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk).

So I awaited both writers’ new books with hopes and fears. With Grass, admittedly, the hope was solely based on my love for his older work and wasn’t strong enough to make me pay for the hardcover. When I finally bought the paperback of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, some irritating ticks, too much talk of Grass’ penis and too much of a hurry marred the book, but it cohered wonderfully, was a great read and contained much of what I loved and love in Grass’ work. A shifty memoirist, he slips in and out of truth, offers interpretations for his own work by claiming real life counterparts to some of his most famous creatures, including the precocious son of an acquaintance of his, who walks into the living room with his tin drum. Grass relates of his talks with a friend in the army, who was to become Pope Benedikt XVI, he does a good job of discussing Germany’s dark past without providing excuses (but also without being really open about it, more on this soon) and his writing often shines as it did in the old days. It’s the old baroque Grass again, who lays it on too thickly but it feels rarely forced. An inspired book.

Not so The Enchantress of Florence. Well. There are two ways of looking at the book. They are not compatible, but they are both true. According to one it’s easily his best work since The Moor’s last Sigh. No matter how you look at it, it’s not as good as Moor or the Verses, or Shame, or Children, or indeed Haroun, but it bests the rest of his novels. There is some glorious writing and there are few writers out there who can do as much justice to the sumptuousness of the setting of the novel as Rushdie can. Without even having to indulge in long descriptions, it’s there, in his prose. He needs few words to paint a whole, finely detailed, rich world. Days after finishing the Enchantress I had vivid visions of Florence. It made me pull Mandragola and The Prince off shelves and reread them.

There are many strange and great characters, often pained with broad brushstrokes that left an intricate pattern in the novel. The story is straightforward enough told with an enormous pace, actually, but without ever seeming hurried. He seems to have regained his talent for telling a rich story in few words, something which has amazed me ever since Shame (which, at the time, I picked up reluctantly, as any thin book, but which, in retrospect, seems like that house in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it’s bigger inside than outside.)

However, there are, once we invoke the masterpieces of this great writer, some respects in which The Enchantress somewhat short. It’s never as moving, as warm, as his earlier work. People move past you and even though their characterization is superb, the book is still cold. With a writer of Rushdie’s abilities, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had recognized his strengths and crafted a better novel, to the best of his abilities. Unlike Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) this is most certainly not an inspired book, no sir. It’s a supremely well crafted book, but there’s something missing at the heart of it all, although I admit that Rushdie’s language does carry a certain warmth, the warmth of a room hung with thick, rich carpets, in the midst of summer, in a household lonely with cruelty. The child alone in his room basks in the heat, but still shivers, from a different kind of cold.

And this is where we turn to the second point I alluded to before. Rushdie was never a good thinker. Take a peek into one of his volumes of essays and you’ll see what I mean. The best parts of them are inspiring, even thought provoking, but less like real philosophy and more like (at times) good aphorisms. Not that they are aphorisms. If that is confusing, it’s all you’re going to get. Well. Back to Rushdie being a second- or third-rate thinker.

It shows in the new novel which cites and sometimes paraphrases contemporary discussions of that infamous idea of the “Clash of Cultures” and of religion and fundamentalism. Tired, all too well known witticisms, bad arguments that pose in the novel as novel (excuse the pun) ideas, and brilliant and/or daring ones at that. How could Rushdie have read period pieces (it is to be assumed he has read all or most of Macchiavelli’s work, including the luminous work that is the Discourses on Livy) and assumed that his cut&paste method of transplanting weak contemporary arguments into that setting could work at all?

Hence my comparison to Fury. Both are, in their own ways, failed novels of ideas, in both cases because Rushdie hasn’t many good ideas, in the philosophical sense, of his own. It’s not just because Rushdie is channeling the Football Hooligans of Rational Thought, although he is, and it’s not a nice thing to behold. No, this novel immediately takes a nosedive anytime he engages in anything philosophical. It recovers quickly, but I have been known to shout angrily from time to time while reading it. I’m not sure I want to reread it. I’ll try to just remember the great parts and look forward to the new novel, which is, hopefully, emptier of philosophy and fuller of awesome (yes, I use awesome as a noun). ISBN

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2 thoughts on “On hopes, disappointments and surprises: recent books by Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie

  1. Pingback: Recently finished books? - Page 43 - World Literature Forum

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