Günter Grass (1927-2015)

grass buttThere 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.

grass gesammeltFor 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.

tin drumIt 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.

nuveau roimanGrass’ 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.

grass krebsAll 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.

grass tänzeI 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.

grass brandWith 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.

grass grimmThe 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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Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[…].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.

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Müller / Grass

A german post for once: Herta Müller reacting to the Günter Grass affair that recently erupted over a ‘poem’ he published.

Die Literaturnobelpreisträgerin Herta Müller hat die Äußerungen von Günter Grass zur israelischen Politik scharf kritisiert. Am Rande einer Lesereise nach Tschechien sagte sie in Prag, Grass solle sich lieber zurückhalten: „Er ist ja nicht ganz neutral. Wenn man mal in der SS-Uniform gekämpft hat, ist man nicht mehr in der Lage, neutral zu urteilen“, so Müller über ihren Nobelpreis-Kollegen.

Die Kritik äußerte sie auf einer Pressekonferenz im Prager Goethe-Institut. Sie habe von der Debatte um Günter Grass wegen ihrer Auslandsreise erst aus den Zeitungen erfahren. Sie halte Grass’ Äußerung nicht für ein Gedicht: „Wenn er ehrlicher wäre, hätte er einen Artikel geschrieben. Will er, dass es Literatur ist und damit interpretierbar? Dort steht kein einziger literarischer Satz drin, also ist es ein Artikel“, sagte Müller.

Mit dieser „Etikettenfälschung“ könne man sich auch nicht retten. Dass Grass sein „sogenanntes Gedicht“ an drei verschiedene Zeitungen in mehreren Ländern geschickt habe, halte sie für „größenwahnsinnig“. Ihre Kritik schloss Herta Müller mit den Worten: „Das muss er selber verantworten.“

(source)

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