‘Günter Grass: the writer in a pluralist society’

by Michael Hollington, London and Boston, Marion Boyars: 1980.

 

John Wieczorek

 

It is difficult not to feel some admiration for a book which proposes to cover so much of Günter Grass’s life and work, and which attempts to do so in less than two hundred pages of not particularly small print. Grass has, after all, written a great deal more than the Danzig Trilogy on which his fame still essentially rests. He has produced a second series of novels with more contemporary subject-matter, as well as several volumes of poems and a number of plays, and in addition he has campaigned actively for Willy Brandt and the SPD, and has written a number of works on political and social themes. All this is reflected in Michael Hollington’s book, a work, he informs us, for the general reader, which contains chapters on each of Grass’s major prose work (including Das Treffen in Telgte), as well as a select bibliography, a biographical introduction, and chapters on Grass as Poet, as Playwright, and as Politician. One is reminded that Grass did not retire after Hundejahre, and it is pleasant to read a book which attempts to see the Danzig works in the wider perspective of Grass’s whole oeuvre, and which treats Grass’s later works (especially Der Butt) so seriously.

 

Michael Hollington also attempts to place Grass within the European tradition. He argues in his foreword that Grass’s roots as a writer lie in ‘the humanist existentialism of the fifties and early sixties’ as well as the older ‘tradition of the grotesque,’ and after referring to ‘deceptive ironic strategies in the tradition of Sterne and Jean Paul,’ he claims that it is his own intention in this book to ‘present Grass as an essentially comic writer within the liberal humanist tradition as it encounters our pluralist world and is affected by existentialism, and to aid English-speaking readers in appreciating the techniques and purposes of Grass’s irony.’ In pursuing this intention, Michael Hollington shows a bewildering breadth of reference, and the book’s index reads in part like a catalogue of modern European intellectual trends. As well as existentialism, humanism and pluralism, it contains references to Behaviourism, Capitalism, Catholicism, Expressionism, Fantastic Realism, Formalism, Freudianism, Marxism, Modernism, Revisionism, Socialism, Structuralism, Surrealism, and Symbolism. This is ism-dropping with a vengeance. And why not, if the vocabulary of pluralism is appropriate to the subject? The important criterion is the extent to which this helps the general reader to reach a better understanding of the subject under discussion.

 

In general he achieves this aim. His short biography presents an adequate summary of the stages of Grass’s life, from war-time enthusiasm through prison-camp re-education to social democracy, and the chapter on Grass as politician explores the details of this last phase. Michael Hollington consistently and correctly emphasises Grass’s faith in the confusion of experience rather than ideological clarity and narrow-mindedness (of left or right). He identifies Grass’s anti-teleological attitude to history. He refers to Grass’s use of the absurd and the grotesque to prevent a conventional, ‘ “automatized” perception of reality.’ He also points to Grass’s ‘mistrust of language as a deceitful structuring of reality’ (105), though later (135) claiming that Grass’s ‘main significance for our time may be that he sees, more clearly than most, the superior durability and truthfulness of black marks on white surfaces to ephemeral images projected on a grey screen.’ But perhaps this simply reflects Grass’s own uncertainty. In addition he emphasises the attitude of critical tolerance which Grass himself cultivates and which he found so congenial about the ‘Gruppe 47.’ He also mentions the phases of Grass’s critical reception, from early charges of pornography to later criticisms of political conformism.

 

Often however these perfectly valid points are almost obscured by apparently wilful mystification, an irritating and unsettling inattention to detail, and a serious lack of precision in the use of critical terminology. It may appear unfair to concentrate on Michael Hollington’s treatment of a relatively peripheral aspect of Grass’s work, his poetry, but here may be found a particularly striking example of much that is irritating about the book. Michael Hollington discusses the well-known poem (title-poem for one of Grass’s collections) ‘Die Vorzüge der Windhühner’ (‘The Advantages of Windfowl’). He asks (92) the questions which any reader must ask: ‘What are “windfowl?” How can they be said to have “advantages”? Over what?’ As answer he quotes the poem itself, shortened, though this is not indicated, in German and English. (There is one misprint in the German, ‘kein Feder’ should read ‘keine Feder,’ and one mistranslation—of the line ‘der Schlüssel die Allegorie bleibt.’) He then criticizes the poem for its slight ‘awkwardness’ and ‘self-consciousness,’ refers to Grass’s following ‘modernist masters (like Pound and Eliot, for English readers)’ in using syntax and repetition as structuring devices in free verse (can this technique only be learnt from modernists?); he claims that the poem’s ‘shapely syntactical clarity liberates metaphor from the need to respect normal logical categories’ and suggests that as a result of this dissolving of ‘mental props like “tenor” and “vehicle,” ’ ‘the birds are both feeders and food, both perceivers and perceived, both the objects that the poem describes and that description itself.’ He then concludes that ‘the line of poetic descent, from Symbolism via Surrealism, is manifest.’

 

This may well be. But such heavy intellectual artillery is hardly the appropriate calibre for the delicate art of windfowl hunting, and the poor bird is lost behind these abstractions. Michael Hollington’s explanation creates far more confusion than it resolves. Instead of this, any interpretation of the poem, especially one in a book which is concerned with Grass’s irony, must start with the linguistic origin of these ‘Windhühner,’ an origin which is presented ironically in the poem as their product, namely ‘Windeier’ (literally wind-eggs, though the English word ‘wind-egg’ has a slightly different meaning). In German the word signifies (i) a soft-shelled or shell-less egg (to which reference is clearly made in the text—‘durchsichtig’), and (ii) an absurd idea which is still superficially convincing. It is a superficially convincing but absurd conclusion that if such a thing as a ‘Windei’ exists, there must also be ‘Windhühner’ to produce it. This idea is itself a ‘Winder, and so the poem, a ‘Winder, creates and praises ‘Windhühner’ for themselves producing, naturally enough, ‘Windeier’ (which, one assumes, will produce ‘Windhühner’ etc.). On this simple linguistic play the poem is based, and any serious analysis must take account of it. Instead, the discussion of this poem leads the general reader to a bewildering display of critical catch-words. Other, more minor irritations include the peculiar use of the words ‘pun’ and ‘transliteration’ (120) and ‘objective correlative’ (95). On page 28 Michael Hollington quotes in German from Die Blechtrommel and translates, but the second half of his translation is such as to obscure totally the very point he is trying to make: .’ . . alles was in die Ofen hineinwollte’ certainly, as he claims ‘dehumanizes the victims of the gas-chambers and attributes volition to them.’ The translation ‘all who were about to go in’ does neither. This, like so much else, is more likely to confuse the general reader than enlighten him. What, one wonders, is the reader to make of the following (169): ‘The extraordinary achievement of creating a kind of metafiction that does not get lost in a hall of sollipsistic [sic] aesthetic mirrors but comes out of its labyrinthine patterns still able to address itself with deep penetration to living human issues without sacrifice of artistic integrity is itself a momentous contribution to the cultural predicament in which we find ourselves.’

 

Elsewhere (67) we find: ‘the narrative techniques of Dog years intermingle past and present, jumping associatively forward and back so that (like Ulysses) it has to be read at least twice before its patterns become clear.’ Why like Ulysses? As an example of a book which has to be read at least twice? Is this necessary? Or is this a misplaced reference to the peculiar quality of the narrative techniques in Hundejahre? One is left uncertain. (This reference, incidentally, is wrongly indexed as being on page 68.) Elsewhere other references are equally confusing.

 

It would be possible to put up with these inaccuracies and unclarities if they did not recur in a central area of Michael Hollington’s argument: Grass and existentialism. In common with his entire generation, Gunter Grass has not remained completely unaffected by this movement, and his works reflect in part the philosophical background of his age. In his foreword Michael Hollington cautiously suggests common areas: essential isolation in an absurd, contingent world, personal responsibility, commitment. His discussion of the works however shows no such caution, and the vocabulary of existentialism is frequently used to very uncertain effect. Thus Tulla Pokriefke is described (75) as ‘a simple case of “ontic” disorder,’ and throughout one finds references to a lack of ‘authenticity,’ to ‘bad faith,’ to ‘putting oneself in question’ etc. The book appears to be attempting to imply more than it is prepared to state. Then at the end the reader is confronted (168) with the following statement (about Der Butt): ‘Once more it is an existentialist novel, in which Grass “puts himself in question” as he attempts to reply to the feminists.’ Once more? Is Michael Hollington suggesting that other novels by Grass are existentialist? If so, which ones? And what, in that case, does he mean by existentialist novel? The reader is surely entitled to a more adequate and precise explanation.