Five by Five Books #6: “The Flounder” (1977) by Günter Grass

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? At bottom line, this is a book is about men, and women, and food, so how can you go wrong with that, right? More descriptively, The Flounder (Der Butt in its original German) tells the tale of an immortal fisherman, the women he has loved through the centuries, and the talking fish who meddles in their lives, incidentally instituting the patriarchate in the process. Loosely anchored in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Fisherman and His Wife, Günter Grass’ epic Flounder blends absurdly cerebral elements (e.g. a court trial of the talking flounder, who is being persecuted by militant feminists), with visceral, earthy depictions of human bodies and the fuel (food) that powers them, some of it beautiful and sweet, some of it bloody and filthy, most of it some combination of all of the above. The main narrative of the book is broken into nine parts (called months), through which the Fisherman tells his pregnant current wife, Ilsebill, about the women (all cooks) who came before her, all the way back into the blissfully oblivious (for men anyway) matriarchy of the Neolithic era, when people ate in private, then gathered in groups to move their bowels together, socially. The book also provides a reasonably accurate history of the politics and culture of the Vistula River region around Danzig/Gdansk, which is sometimes German, sometimes Polish, sometimes Lithuanian, sometimes its own Free City, but always distinctive and recognizable in Grass’ depictions.

Who wrote it? Günter Grass is arguably post-war Germany’s most famous — if often controversial — cultural figures, a left-leaning, politically-active playwright, novelist, sculptor, illustrator and poet, whose work is frequently categorized as an integral part of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“Coming to terms with the past”) movement in contemporary German arts. Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), and his works are often set there, in the crook of the Baltic Sea where eastern and western empires have clashed for centuries, all of them coveting the deep water port and strategic importance of the ancient burg, which has as a result changed hands (politically) at least 15 times in the past 1,000 years. His most famous book, The Tin Drum (1959), was the opening salvo of his so-called Danzig Trio, and it was later made into an Academy Award and Cannes Palm d’Or winning film, released in 1979 — just after The Flounder received its first English pressing. Grass has won numerous awards and plaudits throughout his career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 for his book, My Century. He continues to write, and provoke, to this day, most recently earning headlines on our shores for his 2012 poem “Europe’s Disgrace,” in which he lambastes the European Union for condemning Greece to poverty through its (mis?)-handling of the sovereign debt crisis.

When and where did I read it? I first read The Flounder in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1980, as America’s Cup 12 meter sailboats trained, transited and raced outside of my bedroom window above Fort Adams State Park. I had seen the film adaptation of The Tin Drum a few months before we moved from Long Island (after four seminal years there) to Rhode Island, and read that novel soon thereafter, surprised and delighted to discover that there was a long and important second part of the book that had not been included in the film. Soon after we arrived in Newport, I visited the public library downtown, and am fairly certain that The Flounder was the first book I ever checked out there. It’s a long, somewhat difficult book, and I know I had to renew it a couple of times before I finished; oddly (it seemed to me) nobody else wanted to check it out. The book’s bizarre potpourri of water, and fish, and food, and women, and history, and politics, indelibly underpins my memories of a summer spent on the shore, during political season (John Anderson for President, anybody?), while eagerly pursuing women, and food, ideally at the same time.

Why do I like it? Like I said, men and women and food, so what’s not to like? Actually, the thing that impressed me most on first reading was the book’s rich structure, the layers of history, with poetry and prose intertwined, and an absurd and satirical contemporary story line providing the anchor from which upon thousands of years worth of deliciously dirty, meaty, sweaty, sensual yarns and tales are spun, ostensibly to entertain a pregnant woman through the nine months of her term. Grass’ deep sense of place (the Vistula estuary, Kashubia, Pomerania, Danzig), and his vast affection for food and its preparation are contagious and memorable, and I found myself wanting to reproduce many of the recipes described in the book, even though many of them would be viewed as disgusting my most modern gourmands, just for the experience of eating things we generally don’t eat anymore. The (titular) Flounder is an amazing character — a mystery, a meddler, a bon vivant, a maker of bad jokes and puns, a know-it-all in both the best and worst senses of that phrase — as are the 11 cooks, all powerful women, each in their own ways, flawlessly envisioned and embodied by a master writer. Credit must be given to Ralph Manheim for his English translation of this knotty (and naughty) work; the language never feels forced, nor dumbed down, nor stiff, and I think that’s a rare and significant accomplishment in a field that’s largely invisible or forgotten by most readers of foreign novels.

A five sentence sample text: “He, the one and only, the talking Flounder, who has been stirring me up for centuries, knew all the recipes that had been used for cooking his fellows, first by the heathen and later as a Christian Lenten fish (and not only on Friday). With an air of detachment and a glint of irony in his slanting eyes, he could sing his praises as a delicacy: ‘Yes, my son, we happen to be one of the finer fishes. In the distant future, when you imbecilic men, you eternal babes in arms, will at last have minted coins, dated your history, and introduced the patriarchate, in short, shaken off your mothers’ breasts, when after six thousand years of ever-loving womanly care you will at last have emancipated yourselves, then my fellows and relatives, the sole, the brill, the plaice, will be simmered in white wine, seasoned with capers, framed in jelly, deliciously offset by sauces, and served on Dresden china. My fellows will be braised, glazed, poached, broiled, filleted, ennobled with truffles, flamed in cognac, and named after marshals, dukes, the prince of Wales, and the Hotel Bristol. Campaigns, conquests, land grabs!”

PRIOR FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Mélange

1. It’s September? It’s September. It’s September?!? It’s September! It’s September. It’s September . . . (it’s September) . . .

2. I was sorry to hear of Glenn Cornick’s passing this week. He was the bass player on the first three Jethro Tull albums, as well as playing in a few precursor bands, and co-writing the group’s first single, “Aeroplane,” mistakenly credited to “Jethro Toe.” He was a fantastic musician, and it’s hard to imagine how such signature early Tull songs as “Living in the Past” or “Bouree” would have been so wonderful without his tasty chops holding them together. Click those two links in the prior sentence, and actually listen to the bass. Incredible stuff, truly. He had a fine post-Tull career as well, that I wrote about in a post a few years back about Heavy Organ Music, and I highly recommend his work with Wild Turkey, Paris and Karthago, if you can find it. (Paris also featured the brilliant Bob Welch, who has also flown away from us, sadly, as I wrote about here). I was “friends” with Glenn Cornick on Facebook for a couple of years, back when I was more profligate in my social media practices, and his communications there were always fun, enthusiastic, engaging, and endearing. He seemed to be a generous man who loved and was proud of his family, as well as a gifted musician who played an important role in an important band for me. Here’s wishing his friends and loved ones peace through difficult times.

John Smith, International Terrorist? Apparently so, until proven innocent.

Is this the passport photo of John Smith, International Terrorist? Apparently so, until proven innocent, again and again.

3. As noted in prior posts, Marcia and I had an amazing time in Europe last month, celebrating our 25th Anniversary. One of the things that we most appreciated was the excellent public transportation opportunities available to us, where we could effortlessly move between four sovereign nations via clean and timely trains, and could also move freely around our chosen cities in a variety of trams, buses, trains and autos. Our entire passport control experience on entering Europe was a pleasant, two-minute interview at Flughafen Frankfurt, Germany, while carrying our backpacks, and keeping our shoes, belts, jewelry and outer clothing on our bodies throughout the entire procedure. Compare and contrast this with our experience on arriving in Houston International Airport, where we waited in long lines, were yelled at more than once by airport security personnel, had to remove various items of clothing, and dismantle our traveling packs and — worst of all — where I was, once again, singled out, isolated, and treated as a security threat for no offense graver than being named “John Smith.” This is the fourth (or fifth?) time this has happened to me when returning from abroad in the post 9/11 era, so while I’m getting used to it on one level, it never ceases to deeply offend and aggrieve me to have to be separated from my traveling companions and put into “supplemental screening” rooms after having my passport confiscated by airport security staff. In Houston, they would not let Marcia stay with me, and I was put under surveillance in a secure office immediately adjacent to the quarantine room where, presumably, anybody exhibiting Ebola symptoms would be held. I don’t want to be too much of a drama queen about this, but, you know what? I served my country, honorably, for a long time, and it feels really, really, really wrong for me to be treated this way when I return home after traveling abroad. It’s obviously some sort of profiling based on my very common name, but it seems that at one or more of these unfortunate stops, someone would look at the unique number on my passport and make a note in a computer somewhere that I’m really not that John Smith (whoever he might be), and that I should be able to enter the country where I was born and have lived and worked my entire life without causing security staff to put their hands on their pistols. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think it is.

4.  Another thing I enjoyed about our time in Europe: I had no cell phone coverage or connection, so I would check in via the hotel’s business center or our Netbook occasionally, but otherwise was fairly blissfully disconnected from the digital world for most of the day while we rambled about some of Europe’s great cities, seeing sites, taking pictures, drinking beer, and eating all of the things, all of them. It was effortless and delightful, and I’ve tried to eliminate a lot of online connections since returning home (e.g. sorry if I am not your Facebook friend anymore, nothing personal, really) to preserve that sense of actively living in the real world, without feeling obligated to monitor the virtual one, continually. That being said, I hereby authorize anybody reading this article to punch me in the head repeatedly if I ever succumb to writing one of my least favorite internet memes, wherein highly-connected dooders or doodesses cut him/herselves off from all electronic toys for a day/week/month/whatever, and then blog about it as though the experience were analogous to living in a Somali refugee camp for two years. It’s not that dramatic to be disconnected, people, honest. Most of our internet activities are nothing but habits, and if we make a little effort to break said habits (since most of them are bad habits, if we’re honest with ourselves, right?), and successfully do so, then . . . . well, then, nothing, because it’s not really a big deal. Seriously. And if you ever liken misplacing your Smartphone or closing your Facebook account to losing basic fundamental human requirements like food, water, and real face-to-face contact with peers and loved ones, then you’re kind of a schmuck, honestly, and there’s probably a reason why you don’t function very well in the real world. Just saying.

Home from Europe

Marcia and I made it back late yesterday from our nearly two-week trip to Europe. It was a wonderful way to mark and celebrate our 25th Anniversary. I’ve put our photo album up on Flickr, if you’d like to see what we saw. If you click on the photo of me below — with the expression that I wore most of my time throughout this trip (and if you know me well, you know I don’t smile very often) — then click on any of the photos on the page that comes up, there will be explanations at the bottom of the page as to what you’re seeing, and navigation arrows at the sides to see other scenes. I’m still a bit jet-lagged, so might offer some other thoughts on the trip later, but suffice for now to say it was magnificent, and I’m pleased beyond words to have been able to share the experience with Marcia. It was a great beginning to our next 25 years together.

Happy camper at Restaurant Willem in Amsterdam. Click the image to see the other photos.

Happy camper at Restaurant Willem in Amsterdam. Click the image to see the other photos.

Y U NO UPDATE?!?

Because I am on vacation with Marcia, on an extended celebration of our 25th Anniversary. We’re marking the occasion in Europe:

Me in front of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch"in Amsterdam. Shine, shine, the light of good works shine . . .

Me in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” in Amsterdam. Shine, shine, the light of good works shine . . .

Marcia and I in Luxembourg. Just because.

Me and Marcia in Luxembourg. Grand Duchy FTW!!!

Here's Marcia and I in front of the Rheinturm, in Dusseldorf.

And here’s we are in front of the Rheinturm, in Dusseldorf.

This is the site of the original Kling Klang Studio in Dusseldorf, where Kraftwerk changed the world.

This is the site of the original Kling Klang Studio in Dusseldorf, where Kraftwerk changed the world of music forever. I could see it from our hotel room. Wow!

Final selfie in Amsterdam, the day before we return home. What a wonderful trip!

Final selfie in Amsterdam, the day before we return home. What a wonderful trip!

I Killed A Newspaper

Back in the mid-1980s, I read an article by Alex Heard in the Sunday magazine supplement of Washington Post that introduced me to the concept of “hathos,” that icky, creepy, combo of hatred and pathos that compels us to consume popular culture that horrifies us in vaguely embarrassing, borderline nauseating ways. Marcia and I use the word all the time, and I’m somewhat surprised that it has not come into wider usage, since it seems the perfect way to describe how most readers consume pathetic contemporary idiot celebrity culture of the Kardashian-Miley-Bieber-Snooky variety.

I avoid that crap like the plague, but I will admit to one hathotic obsession: since being driven off of the Albany Times Union blog portal back in the Fall of 2010, I have regularly returned there like a dog to vomit, feeling pity for friends who still play in that cat turd-infested sandbox, but also relishing its steady collapse into a black hole of bilious reader comments, irritatingly invasive advertisements, extreme religio-political screeds, and vapid pop-fashion-style commentary. It’s so bad, but I just can’t look away, lest I miss the point when it goes supernova, destroying an entire region’s news management system in the process.

I was reminded today, though, that the target of my hathos does exact a human toll, when I read a post at the Times Union by an online friend and fine human being, Roger Green, entitled Seven Years Since Times Union Employees Last Had a Raise. As an unpaid community blogger, Roger ponders his complicity in this unfortunate situation — which, I think, is actually even worse that he notes, because many Times Union employees have not only missed raises, but have instead been laid off, during that seven-year period. It would certainly seem that professional journalists are viewed as less valuable to the newspaper on a return-on-investment basis than the infrastructure that supports these free blogs, which have expanded apace for the past seven years.

I had pondered these points, too, in some articles I wrote at the Times Union back in 2009 and 2010, so I commented on Roger’s post, while also noting that in my own experience, community bloggers can be treated just as badly as paid staff, if management was poked hard enough. Here’s my comment (lightly edited), with links to related older articles:

I don’t believe in regret, conceptually, since all that we are is all that we were . . . but if I was prone to wishing the past were different, then my participation in the Times Union (TU) blog portal is definitely one of the things that I would undo, since I think we all have unequivocally played a role in the diminution and ultimately destruction of daily newspapers, at the expense of the trained journalists who work for them.

At one of the very first TU Community Blogger gatherings, the one at St. Rose, I expressed my concern to the panel that we were all engaged in the act of killing newspapers, and got a brush off from the TU representative on the panel. I wrote two pieces about this phenomenon while still actively contributing to the TU, one in 2009, and one in 2010. Links to them follow:

The Newspaper Junkie Speaks (March 2009)

The Newspaper Junkie Speaks (Again) (April 2010)

I left when I realized just how mercenary and mercantile supposed former friends and members of this “community” were after political advertising popped up on my page. I asked that it be removed (perhaps unreasonably), then I deleted my blog when my request was not accommodated . . . only to watch the TU staff put most of it back, just deleting the anti-TU posts that explained why I left. It’s all still on their website, held hostage, because I apparently signed away all rights to everything when I agreed to blog there. All of you have done that, too. Here’s my thoughts on that:

Good Riddance to the Times Union (September 21, 2010)

I generally don’t talk about this any more, because it’s easy for people to point at me and say, “Well, yeah, sour grapes” . . . but the treatment of in-house career journalists and volunteer bloggers is truly loathsome at the TU.

So, yes, I believe 100% that you and me and all of the other bloggers here, past and present, bear some responsibility for the maltreatment of the TU staff, because we undercut the value of their work as writers, and we continue to provide advertising revenue to the paper’s management every time we arrive at the portal and click on a link.

I’m doing it right now, yes, I know. I accept that responsibility and feel bad about it. I’m glad to see at least one current blogger here considering the issue, too, and hope others reflect on this as well.

Of course, when you leave, all of your words and pictures will be held hostage, too, and will continue to feed the advertising monster . . . so it may be too late for any of it to matter, honestly.

I killed a newspaper in Albany, I’m sorry to say, as part of a self-aggrandizing gang of online egotists who effectively destroyed a centuries-old professional sector in our home community in a matter of months. I originally set up Indie Albany (the predecessor to this website), as a reaction to this sin, a place to “do no harm” for creative folks who just wanted to share their writing online, free from advertising pressures and without rendering our journalistic friends irrelevant. It was nice, in theory, but of course it really didn’t make a difference, and I let that sort of ideological bent go when I replaced Indie Albany with Indie Moines in 2011.

Since moving to Iowa, I’ve watched our once-esteemed daily Register rapidly go down a similar path to the Times Union, once the 2012 Iowa Caucuses were over and the political staff were scattered to the winds. Huge swaths of the paper now are just reprints of USA Today articles, providing nice economies for corporate parent Gannett, I suppose. I cancelled my subscription there in late 2012, which means I’m playing a part in killing a newspaper in Iowa, just as I did in New York.

It’s sad, I hate it, and I’m grateful to Alex Heard for giving me the word “hathos” to describe the obsessive revulsion that daily newspapers’ desperate need to please the lowest common denominator (“Were You SEEN In Body Paint Darting A Bear in a Tree at Coachella?!?) have inspired in me over recent years. I also am saddened by and hate the fact that a journalism degree seems like such a bad career choice for young people at this point, when people of all ages are willing to write for free for commercial media companies, all for the promise of exposure. But you can die from exposure, right?

Oh well, not sure what to do about it all, except to go back over to Roger’s post and click “refresh” a few times to see if anybody has responded to my comment. I prefer my hathos with a side of hypocrisy and slice of irony, you know . . .

Cumulation

1. Today is my father’s 75th birthday. Unfortunately, my family and I will not be able to celebrate it with him, as he was killed by an elderly driver in 2002, soon after he retired from a life of hard, hard work. Here’s a piece I wrote about him five years ago today, on his 70th birthday. All the sentiments still hold true, most especially how much we miss him, and how important it is that people surrender their car keys when they can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle. If you find yourself or a loved one in that circumstance, do the right thing and make the transition. It will be hard, sure, but the devastation caused by one little slip on the roadways is a whole lot harder, for everyone involved.

2. Marcia and I made a quick road trip to Chicago this past weekend to catch Yes in concert, performing their epic albums Fragile and Close to the Edge in their entirety. (Both of those records performed exceptionally well in my long form music essay, March of the Mellotrons, which attempted to identify the greatest classic progressive rock album ever, says me). It was a fantastic show, with new singer Jon Davison doing a magnificent job of hitting those high notes that Jon Anderson originally sang, as bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe added their signature harmonies. Geoff Downes was fun to watch as he switched between a dozen-plus keyboards, and stalwart drummer Alan White kept things swinging more than you might expect given the complexity and density of the music. Howe and Squire are the stars of the show for me, though, when it comes to Yes, and they are truly magical to watch onstage when they’re playing at the top of their form, which they were this weekend. Definitely a better performance than the last one I caught at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center when the group was touring The Ladder in 1999. Marcia won the “Good Sport” award for attending this one: when we sat down, we had a bunch of drum techs from Ludwig sitting around us, discussing their trade, while gaggles of gear nerds congregated at the front of the hall, snapping photos of the amps and keyboards. Not quite the same crowd we experienced when we went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Milwaukee last month, needless to say. She will get further Good Sport points when we travel to see King Crimson and Ian Anderson later this summer. I tried to parlay her Good Sportiness into a pair of tickets to this, but, alas, she does have her limits.

3. We also popped in to the Chicago Institute of Art of see their exceptional Rene Magritte Exhibition. We will be traveling to Magritte’s native Brussels, Belgium in a few weeks, so it was a good way to get a sense of his work in preparation for that trip. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, paced, interpreted, hung and lit — the latter being particularly important in establishing mood, with Magritte’s works floating like dreams in mostly dark rooms. Of course, we live in modern, selfish times, so our ability to appreciate the lighting work was often marred by people checking their cell phones or texting or shooting selfies, their garish screen glare and flash routinely destroying the night vision that some of the rooms required. I also found the use of audio wands to be distracting: while they’re probably better for your ears than ear buds are, it’s really annoying to be in a room where 20 people are playing them at high volume, creating a tinny, trebly, hissy background din, often exacerbated by the person with the wand having to explain to the other members of their party (at high volume) what the wand was telling them in real time. Whatever happened to the days when museums felt like libraries, and people knew to be quiet, reflective, and respectful? It seems to me that with good written interpretive materials, and occasional opportunities for guests to take guided tours, where docents provide additional context and information, museum visitors should be considered smart enough to enjoy art without having a noisy stick by their heads or a glaring screen in their faces. Call me old fashioned . . . but that’s how I’m running my own museum, and I think it’s an effective model, technology be damned.

4. Marcia got yet more Good Sport points for continuing to humor my desire to never make the same trip in Iowa using the same route, while trying to drive on as many highways, byways and dirt tracks as possible, seeing as much of the state as can be seen from the road. I’ve continued updating the map I started back when I did my original 99 County Tour of Iowa in 2012. See paragraph number four of this post to see the map when I finished the 99 counties. And then below is what it looks like these days. Ride on!

IAmap

I’m So Albany

albanydoge

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