(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)
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