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!”

ALL 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)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Interview with Jerry Only of the Misfits (1997)

“We played a show in Cincinnati recently, on Mother’s Day,” says Misfits founder Jerry Only during a recent phone interview. “And at the end of the show, this lady and her son came up to us and the son was saying ‘Hey, man, look! I brought my mom down to the Misfits show for Mother’s Day!’ And we were all thinking that was pretty cool when the mother says ‘Y’know, I never really got it before, but now I get it, now I see what you guys are really up to.’

“So we all nodded at her and smiled and I finally asked her what it was that she thought we were really up to and she said ‘Oh, well, just great fun, I guess.’ And that really is what it’s all about for me after all these years: everybody can be part of the Misfits experience, everyone can participate, everybody can have a good time, all are welcome. I mean, this mother had never understood why her kid was so into the Misfits, but now she’s into us too. And I think that’s the coolest thing imaginable.”

It’s been just over 20 years since the original Misfits (including Jerry on bass, vocalist Glenn Danzig doubling on keyboards and Manny playing drums) played their first guitar-free gig at New York City’s infamous CBGB’s, two months before Jerry Only graduated from high school. “When we were doing the whole Misfits thing at the beginning, I was 17 and I was the youngster in the crowd,” he recalls. “Then a couple of years later my little brother Doyle joined the band as our guitarist, so the two of us were like the young blood that was being introduced into this older New York punk rock scene. Today it’s just the opposite: Doyle and I are the old guys now and most of our audience is in the 16- to 18-year old range.”

Jerry is quick to debunk any romantic myths related to the late-’70s New York City music scene. “Everybody that we were opening for back then, all the people who were heading the New York scene, they were all junkies,” he explains. “And they’re all dead now, so I want kids today to know that my reaction to those people was to just try and avoid them, to focus on my band and my little brother and then to get back to Jersey as soon as I could. It was just a really tough scene back then, and people talk about it today like it was the best thing in the world–when really it was just a total shambles.”

Despite their youth and relative isolation in the Jersey suburbs, the Misfits steadily ingratiated themselves into the underground cultural consciousness via a unique, genre-spanning musical vision that incorporated huge instrumental chops (neither punk nor hardcore nor metal, but something bigger than all three) and a nearly fetishistic appropriation of B-grade horror and science fiction movie aesthetics. After seven years of laboring in relative commercial obscurity, Danzig finally left the Misfits in 1983 to form Samhain and (later) the ongoing goth-metal band that now bears his surname.

Danzig’s unexpected walk-out sparked a lengthy legal struggle over rights to the Misfits name and royalties. The conflict took on a heightened sense of commercial significance in the late ’80s as a variety of bands (including Metallica, Guns n’ Roses and the Lemonheads) began playing Misfits covers and publicly citing the band as a seminal creative influence. (“The tributes were nice”, notes Jerry, “but I think that they threw a major misconception into millions of people about what the Misfits did because I don’t think we sounded anything like any of those bands.”) It wasn’t until January, 1995 that a final legal decision was reached, a decision that awarded Jerry Only and Doyle the right to revive the Misfits name.

“It was a long, hard battle,” says Jerry with a weary tone to his voice. “And the main factor in the time delay was that Glenn and others continued doing Misfits business under shaky terms for several years, so things were going out without our consent, without our release, and I was really concerned about the quality of the material that was being sold as the Misfits. As an example, Glenn re-recorded all of my bass tracks for [1985 B-side and rarities compilation] Legacy of Brutality. I was really aggravated by that move, because Legacy was probably the biggest selling Misfits item at the time and it wasn’t even me on there!”

Upon regaining the legal rights to his band’s catalog and name, Jerry and Doyle’s first act was to compile a four-disc box set of crucial Misfits material, appropriately issued in a coffin-shaped box by Caroline Records in 1996. “The whole purpose of the box, as far as I was concerned, was to make the rest of the unofficial ’80s catalog worthless as far as musical value went. The box also helped take care of the bootlegging problem: now you’ve got the box you’ve got 104 original tracks mixed and mastered the way they were intended to be.”

Jerry and Doyle also wasted no time in assembling a new live band, recruiting drummer Dr. Chud and singer Michale Graves to round out their new line-up. The revitalized ensemble has played two European tours to date under the Misfits moniker, as well as an East Coast headlining tour. The four-piece is currently in the middle of a 14-show regional jaunt that stops at Bogie’s on Saturday night, then will take a short break before embarking on a major summer tour with Megadeth. In concert, the new band has been offering lengthy sets that mix equal portions of vintage Danzig-era material with new works from the recent Geffen Records release, American Psycho.

After years of laboring on small and self-run labels, Jerry Only finds himself particularly gratified by the financial and creative support that came with the major-label record deal for American Psycho. “What Geffen does is they try to make me famous. What I try and do is help them,” explains Only, laughing. “And I think that we’ve earned the right to enjoy the benefits of the deal, y’know? So if anyone’s got any political or social dilemma about it, I just tell ’em to chill out and enjoy it, ’cause I certainly am. And Geffen has really been great to us, they’ve just done everything that we’ve asked them to do . . . even the bubblegum cards.”

Bubblegum cards? “Yeah, Geffen did this five-card set for us that tells the story of the band and has each of our pictures on a card. And after all these years of making music, I don’t even feel like the CD release is as big to me as these bubblegum cards are. I mean, people ask me ‘How will you know when you’re a success?’ and I say ‘I think I am now, ’cause I’ve got my own trading card.’

“Or here’s another way I can tell I’m a success: the other night my son, who’s 11 years old, starts yelling from his room ‘Dad! Dad! Come in here!’ and I’m thinking ‘Oh god, what’s up, has he got a giant raccoon or something crawling into his window? Am I gonna have to fight some fierce animal?’ But I get to his room and he’s watching professional wrestling, watching these two bald guys called the Headbangers–and one of ’em’s got a Misfits shirt on! And the Headbangers are jumping all over some guy and we’re going crazy yelling ‘Get him! Get him!’ and just having a great time. So, y’know, it’s hard paying the bills sometimes, but I got a trading card and I can tell my son to wear his Misfits shirt so he’ll grow up strong like the Headbangers . . . so life’s really pretty good these days as far as I’m concerned.”