Thursday, September 24, 2015
On Guenter Grass' Last Book
For reasons that I can no longer recall, I didn’t study German in High School until I was in 11th grade. I was a straight-A student, obviously college-bound and so it doesn’t make sense that I deferred study of a foreign language, typically commenced in 9th grade, for two years. As I reconstruct circumstances, I remember that my father, who was a mathematician and systems analyst for Honeywell, wanted me to become an engineer, or, even, perhaps, a research scientist. In 9th grade, when my contemporaries were beginning their study of German or Spanish, the only two languages offered in my school, I elected to take industrial arts courses – something about fiber glass and plastics, and, a woodworking class. In those days, industrial arts classes were strictly gender segregated – girls took homemaking and cooking courses and boys went to Shop. The shop classes involved lots of hectoring about safety and some horrific movies featuring amputations and enucleated eyes. The shop teacher was an earnest fellow with thick hornrimmed safety glasses and a clip-on tie so that he wouldn’t be strangled by the spinning lathes. I had less than no aptitude for the subject – I couldn’t measure a board, let alone safely cut it, and the power tools terrified me. The teacher felt sorry for me and, I think, actually did the projects assigned to me as part of the class – he worked surreptitiously, pretending to show me woodworking techniques, but, in fact, actually cutting the wood and suturing it together with glue so that he wouldn’t have to fail me. (I think I was given a generous C minus in the course – I should have been failed.) My peers in the class made beautiful cherry and mahogany wood chess-boards, beveled boxes with secret compartments in which to store their stashes of marijuana, elaborate lazy-susans rotating on cleverly contrived wooden spindles. I produced with the aid of the teacher a nasty-looking bookshelf cut from two-by sixes with a particle-board back. The teacher cut the wood and assembled it for me when the other students weren’t looking. He entrusted the task of painting and varnishing the bookcase to me and, as a result the book case had a dowdy smeared appearance – it’s edges were uneven, the result of some attempts I had made to cut the wood pieces from which the thing was assembled and my application of paint and varnish was inept. When you looked at the bookcase, you couldn’t quite focus your eyes on it.
The next year, I took a half-year course in mechanical drawing and, then, later a course to teach me how to type business letters. I did okay at the touch-typing class but the mechanical drawing course was completely baffling to me. We were supposed to draw scale images of screws and small metal brackets so that these pieces could be properly fabricated in a machine shop. I found the instruction completely incomprehensible, couldn’t figure out the various perspectives and views required, and, discovered, to my dismay, that I wasn’t even able to sharpen my pencils to the specifications established by the teacher. I had a T-square and recall sliding it hopelessly over my paper, but every mark that I made was wrong and, even, with the T-square in place, I couldn’t inscribe a right-angle to save my soul. That year, 10th grade for me, was 1970, memorable because the political unrest in the country had infiltrated the schools by that time to the effect that the entire educational system collapsed. No one believes me when I tell them this now, but it is true although implausible – in 1970, our teachers in Eden Prairie simply stopped teaching, no classes were scheduled in a regular or coherent way, and the students were left to wander the halls aimlessly, passing between study halls that had the name of courses like geometry, English, and biology, but in which no instruction of any kind occurred. The teachers, who had withdrawn to their lounge to smoke and debate the war in Vietnam, provided us with stacks of worksheets and told us to complete these, working at our own pace, since it was politically suspect to command anyone to do anything at that time. This bizarre pedagogical system was call the "mods", meaning I think both "modular" and "modern" education – there was an elaborate theory supporting this kind of teaching which didn’t involve any teaching at all and we were issued complex, even byzantine, schedules: the mods rotated so that one day, we would start with a geometry class that wasn’t a geometry class followed by Phy.ed (where we were bullied and abused by embittered ex-Marines who despised all their colleagues), the P.E. followed by life science, then, health, then, English and so on. This schedule changed daily in a bewildering way so that at the end of the week, the geometry class that wasn’t a geometry class was the last course offered in the afternoon before the buses assembled to take us home. There were no assignments, no home-work – everything was supposed to be completed during the school day – and, of course, no testing. Collaborative work – that is cheating – was strongly encouraged. Good students did their worksheets quickly and, then, simply passed them on to other more lazy, and less scholarly kids. Grades were abolished, everything was pass-fail, and no one was allowed to be any better than anyone else at anything. An entire year passed in this way with no one learning anything at all with one exception – a lot of the boys with farm background used the mods to play poker. Each class had a poker game always underway and, since farming has always been a form of gambling, the farm kids excelled at gambling and lots of dimes and quarters and, even, dollar bills changed hands. An example of how this worked in practice from an education instructional point of view was my geometry class. We were supposed to work out a series of theorems and proofs using Euclid’s axioms. Each week, we were assigned five or six theorems to formally prove. The teacher handed us mimeographs of the theorems we were supposed to prove at the start of the week. We kept the mimeographs in our notebooks and pretended to look at them between poker games and drawing elaborate, satirical images on the chalk board. At the end of the week, the teacher handed-out the proofs and asked us how we had done and we advised that we were making good progress and that we had, in fact, almost achieved the proofs that the teacher required, although, of course, not only had we not attempted the proofs, we hadn’t even tried to figure out the meaning or significance of the theorems that we were trying prove.
By the end of my tenth grade, the High School had become increasingly dilapidated, disheveled, and chaotic. Graffiti marked all the inner courtyards. Someone used black paint to scribble: Zappa Crappa on the wall outside the biology lab. The experiment had failed. The next year, 11th grade for me, classes still rotated in the schedule but the teachers were required to conduct those classes and there were textbooks again and tests and grades given. (As a result of this lost year, I never learned anything about cell biology or evolution or genetics – people are always surprised by my utter ignorance on those subjects.) By the start of 11th grade, I had learned that I did not have masculine hands. My hands were tiny with fragile wrists and I had girlishly smooth knuckles and short, slender fingers. My hands were not big paws, covered with scabs from misplaced hammer blows, fingers burnt from welding, a thumbnail crushed and showing purple-black, the big, heavy club-like hands that men have, hard appendages that can be used for fighting or wresting things out of the ground or building shelters or furniture. My hands were entirely useless, feckless as it were, and I knew that I had better devote myself to reading and writing since anything requiring manipulation of the real world would be impossible for me. So, on that basis, I belatedly enrolled in German and began my study of that language as the sole 11th grade student in a class of 9th grade girls.
To my surprise, the German class was very easy. I had no difficulty with parroting phrases like Wir gehen ins Kino and Wir putzen das Auto. Once I progressed beyond an initial hesitancy with pronouncing the word "fahrt," one of the verb conjugations of "fahren" ("to go" or "to travel"), I had no difficulty with the sound of the language – I even learned to roll "r’s" something that was initially a problem for me since I had spent five or six years in remedial speech classes in elementary school primarily because I could not reliably form the "r" or "s" sounds. In my freshman year at the University, I took another year of German grammar, a course that I also found reasonably easy. Early in the course of my college education, I made a fateful decision about German that has haunted me the rest of my life – I determined that there was no real need to learn to effectively speak the language – after all, I had never met a native-speaking German – and, so, focused my efforts on reading. My goal was to become sufficiently fluent reading Deutsch so that I could study Kafka and Goethe in the original. In those days, the University had a protracted Winter holiday – it lasts from the end of November until the second week of January. I decided to devote that holiday to learning to read German. Accordingly, each day I went to the University library, sat a few yards from the stacks where German literature was shelved and read, more or less, at random in Kafka and Thomas Mann. After six weeks of this effort, I had achieved reasonable proficiency reading German, but, of course, had no ability to speak or write or form sentences, even, in the language.
(My foolish decision to study the written language in derogation of the spoken word afflicted me later when I visited Germany. I was in Dresden on Easter morning in the Hotel Merkur near the Elbe River. Julie and I went into the dining hall where there was a buffet under way. There were big steam-trays of white fish, potatoes, sausage, and rabbit stew – "you are eating the Easter Bunny, " my wife said, when I returned to the table with plate of Hasenpfeffer. When we entered the room, the waitress showed us to our table and said something in German. I responded "Wir moechten der Buffet." The waitress, a plump girl with dishwater-colored hair, sniffed contemptuously at me: "It is "das Buffet," she said. "Buffet is neuter in German." This exchange taught me to avoid speaking German at all costs when traveling in that country.)
In my sophomore year at the University, I took a mid-level course in German and read novellas written in the language. I excelled at interpreting the texts and had no difficulty earning A grades in all of these courses. In the Spring of my Sophomore year, I took a course in which the teacher, a wizened old Kraut named Gerhard Weiss, lectured in German. I assume that his lectures were delivered using very simple diction and were conceptually elementary, but, in any event, I didn’t have any difficulty with that class either and, indeed, could stammer a few simple answers in German when called-upon to recite. I recall that in Professor Weiss’ course, we read Modern High German translations of medieval poems by Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach as well as a translation from Tacitus into Deutsch about the ancient Germanic tribes. We also read, if memory serves correctly, a short book about Charlemagne in which the emperor was called Karl der Grosse. Weiss was trained in the philological school of Germanistik studies and I recall him emphasizing that medieval German words, often, had no correlates in the modern language because society and the human imagination were now both radically different.
During the next year, I spent two semesters reading German lyric poetry under the instruction of Dr. Wolfgang Taraba, a man that I greatly admired. Taraba was from East Prussia, the plains and fens of what is now Poland and he didn’t look German – he was a heavy-set man with big purplish lips, an unruly tangle of hair like Beethoven, swarthy and Moorish as Pushkin. When the Russians overran East Prussia, Taraba fled, escaping as a refugee to New York City, where I think he attended Columbia. He smoked big, flabby, olive-colored cigars that were remarkably foul-smelling. In those days, people smoked in graduate seminars and the air was bluish with the stench of his cigar. I had impressed Dr. Taraba with my exegesis of Rilke’s Orpheus und Eurydike and to accommodate my poor command of spoken German, the professor allowed students to speak in English in the seminar – thus, I think, damaging the utility of the course for the education majors who were planning to travel in Bavaria, acquire German paramours to better learn the language, "on the pillow" as it were, and, then, return to teach German in the public schools to 14 year old girls.
Dr. Taraba was melancholy and spoke very softly. He radiated great and profound sorrow, the grief of a man who sees those things that he loves most always misunderstood and maligned. Certain aspects of German lyric poetry are inextricably entangled in the savagery of German history and Taraba, I think, had been permanently wounded by that entanglement – he always wore black and had a funereal aspect, attending, it seemed, to the inevitable burial of everything that was meaningful and moving to him. Most of all, I suppose, he regretted the debasement of the doves and nightingales of the German language into homicidal imperatives. We studied several poems by the Austrian Josef Weinheber, a writer who had been a member of the Nazi party, and Taraba declaimed his lyrics with an immense mournful intensity; his huge eyes were wet with tears. "So beautiful," he sighed. Weinheber died a suicide in 1945 as the Red Army approached the suburbs of Vienna. "Is it tainted somehow?" Dr. Taraba asked, exhaling a cloud of cigar smoke. The smoke was poison to some of the girls in the class and they gasped and choked and Taraba declined to answer the question that he had posed. When my roommate read one of Gottfried Benn’s poems (O Nacht, Ich nahm schon Kokain...), Dr. Taraba commented that the reading was "exquisite, but with only one flaw." "What is that flaw?" my roommate asked. "You are too young to express the great sorrow in those words," Dr. Taraba said. "I hope you are never able to really understand that suffering." I attended the seminar in Winter, when we began the course reading and debating Hoelderlin’s Brot und Wein. Spring arrived and the snow melted and we went down among the ruins of the old mills to pitch bonfires on promontories extending into the Mississippi – the great concrete funnels of Victorian sluices and spillways trenched the steep wooded banks of the river gorge and there were obscure pits and cisterns brimming with glacially cold water and a shantytown of squatters occupied the industrial ruins beneath the big freeway bridge. The river churned over its concrete apron, a perpetual white phosphorescent wave among the locks and dams splashing spray upward to smear the city skyline on the other shore. One of the girls in our German lyric poetry class attended the party and she had made a rum-cake that was too densely impregnated with booze to be edible. Someone set the rum-cake on fire and we shoved it out toward the main channel on a little cardboard raft, the cake flaring with bluish, spectral flames as it was caught, whirling around and around, in the current. The moon rose and music came from the shanty camp under the shadow of the towering bridge – the same span that famously collapsed thirty years later.
The final poem that Dr. Taraba asked me to explicate was something by the East Prussian poet Johannes Bobrowski. I explained the poem to the class and said that the verse invoked a landscape that was gone and, now, inaccessible, its people scattered and humiliated – "these words are all that remains of the world in which the poet grew up." Dr. Taraba beamed at me through his great and profound sorrow and said that I should apply for a fellowship to study German in Berlin. Later, he invited class members to his home, a nice place on the wooded heights overlooking the Mississippi River. Taraba served us home-made potato salad – "it has no fewer than 60 ingredients," he boasted. It was a bright and sunny day. Before I left his home, Dr. Taraba took me aside. We went into the house and I recall that it was cool and dark there, like a cave. He showed me his office with its death mask of Friedrich Nietzsche pallid and moon-like suspended in the gloom among the innumerable books. Dr. Taraba took a volume from the shelf – it was a big folio-sized picture book, printed in the late forties, it seemed, showing photographs of East Prussia. The pictures were in black and white and depicted prairies on which there were little, ancient villages with tree-lined cobblestone streets and fortress-like towers of old churches. I recall pictures of the sea and sandy beaches, the kind of harbor where the hero of Grass’ book Katz und Maus went diving from a wrecked vessel, images of lakes and swamps, vast empty landscapes extending to horizons where great thunderheads were rising above the plains. "It’s all lost now," Dr. Taraba said. "All lost." He offered me cognac in a snifter and smoked a cigar.
A couple years after beginning my practice of law, I went to the University and found Dr. Taraba in his office in Folwell Hall. We talked for a half-hour. Taraba was lively and cheerful. He was doing consulting work for a Minneapolis lawyer that I knew, translating documents about the crashworthiness of Volkswagen vans – he was strangely happy, even manic, it seemed. We agreed to keep in touch. I thanked him for his example and teaching. Later, I planned to write a letter to him. I wrote a draft but thought it was unacceptable. Taraba was married to a much younger woman, probably someone who had worked for him as graduate student, and a mutual friend tole me they had divorced. I learned that he was mostly retired, a professor emeritus. I revised my letter and planned to send it but had no reliable address. When I called the university to obtain an address, I was told that Dr. Wolfgang Taraba had gone to Germany to visit family members and died suddenly there.
A few years earlier, in one of my classes, I was assigned Guenter Grass’ Katz und Maus ("Cat and Mouse"), a novella about the writer’s childhood in Danzig. The little book stirred my imagination and I was immensely impressed by Grass’ ornate and vehement prose style – I think he influenced my own prose, not necessarily to its advantage, for many years. Required to write an essay on the novella, I wrote twenty pages on Grass’ book. As it happened, I had just finished reading Wolfgang Kayser’s criticism on the Grotesque as a literary genre. It seemed obvious to me that Grass, an avowed admirer of Jean Paul, was working within the traditions of the Grotesque, an anti-enlightenment and gloomy mode of German romanticism. I developed this thesis in my essay. My teacher was a young graduate student who wore black suits. The man had a courtly manner and was remarkably cadaverous – his head was like a pale, blonde skull on a stake. (I wonder now if that teacher was not ill with AIDS.) I met him in his office and he lavishly praised my analysis of Grass’ novella. In fact, the instructor told me that I should revise the essay and send it to the University of Wisconsin at Madison where there was a scholarly journal devoted to contemporary German literature. I did as my instructor suggested and, carefully, rewrote my text so that it would comply with MLA (Modern Language Association) editorial guidelines. I recall my shame at misspelling "penis" – I wrote "penus" to rhyme with "Venus". (In the book, Grass spends several pages describing the protagonist’s highly mobile and protuberant "adam’s apple", a cartilaginous appendage that the author clearly correlates to the hero’s phallus.) After a couple months work, I sent the text to Wisconsin. It was never published and I don’t recall receiving acknowledgment that the writing was even received.
I had no car and worked in south Minneapolis and, on weekends, I traveled by bus to Hopkins to visit my girlfriend. I spent many hours on the bus, jolting from stop to stop. Sometimes, I took the last bus from downtown to my parent’s home in Eden Prairie – a ninety-minute ride, an endless time when you are young and vigorous. On the bus, I improved my time by reading German novels – Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, and the other two books in Grass famous Danzig trilogy, Der Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) and Hundejahre (Dog Years). I read the books carefully, underlining passages and writing abstracts in tiny letters in the margin. Because I was on the bus and had no German dictionary at hand, I read only approximately and many passages in those writings were obscure to me because I didn’t know the exact meanings of words and had to guess them from context. Grass’ Treffen in Telgte, a book about a congress of German poets at the time of the 30 years war, was too highly specialized and defeated me. Although I later bought hardcover copies of Grass’ The Rat and The Flounder, I was living in Austin at that time, practicing law and my life was very busy so that I didn’t have time to invest in reading long and difficult novels in German. Grass had become more avowedly political and John Updike, if I recall correctly, criticized him by saying that he should "stop making speeches and return to writing novels." I didn’t read him for a quarter of a century, returning to the writer about ten years ago to read Crabwalk and, then, the memoir Peeling the Onion. By this time, German books were readily available on the internet and I was happy to buy Krebsgang and Haeuten der Zweibel in beautiful hardcover editions from Steidl, Grass’ German publisher. As Grass observes in his last book, Steidl prints the text in clear and beautiful type, adorns the cover of the volumes with Grass’ own somewhat macabre artwork, and, even, provides a little blue velvet ribbon to help you find the place that you were reading when you set the book aside.
Perhaps, this history explains my affection for Guenter Grass’ last book, Grimms Woerter (Grimm’s Words) published by Steidl in 2011. I don’t know if Grass’ book is great or, even, good, but it is eccentric, moving, and wise, unclassifiable in genre, part memoir, part essay, and part fiction. Grass subtitles the book "Eine Liebeserklaerung" – "a declaration of love" – and this caption is accurate to the writing’s generosity of spirit, tenderness, and delicacy. Grass wrote the book in his eighties and its subject is his life-long relationship to the German language and its most famous students, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Although Grass casts some sidelong glances at the Grimm’s work as folklorists, their famous Maerchen or fairy tale collection is not central to the book. (Most likely this is because Grass exploited the Maerchen in several earlier books that were, in essence, beast fables – Dog Years (1963) and The Rat (1986); furthermore, one of Grass’ most controversial novels, The Flounder (1977) is based on a fairy tale called "The Fisherman and his Wife", most famously recounted in a Low-German version written by the romantic painter Philip Otto Runge – although later printed as part of Grimm’s fairytales). Grass’ focus is on the brothers’ work instituting the great dictionary that bears their name and that is identified in the title of the book.
Grimms Woerter tours the German language alphabetically. Each of the nine chapters is devoted to a letter, or a series of letters, in the alphabet. The first chapter entitled Im Asyl ("Seeking Asylum") features key words beginning with the letter "A" and includes several poems, some of them composed almost entirely from words and idiomatic expressions initiated with that letter. Similarly, the final chapter "Am Ziel" ("Reaching the Goal"), is largely built from words starting with "Z". (The book’s formal structures bears a passing resemblance to experimental works like Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, an English-language exemplar of the Ouilipo school of literature, or Georges Perec’s infamous A Void, a novel that eschews the use of the letter "e". Grass, however, is a humanist and not dogmatic about the formal devices structuring his novel – in other words, he controls the formal alphabetical device organizing his book; that device doesn’t control him and he not only tolerates, but luxuriates in, exceptions to this structural method.) In broadest terms, the book narrates the biographies of the Grimm brothers more or less chronologically – thus, a sequential narrative of events in the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm runs as a counter-pattern to the arbitrary and formalistic alphabetical structure for the diction used to narrate those events. Within this framework, Grass develops three additional systems of discourse: first, he presents essays on various linguistic subjects relevant to German – this is the book’s linguistic or philological aspect. Second, Grass writes a memoir of his own life and times – this is autobiographical element of the book, subject matter that aligns the writing with Grass’ two previous memoirs Peeling the Onion and The Box. The third strand to the book is Grass’ idiosyncratic recital of events in German history between 1837 and 2010. All of this is accomplished in prose that is nimble and playful – by and large, Grass accomplishes his ambitious project with considerable agility deploying his trademark irony with dry, and effective, wit.
At "A", the book begins in media res in 1837 – Grass is concerned with the Grimm brother’s dictionary, not really the Maerchen first published in 1812 or their other works on folklore and mythology. Accordingly, Grimms Woerter commences with event that Grass construes as instrumental to the inauguration of the dictionary project – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s expulsion from the Kingdom of Hesse, where they had been teaching and pursuing their scholarship into proto-Indo-European word-roots. In 1837, Hessian King Ernst August demanded that professors at the University of Goettinger swear an oath of fealty to him. The Grimm brothers were supporters of constitutional monarchy and refused to take the oath, resulting in their deportation and exile, with a number of other scholars, from the Kingdom. (Grass includes the defiant letter of protest signed by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as well as the other members of the so-called "Goettingen Seven" in facsimile at the end of his book.) In Grass’ view, the exile of the Grimm brothers from Hesse was a kind of "fortunate fall," an event that triggered their agreement to edit a vast and exhaustive dictionary of the German language.
The enormous edifice of the Grimm’s dictionary is erected by Zettelkram – that is, "tedious labor with scraps of paper." The dictionary is built on the principle that words should be defined by usage. Like the equally magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, the Grimm’s Deutsches Woerterbuch is of the descriptive as opposed to proscriptive type – it doesn’t undertake to prescribe how words should be used, but, rather, describes how they have been used in the past. Accordingly, the Grimm brothers, and their correspondents and assistants, undertook to identify exemplary quotations employing the word under consideration. These usage examples were noted on Zettel, that is, scraps of paper – apparently, note cards. Chronologically arranged citations, accordingly, chart the history of a word’s meanings by illustrating how it has been spelled and used, beginning either with Greek/Latin roots or old Gothic antecedents. Definitions are supported by voluminous citations, sometimes running to many pages of text. The Grimm brothers’ Woeterbuch aspired to capture the entirety of the German language, past and present, in its pages. As a result the labor was exhausting, involving obsessive concern for detail, and, ultimately, Sisyphean – self-defeating in the sense that during the 120 years gestation of the project, the language had changed sufficiently to require constant new editions of early volumes in the encyclopedia-sized dictionary. The first edition of the Grimm brothers Woerterbuch was compiled between 1838 and 1961. The last surviving brother, Jacob, died in 1863 – he was working on usage examples for the word "Frucht" (fruit) at the time of his death.
In the memoir component of the book, Grass’ notes the fractious character of German politics, a field of endeavor in which he was, himself famously, and vociferously, involved on behalf of Willy Brandt and the Social Democrats. Against a background of political upheaval, some of it catastrophic, Grass asserts that the only reliably unifying factor is the German language: ueber Wortbruecken sind wir verbunden, Lustwandler auf eingetretenem Wegen –that is, "We are bound together by word-bridges, happy wanderers on well-trodden paths". The paths that lead between the monuments and landmarks in Grass’ world are linguistic, "word-bridges" that connect people and places and ideas together. Ultimately, for Grass, the German "fatherland" is its language. The Grimm brothers are true patriots because their work is the foundation upon which an authentic national identity can be constructed.
Grass’ book is static and repetitive – it circles certain events and locations obsessively. During their final years, the Grimm brothers lived in Berlin and they took refuge from their linguistic studies by strolling in the public gardens near their lodgings, the so-called Tiergarten. During the last half of the book, and periodically in early passages as well, Grass imagines himself stalking the Grimm brothers as they walk through this park – he eavesdrops on their scholarly conversations and, near the end of the book, imagines them covered with dust and filth from buildings smashed by bombs, seated side-by-side in a wrecked jeep as if on a park bench, discussing issues of philological interest to them, oblivious of the ruin made of their city by Hitler and the Russian army. Grass narrates various his various political campaigns and encounters, generally adopting an avuncular and self-aggrandizing tone – he is always launching prophetic jeremiads or lamentations. These anecdotes are interspersed with thumbnail biographies of publishers and editors involved in the dictionary projects – publishers hounding the Grimm brothers, who were often sick, for additional dictionary entries are contrasted (or compared) with the various editors and publishers with whom Grass has worked. Sometimes, key-words will trigger cascades of associations leading Grass to allude to the inspiration for the literary works that made him famous and, sometimes, notorious. For instance, the words Daumling ("Tom Thumb") and Daumesdick ("Thumb-size") cause Grass to reflect on the dwarf hero, Oskar Matzerath, in The Tin Drum, the book that made him famous. Reflections on the dwarf lead Grass to address philological issues such as the use of diminutives in German. Considering thumbs, and pricking thumbs, Grass muses on Macbeth; he considers the idea of the "green thumb" – a concept that leads him back to the book’s central topography, the Tiergarten in Berlin, where Grass imagines himself hiding in the shrubbery to listen to the brothers on their promenades. Since the letter "d" may be associated with German words used to signify the gender of German nouns (der – die – das), Grass considers the difficulties that Turkish immigrants have learning his language – in fact, he writes a poem on this subject beginning with the notion that it is unfair to penalize Turkish immigrant children for not knowing the gender of the word "yoghurt"; after all, Grass observes that the term isn’t German at all, but a Turkish loan-word. This reverie leads Grass to recollections of conversations with Turkish novelists, the East German regime’s foreign relations with Turkey, the origin of the word "Deutsch –originally Teutsch, a fact that causes the author to deliberate on the "t" to "d" shift in the transition from Old German and Gothic to modern German. Along the way, Grass describes the assistants hired by the brothers Grimm to classify and index their collections of word notations. Poverty, always feared by the Grimm brothers, leads Grass to think about "debt" and "debt" recalls to mind the writer’s seminar conducted once with working-class people on subject of Hauptmann’s political play about the Silesian Weaver’s rebellion. Interspersed among these subjects is narrative about the composition of the anthem Deutschland ueber alles, an analysis of Grimm’s fairytale Dornroeschen ("Sleeping Beauty"), and, at last, some remarks on the fact that German has no native word for "Democracy". This incomplete description of a dozen or so pages in the section of Grass’ book on the letter "D" epitomizes the associative structure of the book.
Grimms Woerter clings so tenaciously to the German language that it is probably untranslatable. A similar text could be made in English, but it could not be a literal translation, but rather an approximation based on substitution. This can be demonstrated by a passage in the second chapter of the book, Briefwechsel ("Correspondence"). Grass proceeds by Leitwoerter, that is, "key words" or "leading words" – in this section of the book, the "key word" is Brief, the German word for "letter". (Briefwechsel means literally "exchange of letters" and, in broad terms, the subject of the chapter is letters written by the formidable doyenne of the German Romantics, Bettina von Arnim, summoning the brothers Grimm to live near her in Berlin.) The letter "B" has reminded Grass of his friend and fellow author, Heinrich Boell. After describing Boell’s funeral (Beerdigung – literally "putting in the earth" or "burial") in 1985, Grass writes this:
Ich haette Jacob mit Boellzitaten fuettern moegen, waere vom Befehlsnotstand zur Befehlsverweigerung, von der Beichte zum Beichtsgeheimnis, vom stillen Gebet auf die scheinheiligen Betschwestern gekommen und haette sprunghaft mit der ihn bis aufs Krankenlager boesartig verfolgenden Bild-Zeitung ein Stichwort mehr mitsamt Zitaten liefern koennen; dann aber ist es wohl Wilhelm gewesen, der mich zur Seite schob, an meiner Stelle dem Bruder ueber die Schulter schaute, meinen Wortbetrag "Beerdigung" ueberging und maerchenkundig, wie es sien Ruf verlangte, von althochdeutschen pesamo ueber das mittelhochdeutschen beseme auf den bis heute gebraeuchlichen Besen kam. Von ihm liess sich Besenbinder ableiten. Und Bettines hexisch anmutendes Wesen wird ihm den Besenstiel nahegelegt haben. Hatte sich dessen Flugtauglichkeit doch bei besondererem Anlass bewiesen: auf Walpurgis zum Beispiel, wenn von Goettingen aus nur einen Luftsprung weit ins Harzgebirge.
This paragraph is based on the consonance of "b" sounds.
I would have liked to nourish Jacob Grimm with quotation from Heinrich Boell, quotes illustrating the words "Befehlsnotstand" ("compulsion to obey orders") through "Befehlsverweigerung" ("refusal to follow orders"), from "Beichte" ("Confession") through "Beichtgeheimniss" ("secret of the Confessional’), from the serene "Gebet" ("prayer") leading to the seemingly pious "Betschwestern" ("praying nuns") and would have leaped, thence, to "Bild-Zeitung" ("Illustrated Tabloid") prying into the dying man’s sickroom – this last definition richly supported with many citations; but, then, it is Wilhelm Grimm who elbows me aside, looking back over his shoulder at his brother, and making the transition from the word that I have contributed "Beerdigung" ("burial") to another word, well-known in fairytales in accord with Wilhelm’s avocation, the old German "pesamo" and its correlate in Middle-High-German "beseme," which has become the word we use today "Besen" – that is, "broom." From this word, we are led to "Besenbinder" ("broom-maker"). And Bettine’s bewitching presence will, then, bring him into close proximity with "Besenstiel" ("broomstick.") This broomstick might, for this particular reason, then, have proven its capacity for flight – on Walpurgis Night, for example, since Goettingen is only an aerial hop, skip, and a jump from the Harz Mountains (and the Brocken summit)...
Grass refers to Heinrich Boell’s novels, extracting key expressions from them that he would like to submit to Jacob Grimm as quotations for use in the dictionary. In particular, Grass would like to use Boell’s words, probably from The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum, a book that attacks the tabloid journalism of the day, to illustrate the word Bild-Zeitung ("Illustrated Tabloid"). But Wilhelm intervenes forcing the work of definition forward from "Beerdigung" where Grass is stuck to the etymology of the word for "broom". The idea of a broomstick directs Grass’ stream-of-consciousness back to Bettina von Arnim. Frau von Arnim has been imploring the brothers Grimm to come and live near her in Berlin. Bettina von Arnim is connected to the world of the fairy-tales – in fact, the first collection of Maerchen were made under her influence. (In 1808, she and her husband had gathered a number of folk songs into the collection Das Knabens Wunderhorn" – Bettina’s work as curator of these songs encouraged Wilhelm Grimm to try his hand at collecting folk tales.) Bettina von Arnim, as the archetypical Romantic muse, is "bewitching", or "enchanting" – this notion, in turn, leads Grass to recall that the Brocken summit, the location, according to folklore, of an annual witch’s sabbath, is near Goettingen in the Harz Mountains. The principle narrative in the chapter addresses the Grimm Brothers return from exile and their ultimate decision, fostered by Bettina von Arnim’s assiduous efforts, to take up residence in Berlin. Grass follows this paragraph with a poem constructed around words beginning with "b"– a festival on the Brocken attended by the devils Belial and Beelzebub.
From this account of Grimms Woerter, it may not be apparent that book is neither pedantic nor, particularly, difficult to read. To the contrary, the memoir gives an impression of great ease and facility – Grass skips from subject to subject in a way that is intuitively clear. Furthermore, the relatively static and immobile quality of the narrative, the way that the text keeps reverting to central concepts or landscapes (for instance, the Berlin Tiergarten) tames the book’s unruly subject matter – just as we feel that we are about to lose the thread of association, Grass will bring his prose back to one of the central leit motifs in the writing. And, as the book advances, Grass must confront the troubled destiny of Germany, the deaths of his heroes, and, then, of course, his own mortality. The work assumes an autumnal majesty – Grass’ monument to the Grimm brothers reminds us that our true Fatherland is the language that we speak. For Grass, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm saved Germany by preserving its language. In the final chapters, we learn that work on the great dictionary progresses under the aegis of two professors, Frings in East Berlin and Neumann in Goettingen. Despite the Cold War, the dictionary is completed with cooperation between the two regimes. Ultimately, Grass implies that the reunification of Germany was possible because the Grimm brothers had built a bridge between otherwise hostile polities. Grass calls the dictionary a Staffettenlauf ("relay race") in which one generation passes the baton to the next. Although individual editors and philologists die, the language is immortal – it goes on forever.
Here is my translation of the last couple pages of the book:
(Grass begins with a reference to his 1995 novel, Ein Weites Feld, translated as a A Field too Far. This novel addresses Grass’ opposition to German reunification – the merging of East and West Germany is a kind of Anschluss, that is, a calamity resulting in a new wholly materialistic and soulless Deutschland ironically equated to Hitler’s seizure of Austria. Grass imagines himself walking in Tiergarten in Berlin:)
"After a long wandering stroll, I find myself at the New Lake and there rent a rowboot, just as I did when, at last, the Wall fell so that the hero of my novel, Fonty, always a refugee from his own times could take on board the delicately bitter Madeleine, his granddaughter recently arrived in Berlin from France, so as to engage her in a retrospective conversation about the dark days of the Huguenot persecution.
But, now, I hoped to sit with Jacob and Wilhelm in a row-boot so that we could peruse words from Abschiednehmen ("leave-taking") all the way to "Z" our goal ("Ziel") and, once again, celebrate the vowels and scorn the Derdiedas, satisfying ourselves with exclamations and interjections.
And already they are seated across from me, since I occupy the rower’s bench. In keeping with the late afternoon, the sun is low. Mild light flatters both of them. With frugal strokes, I search the middle of the lake, dragonflies dancing over its scarcely disturbed surface. The few boats on the lake keep their distance. Because silence invites speech, I commence upon a long discourse that, I fear, will not be free from pathos.
"It is complete," I cry and, then, improve my words: "It is done."
Then, I mention with approval the achievement finally done in the year 1960. "Even the officials in the DDR found words of praise for the work that ‘despite differences between our social organization could be accomplished in the interest of our nation’."
Here on the water, my voice carried. The brothers sat stiffly on the other bench in the rowboat, just as they must have posed for Ludwig Emil Grimm’s sketched portrait. The banks of the New Lake mirrored themselves in the water, bushy or wooded. Nothing, not even the young man repeatedly attempting a handstand in the meadow by the shore distracted their gaze away from me. Here and there, diverging currents tried to mislead me into other channels that in their course would flow to other histories. But I kept to my course, did not yield to temptation, and with parsimonious strokes of the oar, reached the center of the lake where I brought my discourse to a festive tone: "Rejoice with me! What a miracle! From A to Z, thirty-two volumes in its ultimate form – Grimm’s German dictionary."
They turned to the side, offering their profile.
I flattered them: "Now is the time. Don’t fail to erect a monument of carved stone. The Tiergarten lacks that tribute. Now, that the dictionary is complete!"
They didn’t even blink or whisper among themselves.
I repeated: "Completed! It is complete!"
"Nothing is complete," It was Jacob who spoke, without relinquishing his stiff pose.
"Nothing is complete." That had to be Wilhelm’s contribution.
Although both were right – because what in the world is ever fully finished? – but I responded: "Nonetheless, up to the very end, from work-stations in the East and West, and from all parts of the Fatherland, the common (or dare I say "unified") German was interrogated, word for word, as to its origins, each usage confirmed with profligate citations, their variants annotated, often too profusely, and an end discovered with Zypressenwald ("cypress forest") from which, according to a quote from Novalis, a Zypresszweig ("Cypress twig") could be taken.
"But there is no end," responded the two-voices in answer, a sound echoing from the lake’s bank: "No end."
And, now, I had to admit that in East Berlin and also in Goettingen plans were already underway to revise each of the volumes and issue new editions at ten-year intervals – they received this information, nodding simultaneously.
(In order to spare the brothers, I was silent about the fact that, in particular, A through F, their contributions, were urgent need of remodeling.)
Before they responded, and while I rotated the boat with two, three strokes of the oar so that the sun was to their back, I said: "In any case, a few minor improvements will be required."
And I mentioned tersely that in our era, as in their time when the dictionary was attacked by Daniel Sanders, another critic, Walter Boehlich, condemned the entire project of a comprehensive German lexicon – "But Hans Neuman, writing in Monat, answered him and took the sting out of Boehlich’s polemic..." – keeping mum about the fact that during my life, Grimm’s Dictionary had been digitalized and dumped into the Worldwide Web, so that anyone with an I-PAD or Mac notebook could...
But, instead of this, I spoke about linguists and their contradictory hypotheses, the newest research, the need to continuously question received wisdom, always, always.
And, as soon as I became silent – because by that time everything had been said – and had turned the boat around and rowed it toward the shore and the rental kiosk, I heard the brother’s voices in alternate song.
"No dam is adequate" Jacob said, quoting himself, "to restrain the languages."
Wilhelm agreed: "Words wander, acquire new meanings, dissolve into one another."
And the older Grimm brother said this about language: " It flows, it floods over its banks, particularly the German language."
Which of the two of them began to adduce usage examples for the key-word "Wahn" ("delusion"), many quotations progressing from waehnen ("to imagine") through luminous Wahnsinn ("madness"), ending with something from Wieland: ‘Wahnwitz ("craziness") is the point where the greatest spirits and the greatest fools sometimes intersect’?
But now they had shifted away from "W", venturing upon "Z" with a citation from Eichendorff:
"We’re impelled from the proudest objectives (Ziele) duly attained to seek out a new goal (Ziel) by a sense of new restlessness."
But what’s the meaning of the word "objective" or "goal" – that is, "Ziel"?
"In the beginning it was tilarids, the Gothic name of a spear, a lance-point that strives to reach its target (Ziel) – that’s the reason, we say something is "motivated" ("zielstrebig" – that is, striving for a target)."
"So til becomes Ziel."
"The spatial becomes temporal."
"Wilhelm Tell, as Schiller reminds us, ‘let fly a fleeting dart (Ziel)’."
"And for the word Schnaps I’ve heard common folk say ‘Zielwasser’."
"And our friend when we were young, Clemans von Brentano was one of those great spirits, ‘achieving a holy object (Ziel) by the right roll of the dice’..."
"And Gryphius well knew that ‘here we reach the limit and tombstone of all power, the objective (zielpunkt) of all striving’..."
"In the end, ‘pointless’ (ziellos)."
As I rowed up to the dock, nothing more to say, I found myself sitting alone in the boat, but in my ear the words of the Grimm brothers remained. Although my unremitting declaration of love required more than a hundred years, my hour oar-rental was only 12 minutes overdue, and the present now gripped me: it was time to pay my bill."
I entitled this essay "On Guenter Grass’ last book," but, of course, the tireless writer outsmarted me. In the end of August 2015, Grass’ longtime publisher, Steidl, issued posthumously a book called Vonne Endlichkait – that is, "On Mortality." Reverting to his east Prussian origins, Grass spells the German word "Endlichkeit" (as well as Von) in Caschubian dialect, the language of his grandmother, a great billowy skirted woman associated with the earth and the potatoes grown in the dark soil where plains of Poland meet the steppes of the Ukraine. Always tempted toward the polemical, the book contains a celebrated poem "What has to be said" that rendered Grass a persona non grata in Israel. Grass illustrated the book with beautiful and morbid pencil drawings. Apparently, it is a slender volume containing many pictures, short essays and stories, and verse. I will have to acquire this book.