Nationalities

John Sutherland

  • Headbirths, or The Germans are dying out by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
    Secker, 136 pp, £6.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 436 18777 9
  • The Skating Party by Marina Warner
    Weidenfeld, 180 pp, £6.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 297 78113 8
  • Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo
    Deutsch, 252 pp, £7.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 233 97365 6
  • At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
    Collins, 182 pp, £6.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 00 222064 4

A new novel by Günter Grass invites comparisons of a national kind. If a British writer of fiction wished to engage with the big stories of the day – the kind of thing Brian Walden does at Sunday noon – how would he go about it? Could Murdoch, Burgess, Spark, Lessing, Drabble take on such issues as the politics of fertility; the rights and wrongs of membership of Nato; the nuclear energy programme; whether in the absence of Brandt, and given the too urgent candidature of Strauss, Schmidt ought to be voted for; the division of Germany? Decorum, or the sense of a diminished literary tradition, would probably inhibit the representative British novelist. The only way he could smuggle front-page, first-leader material into a novel would be by the allegorical indirections of Science Fiction.

One’s first reflex is chauvinistic: Grass isn’t writing a novel at all. What he offers is a journal of 1979-80, with some fanciful digressions and whimsicalities. Headbirths is a novelist’s diary or quarry, unprocessed working materials published long before their time. Evidently the author doesn’t expect his home readership to be any happier with his political topicality than is the unconditioned British reader. In a bitter aside, late in the work, he summarises the critics’ cheers and boos:

What am I letting myself in for? The present. In the Fifties and early Sixties, when I wrote extensively about the past, the critics shouted: Bravo! The past must be overcome. From a distance, that is! Once upon a time. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, when I wrote about the present – the 1969 election campaign, for instance – the critics shouted: Phooey! This undistanced involvement with the present! This blatant political position! That’s not how we want him. That’s not what we expect of him.

Robust English Podsnappery (not a novel!), like the German Phooey!, will probably yield in time to the recognition that Grass is fashioning a new discourse and claiming (or repossessing) new territories for modern fiction. It’s evidently not easy, and may indeed be impossible. A dominant myth alluded to is that of Sisyphus’s sterile labour, and the main plot of Headbirths ostensibly chronicles an ambitious novel-film collaboration which never got off the ground, and of which the present book is the meagre relic.

The title indicates Grass’s principal conceit: that of the birth of Athena from the forehead of Zeus. This stands for the creation of new material forms, social, political or artistic. The idea is twisted ingeniously this way and that in the course of the work. Headbirths, for instance, is dedicated to Grass’s admired fellow novelist Nicolas Born, who apparently died during its writing from a tumour of the brain (head death). Proceedings open with an elaborately cerebral speculation: the Third World is exploding with new birth, the Germans are dying out (though they do have a sinister fast-breeder for their lavish energy needs). Germany is now Raum ohne Volk. What, then, if there were 950 million Germans and 80 million Chinese? Prussian bureaucracy would cope, Grass decides. But the German addiction to mentation – all that speculation and philosophising in which Grass himself symptomatically indulges – would have to go. More bed birth less headbirth, including less Grass fiction. Hitler understood the national propensity when he ordained large families as a duty to the Reich: baby booms keep the Germans from unhealthy thinking.

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