- Ein weites Feld by Günter Grass
Steidl, 784 pp, DM 49.80, August 1995, ISBN 3 88243 366 3
Can there be literature after reunification? It strikes one as something of a science fictional question. Philip K. Dick, indeed, posited a future world in which the Axis powers had won World War Two, and proceeded to divide the United States down the middle into two zones with two decidedly different regimes of military occupation. In Fire on the Mountain Terry Bissell posits a world in which a successful John Brown’s raid sets off a black revolution in the American South which leads to the formation of a socialist state, ultra-modern and prosperous, in contrast with the shabby private-enterprise North that limps along on the crumbs of world trade. But what if the Allies had won World War Two, and divided Germany itself into two occupation zones dominated by two different modes of production? And what if – for the science-fictional fantasy has the peculiar property that its conceits refuse to remain static or fixed, but suddenly convulse, change and grow with the dynamics of History itself – what if eventually, after several generations, these two different German-speaking nations somehow rejoin? Is one to imagine the coming into being of some undreamt of new third entity, distinct from each of its constitutive halves (assuming the post-national dimensions of a European federation don’t deprive secession and reunification alike of anything other than local significance)? Or does the one half appropriate the other and subject it to its own specific forms of exploitation, as the North did to the conquered South after the real Civil War, sending in the various tribes of carpetbagger, from the academic to the financial, from land speculators to the police force (with their newly repainted vehicles), in order to teach the errant member its true subalternity and to endow it with conformity to the law and custom, the property rights, of the allegedly consanguine state that has taken its poorer cousin in out of charity ...
As for literature after reunification, George Steiner thought there could be none anyway after Hitler; but he had in mind the bureaucratic degeneration of the language. The question reactivates the matter of tradition, and of the framework in which the new text – any new text – is to be received and evaluated. For it is not clear, first of all, which Germany the present one continues, except that it is surely not that of Hitler’s Reich. But Weimar, to which so much radical German literature still appeals, was – besides being a victim of that West of which the successor state is the hegemonic power – a failure that it might be unlucky to be identified with; while the second Empire, the Wilhelminian period, combining the Victorian harmonies of a bourgeois golden age with the grisly overtones of the trenches of World War One, also offers little in the way of imaginary satisfaction and genealogical pride and fulfilment. Beyond that, we lose ourselves in a well-nigh medieval night: the Holy Roman Empire? Wallenstein and some putative South German/Bohemian Catholic kingdom? The two Fredericks? And why not Tacitus’ Germania, while we are at it, and the Teutoburger Wald? There are good reasons for the solution that seems to have been arrived at, without any particular planning or forethought: the new Germany will be a larger version of the Federal Republic; that is to say, of a provincial West Germany with which very few of its writers wished to identify in the first place, preferring to live in West Berlin outside that dispensation, when not in outright exile.
Günter Grass’s new novel, Eine weites Feld, proposes another solution, a more radical and scandalous one. The scandal predictably aroused the outrage of all those (and they were and are many) who thought that politics could now be abandoned once and for all, and that in Germany, as elsewhere in the world, after the alleged triumph of capitalism, we could return to the untroubled cultivation of the aesthetic as such, to Literature, and to an appreciation of belles lettres apt to adorn and distinguish a prosperous bourgeoisie ready to take up its duties and privileges where they had been broken off when class struggle and Fascism reared their ugly heads. Not the least entertaining response to the novel was the attempt of the well-known reviewer and television critic, Reich-Ranicki, to tear it up (literally as well as figuratively) on the small screen. Bourgeois aesthetics and culture as an unfinished project: so might run the ironic Habermasian judgment on this new mood, this new task for no longer committed intellectuals. It accounts for the opprobrium called down on Grass himself, who, just when we thought we had got rid of the postwar and of the boring ‘critical’ and would-be subversive writing associated with it, produced this eight-hundred-page monstrosity about a pair of old men in East Berlin, the former East Berlin: pages whose very sterility allegedly attests to the drying up of his own (only too political) talent and to the end of an era now best forgotten, whether in the East or the West.
His enemies and critics clearly understood the project: for the positing of a tradition – even a ‘merely’ literary one – is a utopian and a political act. Thus the universalism of Finnegans Wake projected a transfigured Ireland that was at one with some new world culture to this day not realised. Ein weites Feld more modestly rewrites the German past on the basis of a Prussia of which East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) was the rightful heir: the new Germany, therefore, is here asked to assume the legacy of the socialist and Prussian Germany as its imaginary other. A few strong but isolated voices have long been telling us that the identification of Prussia (let alone Berlin) with the Nazi side of the ‘German character’ is based on the sheerest misinformation about this tolerant Protestant culture, so different from what one encounters in a Catholic and provincial West Germany, or in a reactionary Bavaria or Austria (see, for example, the seductive arguments for Prussia pursued by that marvellous historian Sebastian Haffner). Yet the suggestion cannot rest on historical opinion; it must be demonstrated to be possible, in other words, to be concretely imaginable: and this is the vocation of Grass’s novel.
Vol. 18 No. 22 · 14 November 1996
As a student of European rather than German literature I was flabbergasted last year by the harsh reception Ein weites Feld suffered at the hands of critics in Germany. Not only was Grass claimed to be an impotent who had out-written his former genius, but the European stance of this novel was never even acknowledged. It was a pleasure therefore to see Fredric Jameson place Grass in a tradition of European Modernism along with Joyce and Beckett, and, in the context of magic realism, with Faulkner and García Márquez, while pointing out the influence of 19th-century European novel-writing (LRB, 17 October). What is more, Jameson emphasises the dialogic openness of the novel, which was hardly noticed in the controversy last autumn. Grass did not set out to please East German readers: his project was the more ambitious and basically ambiguous one of assigning Germans a place in the New Europe.
Fredric Jameson wonders whether English has an equivalent to the ‘Paternoster’ kind of lift, which proceeds slowly, doorless, from floor to floor, up, over the top and down the other side, and which has to be stepped into and out from pretty precisely. I haven’t found one in the language, but I have found actual lifts in England. I was dramatising Heinrich Böll’s story ‘Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen’ for Radio 3, and wanted to bring verisimilitude to the moment when Murke takes his terrifying existential trip ‘over the top’ in the Paternoster lift. I phoned some lift companies, who helpfully directed me to specimens in several Northern English universities and the occasional branch of Marks and Spencer (for staff use only). Existentialists, historians, predestinarians and depressives will, like Fonty in Grass’s Ein weites Feld, appreciate the allegorical significance of this chug-chugging piece of early technology.
Vol. 18 No. 23 · 28 November 1996
Fredric Jameson would like us to say that the science fiction writer he mentioned in his review of Ein weites Feld was Terry Bisson, not Bissell (LRB, 17 October). And while we’re about it we would like to apologise for the socialist who, implausibly, made her way into The First Wives ’Club: a socialite of course was intended (LRB, 14 November).
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 18 No. 24 · 12 December 1996
One English university where Alison Leonard might have found a Paternoster lift (Letters, 14 November) is David Lodge’s University of Rummidge. At least, there was one in the mid-Seventies when Rummidge first appeared in the novel Changing Places. I think the allegorical cycle it is associated with is ‘Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes’. This particular lift’s finest moment comes in the course of a chase through the English Department involving a crazed academic armed with a shotgun.
Vol. 19 No. 1 · 2 January 1997
As Glenn Wood observes (Letters, 12 December 1996), the fictional University of Rummidge in my novel, Changing Places (1975), has a Paternoster lift in its new Arts Faculty building. It is an object of fascination to the visiting American professor, Morris Zapp, and excites in him thoughts and feelings similar, it would seem, to those described in Grass’s novel, and in Heinrich Böll’s short story cited by Alison Leonard (Letters, 14 November 1996). This is the passage briefly alluded to by Glenn Wood:
Morris … loved the Paternoster. Perhaps it was a throwback to his childhood delight in carousels and suchlike; but he also found it a profoundly poetic machine, especially if one stayed on for the round trip, disappearing into darkness at the top and bottom and rising or dropping into the light again, perpetual motion readily symbolising all systems and cosmologies based on the principle of eternal recurrence, vegetation myths, death and rebirth archetypes, cyclic theories of history, metempsychosis and Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes.
This and other relevant passages in the novel were inspired by the Paternoster in the Muirhead Tower of Birmingham University, constructed in the Sixties. Another of these convenient and wonderfully suggestive machines was installed a little later in the University’s Main Library. Alas, they are no longer in operation. I understand that the cost of meeting the increasingly stringent safety regulations governing their use became prohibitive. The one in the Muirhead Tower has been replaced by a conventional lift, and the one in the Library is concealed behind panels displaying paintings borrowed from the Arts Council.
Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997
David Lodge tells us (Letters, 2 January) that the Paternoster lift in the fictional University of Rummidge, which so fascinated Morris Zapp, is inspired by the Paternoster in the Muirhead Tower of Birmingham University. I think I know how this ‘wonderfully suggestive’ machine came to be installed.
It was in 1964, or possibly a little later. The late Sir Ellis Waterhouse was dean of the Faculty of Arts and I was his assistant dean. The new Arts Faculty Building (later called the Muirhead Building) was in the planning stage, and Ellis attended a number of meetings with the architects and with the Bursar’s department, although it was only rarely that I had to be present. I was surprised, therefore, when Ellis said that the two of us had to go into the city and choose a lift for the new building, unaccompanied by anyone from the Bursar’s department. Thus one morning we were driven into an unknown part of Birmingham and entered a large building. There we were greeted by an affable man who knew our names – and other things, judging by the readiness with which he offered Ellis a particular drink which he always accepted. After some talk we moved to a mezzanine floor from which we had a good view of the Paternoster.
Before long, Ellis was leaping on and off the Paternoster, and as he changed carousels the air was filled with shouts of ‘it’s heaven.’ He certainly did the round trip, but whether he thought the same thoughts as Morris Zapp I cannot say. He was delighted to show that he could jump on and off without spilling any of his drink, and when his glass was refilled he was keen to demonstrate this again. He refused to call the machine a Paternoster but always referred to it as a ‘bain-marie’, which greatly amused the men who were selling it, although I did wonder how many of them knew what a bain-marie was.
Naturally I was obliged to try the machine in my turn and I too experienced a certain exhilaration. But I had to play my part in the team and I asked Ellis if such a lift would be suitable for the Faculty of Arts. He had no doubts, and immediately gave an example. He was, at that time, having a quarrel with one of the classics professors and they were not on speaking terms. It was highly embarrassing for them to find themselves in the same lift when the lifts were of a traditional nature. They were obliged to stand looking at different corners of the lift with Ellis, at least, praying that there would not be a breakdown. But if they were using the bain-marie, then it would be easy to change carousels, and if they both changed together, then that would be delightful. He went on to give another example. It was not often that the Vice-Chancellor came to the Faculty, since we usually had to go to his offices. When he did come he was a bit distant and cool. But if there were a bain-marie then he would take every opportunity to visit the Faculty and would be in high good humour. He would, Ellis said, lose his air of gravitas. And we might hear less about university expansion. Another of our colleagues, a senior lecturer, appeared to spend his time watching what was happening and complaining about it. He had protested officially to me that one of the professors of theology was using a lavatory in the English Department. The installation of the Paternoster, and its working, would keep him occupied. We ought to have it. The decision was taken.
Now I learn from David Lodge’s letter that the lift is no longer in operation. So the story of how we decided on the Paternoster is a story of the past, with little relevance to the present, except as an example of the everyday life of academic folk in the good old days of British universities.
Vol. 19 No. 3 · 6 February 1997
My only experience of a Paternoster lift was in the early Seventies, at the University of Leeds, in the course of an interview there during my final years at school. As, at that time, Leeds boasted of being the largest – numerically – of the British universities, I had entertained hopes that one or more of its alumni would have reported the existence and/or current status of this conveyance. However, they have not, and I can thole the silence no longer. Perhaps Alan Bennett can be instructed to make a trip to the University, for the specific purpose of tracking down this Paternoster, and its fate, and reporting back, through the medium of his 1997 Diary. He will also be pleased to know that ‘thole’, meaning ‘to tolerate or suffer something, especially anything of an irritating or annoying nature’, is in daily use in Scotland, and is clearly cognate with the Yorkshire ‘thoil’, discussed in the extracts from his 1996 Diary (LRB, 2 January).
The Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield has a fully operational and quite maddening Paternoster lift of the sort David Lodge fell in love with in Birmingham’s Muirhead Tower (Letters, 2 January).