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.

The overarching – and, presumably, historical – event in the novel is a business tour by Grass and Volker Schlöndorff (director of The Tin Drum) to various Third World locations. Seething India, Java or China are preferred for the film they have vaguely in mind. If the project comes off, it must, however, be shot in July-August 1980, after the election contest between Schmidt and Strauss in which they are both interested. (It was after a trip to China and before the outcome of this tense political campaign that Grass wrote Headbirths, a headnote tells us. We are also told that the novelist’s party commitment is to the abdicated Willy Brandt – whose Third World report is presumably to be taken as a companion volume.)

Grass devises a film scenario for Schlöndorff, and plays with it in the provisional form of what might perhaps become a novel instead. It centres on a model German teacher couple, Harm and Dörte Peters, from Itzehoe, Holstein. They worry their heads perpetually about whether or not they should have a baby. The poor thing might, for instance, have to grow up in a nuclear-powered Germany run by nuclear-powered Strauss. The Peterses are children of the late 1960s: ‘they met in Kiel, at a sit-in against the Vietnam War, or the Springer Press or both.’ Now Rudi Dutschke is dead (drowned in a bath, after being shot in the head – another head death). Dörte has grown up to become FDP and Harm is SPD. A residue of student-protest romanticism takes them on an Asian trip (with ‘Sisyphus Holidays’) parallel to that of their creators.

These creatures of Grass’s mind carry with them (as Grass himself did) a one-kilo, lightly smoked, coarsely cut, liver sausage. This sweaty talisman has no ‘deeper meaning’, Grass notes. It is merely anchorage, a nod towards the Brechtian rule that ‘Man ist was er isst.’ Besides which, no head ever invented or gave birth to a liver sausage. By contrast with their cargo of delicatessen concreteness, Grass’s couple exist only in potentia – ‘unjelled’, as he puts it, half-way between the headbirth of the novelist and that of the film-maker: ‘if I neglect the features of Harm and Dörte Peters, outfitting him with no squint and her with no gap between her front teeth, it’s for a reason. Schlöndorff will fill these clearly circumscribed blanks with the facial expression of two actors.’ He never did, apparently; all the effort was, finally, Sisyphean, abortive. But with what significance I don’t know, Schlöndorff did go on to make Nicolas Born’s Die Fälschung (on location in Lebanon). The film has just opened in London, happily simultaneous with Headbirths.

Running through the scenarios and digressions of Headbirths is an extraordinarily frank personal essay. ‘By a dubious stroke of luck’, the novelist was born in 1927. But the current purge of an older, unluckier generation of German writers with Nazi pasts leads him to speculate on his own career had he been born ten years earlier, in 1917. In an eerie bio-bibliography of this tainted self, he provides an oeuvre which runs from the late Expressionist, rhapsodic poetry of his Hitler Youth period, through the post-Stalingrad ‘poetry of lasting significance’, to the ‘fresh start’ mode of de-Nazified 1947. All of which pertains to Grass’s main literary-historical datum: that the ideology of National Socialism has laid waste the German language as extensively and less reparably than bombing laid waste the country’s cities. If the German writer wants a tradition, he has to make it up out of his own head. In this book, Grass manages to do that very well.

By comparison with Headbirths, Marina Warner’s is a novel which could have been put together with a left-over set of Forster’s aspects. The story is that of a skating party from a university town (Cambridge, unnamed) along the ‘Floe’ to an anthropology don’s house, where things are reconstituted into a catastrophic dinner party. The river has frozen over for the first time in fifteen years, and the description of the winter excursion mixes with flashbacks from the intervening period, filling in the vexed relationships of the skaters. Briefly: the anthropologist is having an affair with the undergraduate; his wife, an art historian, is much too fond of their punk-phase, father-hating son; a couple of gays, one university-sophisticated the other street-rough, are in train; the best skater is a patriarchal professor, serenely indifferent to the passion and moral confusion of the younger generations around him. Warner sticks the thematic significance of her narrative pretty directly under the reader’s nose. Lovage (‘old love’), the anthropologist, is haunted by an exorcism rite he witnessed on ‘his’ Pacific island. Professionally bound not to intervene, he stood by and watched a young ‘witch’ starve to death for her sorcery: now his affair with the young Katy is poisoned by guilt. Their first act of love takes place on a pile of books belonging to a dead anthropologist colleague (more symbolically apt than comfortable). Then and later, he cannot bring himself to enter her, though he realises that his infidelity is nonetheless total. Viola, his wife, wrestles meanwhile with the enigma of a Renaissance fresco cycle, recently uncovered in the Vatican. The subject eludes her (these paintings are described very expertly and at great length). At the climax of the action, wife encourages son to seduce father’s girlfriend. In the explosion that follows the problem is solved for Viola: ‘why had she not thought of it before. Of course, the Iliad ... of course the frescos told the story of the son who is cursed when at his mother’s pleas he takes the father’s concubine to bed.’ A cathartic punch-up with his son has a similarly illuminating effect on Lovage. ‘Pangelam,’ he mutters meaningfully in his Pacific islanders’ tongue. He is cured, exorcised of the witch’s influence.

Warner has a tendency to overemphasis and overwriting. Her description of the winter scene, for example, is positively Swinburnian: ‘Aslant the whiteness poured the creamy curd light of the winter sun, setting here and there a facet of the hoar frost glinting like diamonds.’ A general toning-down of the novel would have been welcome. But for all its irritating ‘literary’ intensity, the gradual build-up to a melodramatic finish is genuinely gripping.

Timothy Mo has hit on what could be a rich and serially extendable vein of comic fiction. Sour Sweet tells an everyday story of the Chinese carry-out trade from an unusual, reverse-shot angle – theirs. The novel is set in the 1960s, and chronicles a period of miniature cultural revolution in Gerrard Street and its outlying dependencies. The plot has two centres, both concerned with clan groupings. Foremost is that of the immigrant Chen family, who graduate from his being a Soho waiter to their collectively opening a takeaway of their own in outer London. The other main element concerns a triad, or secret society, fighting a rival for control of the heroin and protection rackets in ‘the Street’. (The ‘official bandits’ – that is, the police – are fended off with no trouble at all.)

The way in which the honest little shopkeeper gets caught up in the Hung triad’s web and is eventually killed (has his ‘face washed’) is not the most original feature of Mo’s novel. What is fresh and consistently comic is the quaint way in which familiar British situations are reflected off an alien ethnic surface. The tone of Mo’s narrative is stilted, but in the literal sense that he contrives to walk on what, by all laws of balance, ought to topple him into pidgin or condescending wog-com of the ‘It ain’t half hot, Mum’ or ‘Mind your language’ kind. This trick is easier shown than described. The following passage concerning Chen’s wife refers to ‘Chinese food’ as it is commercially understood. The Chens are obliged to investigate this alien fodder before they can reproduce it for their customers:

The food was, if nothing else, thought Lily, provenly successful: English tastebuds must be as degraded as their care of their parents; it could, of course, be part of a scheme of cosmic repercussion. ‘Sweet and sour pork’ was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the consumer the next day. Chen knew, because he tried some and almost fainted with shock the morning after, fearing some frightful internal haemorrhaging (had Lily been making him overdo it lately?) and going round with a slight limp until in the mid-afternoon the stream issued as clear as ever. ‘Spare ribs’ (whatever they were) also seemed popular.

We can guess without much difficulty what the Pakistani waiter thinks of us, and it’s only too easy to read the thoughts of the West Indian bus conductor: but where transactions over sweet and sour pork are concerned, the oriental remains as inscrutable as in legend. It’s all the odder, since ceremonies involving the proffering and acceptance of cooked food universally demand at least a show of warmth and hospitable ceremony. If we credit Mo, the presiding thought in the Chinese catering mind is mild curiosity as to why foreign devils should eat the muck.

But this book won’t be read for its contribution to good race-relations. It is extremely funny. A particularly successful creation is Mui, Chen’s sister-in-law. She has been house-bound for years. But long steeping in her favourite soap opera, Crossroads, gives her the happy, and atypical, knack of being able to tell one occidental face from another and some sympathy with the host country’s irrational ways. Gradually she emerges from her low status of unmarried hanger-on. By the end of the novel she is the Chen clan’s dominant member, all set to open a fish-and-chip parlour, that fully integrated Anglo-Chinese institution. The whole novel traces a larger cultural adaptation. The Chens finally come to terms with car-owning, schools and tax-returns. It means ‘the end of the old life, the life of the loving, closely knit family’. The triad gives up its heroic street-fighting ways, in which gang armies pulverise, cleave and shatter each other in epic, set-piece battles. The new line of crime is bureaucratic, discreet, and, like Mui’s fish-and-chipper, highly profitable.

Freddie’s is the Temple Stage School, off Covent Garden, and Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel is also set in the 1960s. It is therefore conceivable that the two worlds of Sour Sweet and At Freddie’s could have existed, in some factual-fictional London, nestling hermetically, worlds apart, within a hundred yards of each other. In the absence of any authorial note, I assume that the school and its head (‘Freddie’ – Frieda Wentworth) are historical. If there were no generous memorial motive behind this novel, then it’s hard to see why it was undertaken and hard to forgive its broad sentimentality. Freddie is portrayed as one of the lovable prehistoric monsters of English theatrical history, a similar specimen to Lilian Baylis, with whom she served an apprenticeship and from whom she learned ‘the craft of idealism, that is to say how to defeat materialism by getting people to work for almost nothing’. Around the depiction of this absurd person two sub-plots are woven. There is a love conflict for Hannah, a young Catholic teacher forced to choose between a charming, drunken, false-hearted actor and a fellow teacher (Irish, but Protestant) who is the antithesis of the acting type: literal, honest, humourless. At the juvenile level, there is rivalry among two of Freddie’s pupils to fill the part of Prince Arthur in King John. One boy is crude but magnetic and destined for stardom; the other is finer-grained, a true Thespian. Their opposition is less interesting than Fitzgerald’s sharply accurate evocation of an old-style West End production of Shakespeare, footlights and all, before the RSC and the National Theatre came along to rule the roost. I don’t think she did herself justice in choosing this subject for her novel. But many of her customarily deft good things can be found here. Particularly good is the reconstruction of a Lyons tea shop, in which the lovers take their parting, genteelly clutching the statutory cup, quarter full of grouts and cold tea, to ward the table-wipers off:

At Lyons, the females, if escorted, sat at a table and ‘kept the place’ while the males queued for what was needed and carried it back, as their remote forbears had done, with difficulty. During this process the tea overflowed into saucers. Later the sugar, which was only put out on every fourth table, had to be borrowed and exchanged. There was always a good deal of apologising at Lyons.