- 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.
His protagonist (there are really two of them, perhaps even three) is a 76-year-old eccentric with an emblematically chequered career: a wartime aide in Goering’s Air Force Ministry (and a courier on the Western Front, captured and imprisoned at the end of the war); after the founding of the GDR, a messenger in the Ministries Building (by a useful coincidence, the very same edifice, the only one to have survived the wartime razing of central Berlin), as well as an occasional lecturer on literary and cultural subjects, associated with the Fontane archive in Potsdam (whose co-workers form a kind of inconspicuous Greek chorus to this interminable tale); kept on after reunification by the so-called Treuhand Anstalt, the institute charged with the privatisation of East German industry and housed in the very same building on the corner of the Leipzigerstrasse and the Wilhelmstrasse; finally, in his later years (our present), vanishing into the Cévennes in the company of his long-lost (illegitimate) French granddaughter. Theo Wuttke’s destiny is promising in the same way as the destiny of those characters in Balzac who lived through the Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the Restoration and the July Monarchy, is promising: their lifelines serve as Geiger counters or electrocardiograms of History at its most hectic.
I have, however, omitted the essential about this character, also known as ‘Fonty’ to his larger circle of acquaintances in the East German bureaucracy (and beyond): this is his mania, an imaginary identification with the great Berlin and Brandenburg novelist Theodor Fontane (1819-98), the ‘Immortal’ (or Unsterbliche) as he is here described, whose complete works and letters Fonty knows by heart and quotes extensively on appropriate occasions. But are not all occasions appropriate for the quotation of this writer, whose wit and freshness have earned him a devotion comparable only to the cults of Balzac or Galdós, or Dickens, among their respective national readerships? Unlike the early or mid-century novelists, Galdós and Fontane are distinguished by the slippage of their narratives away from ‘reference’ towards a running commentary on people and events: the witty aperçu, the unforgettable formula or characterisation, spring as much from the dialogue as from the authorial voice itself. The language of Fontane’s great books – all written after the former apothecary’s 55th year, and after the ‘first’ unification of Germany in 1871 – is delicious and unmistakable, mixing the Prussian-aristocratic with Berliner big-city wit, often dropping pronominal subjects in favour of a kind of telegraphic style, allowing the sentences to turn ironically on their own content and figures of speech, on the choice of words imposed on them by the German language. For those for whom Berlin is Germany, Fontane is the greatest German novelist; for those with some feeling for the relationship between narrative possibility and social order, there is unique satisfaction to be derived from the meeting, in Fontane himself, between sympathy with a landed tradition not unrelated to that of the Russian gentry, an amused disdain for the nouveaux riches of the Gründerzeit (those decades of feverish industrial and financial development after 1870), and a fellow-travelling ideological weakness for revolution (he fought in 1848) and later on for the nascent socialist movement and the naturalist literature related to it. It is an unbeatable combination, which the contemporary reader, no longer accustomed to 19th-century narrative longueurs, can skim and savour in the pages of this second-degree Fontane novel, in which Fonty’s 20th-century life collapses back into Fontane’s 19th-century one to the point where the protagonist himself (let alone the reader) is sometimes unable to tell the two apart. Nor is it always clear which is the tenor and which the vehicle. Devotees of Grass (of that fine Joycean book, The Flounder, for example, whose eternal return runs from the primal swamp of prehistoric Danzig all the way to West Berlin at the height of the Sixties) will relish these confusions: Fonty and Fontane have the same birth date, give or take a hundred years, and the same birthplace; they have both had to sacrifice their literary interests to years of clerical drudgery; both wrote war despatches; both travelled in France; both participated in revolutionary events (1848,17 June 1953) and then worked for repressive regimes; they had the same number of children and the same kind of wife. Last but not least, they said the same things, literally; but this is less surprising in view of the fact that Fonty had already existing texts to quote.
The conceit affords us extraordinary set-pieces: the wedding of Fonty’s daughter to a West German businessman, in particular, is a true comic anthology-piece. Meanwhile, the previous biography, the already-lived life of the great predecessor, hangs ominously over the enormous exposition of the first part without dimming our curiosity as to how the parallels are to be demonstrated. The official political project is clear: as Grass has said, it is ‘to replay the current process of German unity against the background of the first unity of 1870-71’; or in other words, to discredit the new reunification, which passes itself off as a novel historical event, by identifying it with the older one, itself estranged and retroactively compromised by this latest annexation. This will be the meaning of the book for a West German (or formerly West German) public, who could not be expected to like it very much; and did not. But this political project conceals another one, of even more momentous consequence, which explains the novel’s relatively greater success with East German readers: the acknowledgment of a properly East German daily life, the very conception of which has been obliterated by the Anschluss and by Western propaganda – a more subtle form of anti-Communism than simple sacrifice in the name of a socialist construction that is swept away from one day to the next, the factories sold and then shut down, the institutions condemned as you might condemn an old building.
Perhaps we need a new word for this last activity, which the West calls ‘privatisation’. (Towards the end of the novel, Fonty is given the task of finding a substitute for the official West German euphemism abwickeln, which might sound something like ‘de-development’ in Western bureaucratese. But he is not confident that his plot-motivated solution – umtopfen, ‘to re-plant’ or ‘re-pot’ – will catch on either.) A far more subtle censorship governs our imagination of socialism, when it is reduced to repression and resistance, and the other qualities we attribute to a genuine daily life are ‘de-developed’, and, if not privatised, then subject to systematic evaporation. I’m not sure that we can have a direct intuition of our own daily life: it is par excellence what others have, and what we acknowledge in a kind of productive and generous envy (or what a ‘living literature’ is sometimes capable of disclosing to us about ourselves). To deprive other humans of the acknowledgment of their lived time as daily life is a fundamental form of alienation too little recognised, and perhaps a more basic form of discrimination than any more commonly named and identified as such. But the representation of a daily life is itself a complicated task, to be achieved only by indirection, and as it were out of the corner of the eye: it is this kind of representation that Grass supremely achieves for the citizenry of East Berlin, through the medium of his unrepresentative hero. Nor is it limited to the time before reunification: for after the familiar strains of ‘Ode to Joy’ had died away, ‘daily life began. In its calendar-determined succession there once again predominated the cares of actually existing immortality.’ One may well find this second section episodic, and something of an indulgence on Grass’s part, his own licence to comment on a variety of topical events, from television culture to the assassination of the Treuhand chief Rohwedder: repetitive as well, since we tend to get everything in multiple forms, recapitulated by Fonty’s own letters on these subjects and then sentimentalised by the idyllic reunion with the granddaughter. But something similar happens in the later part of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, a work whose peculiar status in this half-century Grass’s novel may well occupy in the next.
There is also a kind of devil figure, but without any of Mann’s medical or musical, let alone theological, overtones: there are indeed two kinds of doubling here, two distinct sets of mirror-images, the symmetrical and the asymmetrical. Fontane and Fonty echo each other across two centuries: closer to home a pseudo-couple is formed, in which Fonty is linked to a character virtually his opposite, and no less indebted to a literary precedent. This is his Stasi alter ego or guardian angel, a jovial police spy whose name is a tribute to a novel by someone else, as Grass’s concluding credits indicate: ‘the figure of Tallhover, who lives on as the character Hoftaller in the present work, is derived from Hans Joachim Schädlich’s eponymous novel of 1986.’ The benevolent protection and discreet ‘advice’ extended by Hoftaller to his eccentric old friend outlive the Wall and the ‘peasant-and-worker’s state’ itself (as is fitting in the new world situation where the various Cold War espionage services meet to compare old times on television).
Yet the historical Tallhover (I mean by that designation Schädlich’s fictional character rather than any real person) had an even longer career: as immortal as Fontane himself, he served the Prussian state from the Holy Alliance well up into contemporary times. Tallhover’s extended lifetime underscores the principal point to be made by Schädlich’s estimable novel: namely, that surveillance is itself immortal, under all forms of state power (an anti-bureaucratic position evidently shared by Grass himself: see his Kafka essay). At the end of his long existence, the Schädlich character finds it in himself bitterly to lament the ingratitude and short-sightedness of state power as such and in general, never funding us enough, and never listening to our advice (we could have seized Lenin in Berlin in 1911, and we should certainly have taken him off the famous train).
It is a fact that both Fonty and Fontane have had their troubled relationships with the secret police and with the state in its various avatars. For Fontane was also arrested as a spy during the Franco-Prussian War (and was saved, perhaps, although the case is unclear, by his archenemy Bismarck); nor is it improbable that he was kept under surveillance during the period immediately preceding and following the abortive revolution of 1848, at which point he broke off his enthusiastic militancy to accept a journalistic sinecure in the most reactionary Prussian government of the century (a position he held for the next twenty years).
Tallhover’s surveillance of Theodor Fontane is not recorded in Schädlich’s novel; and in any case, Grass’s Hoftaller is a far jollier figure, who intervenes fully as much to protect the sometimes naive Fonty as he does to ‘repress’ him. Or better still, in Ein weites Feld, these two things seem to go together, and the squat figure with the baseball cap (whom one must imagine in tandem with Fonty’s tall and moustachioed Fontane-like silhouette) reappears in order to enforce prudence by way of blackmail, and to threaten our hero with the disclosure of various early scandals and indiscretions, such as the affair in France. Prudence is counselled at all those moments when Fonty is tempted to cut himself loose, to travel to Fontane’s beloved Scotland, or even to take an unauthorised outing to the North Sea or to the Immortal’s birthplace. As with all such counsels of wisdom and renunciation, from the Grand Inquisitor down to the various modern secret service agencies, the reasons for this enforced restraint remain mysterious: a Fromm-like ‘escape from freedom’, a preventive brake on permissiveness and the proliferation of Desire? But Grass is a Salvationist writer, who transmutes dystopian accents like these in spite of himself, and his Mephistopheles, like Goethe’s, ‘always wills the Bad and wreaks the Good’.
Or perhaps the philosophical questions are implicit in the representation itself, whose more passionate commitment lies in its visual and narrative delight in the pseudo-couple: Fonty and Hoftaller henceforth joining Vladimir and Estragon, or Don Quixote and Sancho, if not Mutt and Jeff, as classic embodiments of this archetype, which has its own testimony to offer on subjective autonomy and neurotic dependency, on freedom and the choice of subalternity. ‘Was Fonty imaginable without his shadow?’ Grass has his intermittent-chorus narrator disingenuously cry. ‘Would not the latter’s absence have put an end to a story whose effects fed on echo and demanded to be sung in two voices more or less out of tune?’ But such questions are themselves part of the effects Grass wishes to produce, along with a visual multiplication of two joined figures across the landscape and through time, like the surcharged images of a film.
The pseudo-couple is in one fundamental sense a denial of the Jamesian point of view, of the aesthetic that aims to represent the fullest possible richness of the bourgeois monad, of the individual consciousness. It denies James’s attempt to make the most private recesses of the mind (and sensibility) enter language and the public sphere; but if the failure of this strategy (along with the bankruptcy of bourgeois individualism) is thought to be catastrophic, another evaluation is open to us: the Habermasian one, where that rich privacy is superseded by interpersonality, where the pseudo-couple can stand as the emblem of communication and intersubjectivity. Surely Holmes’s remarks to Watson are worth reams of ‘internal monologues’ recording the detective’s more private thoughts and fantasies? On the other hand, is not Fonty himself something like a biographical spy or literary Stasi, who shadows his own chosen target and longs to know everything there is to know about his object of study? And is not ‘immortality’ in that sense simply the fact of being wholly given over, as Sartre might say, into the hands of other people: and henceforth to be nothing but what they read and write down? Do we not want to know everything about such figures, the smallest detail of daily life, the contents of the garbage bag, the secrets, the mechanism of their double lives?
It is certain that we have here, if not a celebration of the Stasis mode of existence, then at the very least a tone very different from that of Cold War literature, of 1984 or even of Christa Wolf, who (in Was bleibt?) still tries to register the historical and psychic peculiarities of an existence under surveillance, producing as it does endless reveries
which all too often ended with the absurd question, What do you want anyway? ... addressing an institution as if it were a person ... One day I had understood that there was no addressee for protestations and attempts at explanation; I had to assume that which I had balked at for such a long time, that the young gentlemen out there were not accessible to me. They were not my kind. They were the messengers of the other.
But perhaps the phenomenon of the Stasi – in which I wish to include the popular fascination with the phenomenon of the Stasi, since, in the form of a collective fantasy-delirium, it has played so great a part in German politics – is only the anticipation of a worldwide transformation that includes capitalism as well as Communism and has a more universal significance than can be deduced from its more parochial, Kafkaesque cultural forms. I refer to the process of informatisation itself, which some have gone so far as to theorise into a whole new mode of production, and which is celebrated in David Lindsay’s detective story, An Absence of Light, a product of American mass culture, in the following terms:
The age of the personal computer had brought about a sea-change in the private investigation and intelligence business. Now anyone who could afford a modem could enter the voyeuristic world of ‘databanking’ where a subterranean network of information resellers, known as superbureaux, had assembled in a limitless number of categories every fact imaginable about most American citizens ... The fact was, in the United States today, the individual had no way of controlling information about himself. For a price, everybody’s privacy was for sale ... Now that the Computer Age suddenly had given private investigation the means to be enormously profitable, the budgets of literally hundreds of agencies – and corporations who had their own competitor intelligence divisions – outstripped those of many budget-stressed law enforcement agencies ... Now, more than at any other time in world history, ‘private’ information was in danger of becoming only a nominal concept
It is a development which allows the older spy novel to be conflated with the domestic mystery thriller, as a generic bonus of the globalisation process. But it also warns us to re-evaluate the Stasi system, since we can presumably no longer indulge the pathos and the terror of a breach of privacy in a world in which it is the private which has become unimaginable – if it has not ceased to exist altogether.
Grass’s own fabulation is probably best situated in a different lineage from either the mass-cultural or the dissident one: indeed, of all contemporary European writers, Grass is probably the closest to the magic realism of the Latin Americans and above all of García Márquez, whose own breakthrough novel The Tin Drum preceded by eight years (just as it broke the spell of Steiner’s prediction of only a year before). The Latin Americans, however, trace their lineage back to a not-yet-magic-realist Faulkner (followed by a Commonwealth third generation of which Salman Rushdie is only the most illustrious). Grass’s would be a magic realism which descends from Döblin rather than the chronicler of Yaknapatawpha County; and which at best shares the marginality of the Southern and Third World novelists by virtue of the off-centre position of Danzig and the omnipresence of a Slavic East in his narrative framework (in that sense, Berlin, or even East Berlin, in the 20th century is a kind of ‘capital of the East’ rather than the ‘capital of a reunited Germany’). This suggests (and the influence and authority of Faulkner confirms the hypothesis) that a true magic realism must always spring from defeat – that is, it must always somehow be post-colonial – and work on the materials of an essentially subaltern history. Does this account for its absence in Western Europe or augur its disappearance in a reunited Germany?
I don’t really mean to argue for the magic-realist status of Ein weites Feld: the ostentatiously, even aggressively, drab cannot be deployed in folds of mesmerising colour. The kinship can more easily be uncovered in a technique for producing artificial events, which, instructively enough, goes back to Faulkner. Repetition is the crucial mode of inscription here, returning over and over again to images and effects which were initially only ‘poetic’ and produced as ‘conceits’ by the ingenuity of the author, in order, in some deeper self-indulgence, to admire them and celebrate their unexpectedness as ‘realities’. Thus an external referent – the contingency of the inspiration (or Einfall) – is drawn inside the work and made to seem organic and inevitable. We have already seen Grass doing something like this with his multiplication of the silhouettes of his pseudo-couple (the starting-point of his text, and not its incidental bonus or supplement). I would cite two other images (there are many others): the whooping crane of the Tiergarten, which vicariously illustrates a process of submerging and resurfacing, of reappearing unexpectedly at the crucial moments, and disappearing at others (perhaps equally crucial), which is gradually generalised, not merely into Fonty’s own existential ‘method’, but also to the persistence of the past in the novel. It is an image which complements Benjamin’s related idea of ‘blasting open the continuum of history’ with a more graceful combination of evasion and persistence.
Then there is the Paternoster: I do not know whether English has an equivalent for this word, whose referent I have only confronted in Germany: a kind of open elevator in which a linked chain of cages rises and falls uninterruptedly, and onto which you must step with a certain address. Fonty’s plea for the preservation of this characteristic piece of old-German technology is celebrated in terms of the ‘eternal return’, while in the climactic history lesson of this endless reiteration of historical cycles, the masters of German destiny are caught, descending in the Paternoster feet first until the all too familiar features are reached: the Reichsmarshall, first of all; then the ‘Goatee’ (Ulbricht); finally the surrogate for the bulky Chancellor of unification himself – it is a vision in which reification and sheer process are pleasantly (if not dialectically) harmonised.
I can well imagine the complaints of non-Germans about this enormous brick of a novel (whose narrative, in the image of the Paternoster, combines the static with interminable repetition): isn’t the novel supposed to be the celebration or even the invention of the Event, rather than this catalogue of paths and little walks through Berlin, this anecdotal travelogue? But perhaps a privileged function of the novel as such (not the only one, to be sure) is here rediscovered: was not the Odyssey such a travelogue (its interpretation as a virtual map of the Mediterranean gave Joyce aid and comfort in his readaptation of it as a guidebook to Dublin)? Wasn’t the classical (or Byzantine) novel more generally just such a guidebook, a grand tour of the ancient world for the sedentary? And how about Tom Jones? (Franco Moretti has recently argued for the structural function of the underlying geographical map as a narrative mechanism in Balzac and Jane Austen.) So now, slowly and subliminally, by way of the appropriation of imaginary footpaths, the older Prussia is drawn back into the so-called West, with effects as yet unforeseeable.
It is a subject that could tempt one into further broad and untrodden fields, but best to take the advice of the novel’s title, itself an allusion to the evasive formula of Effi Briest’s father, when confronted, as Grass is here by the history of Germany, with a topic that presents an only too great variety of embarrassments: ‘Ach, das ist ein zu weites Feld’ (‘It’s too broad a field’).