Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Tin Drum

Gunter Grass

Nobel Laureate. I found this novel powerful and affecting, but not everything I had hoped for. In part I may be guilty of coming in with overly high expectations. Gunter Grass is someone I’ve heard a lot about, and heard a lot of endorsements concerning, for quite some time, on the level of personal reactions and academia. In the later I have seen a number of descriptions of Grass as one of the key German post-war writers, and as someone who brought a lot of necessary challengs to the general cultural climate with its specific national burdens and issues. After that, I found the novel strong and intriguing, but not great, and not something that establishes Grass as that unique an author. It abounds in intricate characterization, gifted situational description and basic mechanics of good writing. It lacks a certan measure of je ne sai quoi, though, a magnitude of literary quality or special insight into the character of human existene, a larger force to the plot, something.

The story focuses on the recollections of a rather quirky individual--quirky to the extent that he’s writing his backstory from a mental asylum. It shows the progress of his life through two world wars and socio-political unrest, with the consistent metaphor of music used for both underlying patterns and madness. It has a lot of funny and very striking scenes, and one thing the novel does do very well is tying such a weird and comical figure into very substantive reflections on the process of history. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the book at once utterly absurd and very serious, building a measure of seriousness in with comedy in a way that most authors couldn’t manage but that Grass pulls off as if it’s second nature. The insights provided in here are in no small amount about Nazism and the relation of the general populace to it. Two particular moments come to mind. The first is where the narrator reflects explicitly on the fact that he wasn’t in the resistance in the Nazi period, and that his petty acts of juvenile disruption shouldn’t legitimately be considered a political strike against the Third Reich. In this approach he offers a strong indictment of the conventional rationalizations prevalent in postwar Germany (see some of the history texts from a bit ago) and offers a strong contribution to arguing for a shift in general responsability and cultural self-awareness. The second moment is a description of the entry of Germany into savagery through "the gas man", in a few pages of powerful horror that represent the most effectively written part of the book.

Other themes that emerge forcefully include normality, sex, class and physicality, all delivered in some quirky and illuminating scenes. The family situation as elaborated was some of the most interesting material, but by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, what the author was driving at and how it connects to the central biazarre formula at the heart of the novel.

On the whole it’s funny, it’s meaningful, and I can see that it deserves to be widely read. I don’t quite see it as great literature though, and reserve judgement as to whether Grass is good enough to merit a Nobel prize. There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Tin Drum, but I do feel the potential for it to have gone further on character and story.

Worse than: The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France
Better than: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

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