Günter Grass, The Flounder (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977)
[originally posted 5Apr2001]
I just couldn’t get through it. I can’t really put my finger on why, but there it is. The Flounder contains all the things I revere about Grass—a strong sense of history, scurrilous sense of humor, strong characters put into wonderfully unrealistic situations. But this novel, Grass’ weightiest (literally), never seems to come together in all the little ways that made similarly large tomes like The Tin Drum and Dog Years such wonderful reads.
The Flounder is a massive creation myth, seen through the eyes of a continually-reincarnated man, his continually-reincarnated longtime companion (who is always a cook of some sort), and the Flounder himself, who serves as a kind of fairy-godfather figure. In modern times, a group of feminists discover that the Flounder has been the architect of the overthrow of matriarchal society and put him on trial; the narrator and the Flounder use the trial as a method to go back over history and show the development of patriarchy in Poland, and how it relates to the potato. Yes, I’m serious.
The novel feels as if Grass had lost his sense of dynamic while writing it. The earlier long novels each keep the reader’s interest with a series of climactic events, each leading up to the larger climax upon which the novel turns; The Flounder, on the other hand, continues on at the same relatively leisurely pace in its survey of history. And that, ultimately, is its downfall; there’s just too much of it without anything really going on, on a larger scale.
Definitely a bad starting place for Grass; turn to the Danzig trilogy instead. (zero)