Coming to Terms with Günter Grass

Marian Wirth allowed me to post his pithy assessment of Grass, hoisted from a comment feed on another website:

Grass was pretty much the last surviving founding father of German post-war literature. He became instantly famous with his debut novel and used the financial independence and the fame to promote authors younger and/or less successful than him, to improve Germany's position in the world and to boost interest in German as a language all over the world.

It still confuses me to hear foreign authors praise Grass - celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who spent the day Grass died defending him on Twitter, as well as national celebrities in, say, Brazil or Nigeria, who tell you how much they adore Grass ever since they read the TIN DRUM as a teenager and I'm always like "WHAT?!" when I hear that because everything about Grass and his most notorious book is so German that I have still trouble believing it even got translated into English.

Bottom line: He was THE most important figure for German literature and one of the leading brand ambassadors for German culture. Even people who disagreed on everything with Grass can't deny that and it drives them crazy, I can tell you.

Grass was a man of many talents. Unfortunately, he got famous for writing novels, his least developed talent.

He was a world class boozer, smoker and dancer.
He was an outstanding sculptor.
He was a phenomenal graphic artist.
He was an efficient SPD canvasser.
He was one of the three leading anti-Semites in Germany, and a decent poet, resulting in the ugliest piece of anti-Semitism published in Germany after the second world war.

His novels are more or less unreadable, since he subscribed to the leading principles of German post-war literature such as the following: avoid direct speech at all cost. Direct speech and dialogue are evil, leave them to the Americans and their movie-script like writing. It's your job to make the readers suffer. Insurmountable blocks of text are your thing. Long winding, meandering sentences filled with German guilt and with guilt to be a human being enjoying life are your profession.

I have read several of his novels, though failed twice to read the TIN DRUM (I'll give it a third try soon). "Too Far Afield" took me over a year to get through. My favorite Grass novel is The Meeting at Telgte.

Politically, he was wrong on everything after 1990. Not only was he wrong on everything, his criticism was always over the top, mean, vile and presented in an apodictic fashion that made it impossible to argue against it. This rant is presented in a similar way to make it more obvious what drove me away from Grass.

So much for an executive summary of what needs to be said about Grass. Vale, rest in peace etc. should still apply, of course.


Stuffing Pregnant Women with Marmot Meat

Marmot-edit1.jpg

A while ago I visited Zürich and bought this book, Vom Essen und Trinken im alten Zürich ('On Eating and Drinking in Old Zürich'). I saw it at a flea market and just liked the quality -- thick, glossy paper, lots of interesting and well-integrated illustrations, solid and durable binding. A fine example of the bookmaker's art. (You know, real bookmakers).

I've been dipping into it a bit lately, and it turns out to be full of Fun Facts.© As was pretty normal for medieval Europe, people needed protein and ate anything that moved, from eels to finches to sparrows to hawks to frogs to hedgehogs. Smaller birds would just be roasted on a spit and eaten whole, their tiny bones providing the sought-after crunch factor. To conceal the fact that some of these meats are pretty revolting, they would be slathered in fat and whatever spices came to hand. Things got a lot easier after 1500, when trade brought eastern spices, sugar, coffee, tea, and other delicacies first to the rich, then to everyone except the poorest people.

We also learn that medieval and early-modern Germans avoided eating malodorous cheese, giving it the nickname Schreck-den-Gast (scare the guest). During times of scarcity, the Zürich authorities would create exhaustive, precise rationing lists, most of which survive (Remember, they're Swiss). According to one such list, pregnant women were to receive extra rations, including extra portions of marmot (groundhog) meat. 

That'll teach those strumpets!


Why Americans Don't Read European Writers in Translation

Bill Morris on why Americans don't read (European) writers in translation: 

On a crisp morning last October, I paused in front of one of the many magnificent bookshops that dot the city of Cologne. In the display window was a large, hand-lettered sign: NOBELPREIS FÜR LITERATUR, PATRICK MODIANO. Arrayed around the sign were a dozen works of fiction by Patrick Modiano—most in German, a few in French, none in English.

I walked into the shop and introduced myself as an American writer visiting from New York. Then I came clean: “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never even heard of Patrick Modiano. Is he any good?”

“Oh yes,” said the woman behind the cash register. Like most bookshop workers in Europe, she was young and bright, fluent in English, and criminally well read. “He’s French and he’s quite good. You should definitely read him. Start with his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, or Dora Bruder.”

...

Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester, derives its name from the fact that about 3 percent of all the books published in the U.S. every year are translations. But the bulk of these are technical writings or reprints of literary classics; only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry. While the number of fiction and poetry books available in translation remains small, it has been rising steadily—from a total of 360 in 2008 to 587 last year, according to Three Percent.

So the question becomes: are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both?

“It’s complicated,” says Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, which is consistently among the top American publishers of foreign fiction in translation. “I think it’s getting easier to get books in translation into the hands of reviewers. They’re excited—not only receptive, but very kind. But the reading public? That’s the million-dollar question.”

...

After noting that translators are doing some superb work today, Glusman offers his own theories about why translated fiction and poetry remain a tough sell for American publishers. One theory is that Americans lag behind other nationalities in exposure to foreign cultures, which is reflected in a lack of foreign language instruction in American schools. This certainly doesn’t help foster a hunger for foreign literature. Nor does the fact that only about one-third of Americans hold a passport.

Another theory, which Glusman credits to the German writer Peter Schneider, is deliciously counter-intuitive. Germany is a homogenous culture, largely white Anglo-Saxons with a smattering of immigrants, mostly from Turkey—and yet there is a voracious appetite for translated fiction in Germany, as I was reminded that day at the Cologne bookshop. America, on other hand, has been absorbing immigrants from all over the world for centuries, which might work as an impediment to fostering a hunger for foreign literature.

Schneider’s theory, says Glusman, “was that there’s an assumption that because of the heterogeneous nature of American society, we think we know more about foreign cultures than we actually do. And that breeds a certain insularity.”


European Kids Can Take Care of Themselves

There's a recent mini-trend in which Americans inspect European parenting habits with admiration. Pamela Druckerman has made a cottage industry of explaining no-nonsense French parenting habits. European children become adults, in short, by being treated increasingly like adults. They get to play and do silly things, but are expected early on to eat adult food, listen to adult conversations, practice adults virtue such as listening without interruption, showing some respect for their elders, and tolerating boredom. Sara Zaske notes the German approach

Contrary to stereotypes, most German parents I’ve met are the opposite of strict. They place a high value on independence and responsibility. Those parents at the park weren’t ignoring their children; they were trusting them. Berlin doesn’t need a “free range parenting” movement because free range is the norm.

Here are a few surprising things Berlin parents do:

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read....

Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn’t allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions....

Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It’s also obvious on Berlin’s numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.

 

 

 


Adalbert Stifter's American Fan

Michael Lipkin discovers Adalbert Stifter:

I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Over the course of several taciturn afternoons, I waded through the idyllic landscapes and kitschy interiors that make up the bulk of the book. Typical of the book’s style, the third story, “Tourmaline,” opens in a Viennese townhouse belonging to an idle man of culture. Taking unhurried note of the paintings on the wall, the grand piano, the writing desk, the porcelain figurines, Stifter leads the reader through the house until he reaches the bedroom of the man’s wife, where a gilded angel wafts a white curtain over their baby, sleeping in her crib. The terrors of the outer world have been shut out; the pendulum of history has stopped midswing. The clock in this room, writes Stifter, never strikes the hour. Its ticking is so faint as to be scarcely heard....

Youth and childhood are the focus of much of Stifter's work, whose naïve style runs sharply counter to the blasé worldliness of European realism. Unlike Dickens or Flaubert, Stifter describes the world as though he is speaking to a child, not yet ensnared in the web of assumed half-truths and skewed generalizations that constitute adult common sense. By seeing things as though for the first time, Stifter hoped—in vain—to save them from the forces of industrialization and speculative capitalism, forces that liquidate the world’s very materiality. And, to be sure, there is a distinctly pedophilic dimension to Stifter’s obsession with the crystalline purity of childhood and the holy terror with which he avoids any mention of sex. Stifter’s own history with children was a tragic one. He and his wife, Amalia Mohaupt, could not conceive. Their first adopted daughter died young; the second, Amalia’s niece Juliana, ran away from home and threw herself into the Danube.

What Stifter’s naïveté offered me, at the age of nineteen or twenty, was a respite from my increasingly suffocating desires. Living in Binghamton made me vertiginously aware of my own desire to live “well”—which is to say, in New York City, at an extremely high level of material comfort. I found it particularly difficult that spring to read, among other things, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which depicts artistic aspiration and idealism as either the resentment of the lower middle-class or, alternatively, the idle narcissism of the rich. In Stifter’s work, by contrast, money is present only in its total absence. From my own incompetence managing even very small amounts of money, I had a strong suspicion that this elision stemmed from deep personal shame. Reduced to poverty by the sudden death of his wealthy father, Stifter was never at ease in the salons of Vienna. It wasn’t until the decade before his suicide that, as a reward for a series of newspaper articles denouncing the Vienna uprisings in 1848, Stifter was appointed superintendent of schools in Upper Austria, allowing him to pay back the substantial debts he owed to various creditors and family members.

 The ideal life, as Stifter saw it, is the one depicted in his novel, Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], which recounts the friendship between the young protagonist, Heinrich, and the Baron von Risach. Risach, an older man, has withdrawn into a secluded manor, where he has devoted himself to botany, restoring furniture, reading books, looking at paintings and, most importantly, eating (a recurring subject in the diaries of Stifter, who was morbidly obese). No mention of money is ever made. In this novel so boring that, even with the best will, I couldn’t kick myself past page sixty, Stifter shows us how the world might look if the intractable conflicts between human beings, society, and nature could somehow be resolved. In an age that accelerated every aspect of life to breakneck speed, Stifter believed that only literature—slow, deliberate, and loving—could broker the truce.

A German Exchange Student in the Middle of a Campus Rape Shitstorm

Meet Paul Nungesser, a German exchange student at Columbia University in New York:

Speaking carefully, with a slightly formal bearing and an accent so faint that it can be hard to place, Mr. Nungesser, who is from Germany, says he believes sexual assault is an important cause for concern. “My mother raised me as a feminist,” he says, well aware of how those words will strike some people, “and I’m someone who would like to think of myself as being supportive of equal rights for women.”

Yet according to campus activists, Nungesser is a 'rapist' and 'sexual predator', and his actions have sparked a 'national movement' to address the supposed (my skepticism expressed here) campus-rape crisis in America. 

This year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz became an emblem for how colleges mistreat victims of sexual assault on campus. After Sulkowicz reported an alleged rape to the Columbia administration and the college found the accused not responsible, she began hauling her 50-pound dorm mattress across campus as a powerful symbol of an adjudication system she claims is confounding, ineffectual, and unfair. The act has grown into Sulkowicz’s undergraduate art thesis project and inspired a national movement, Carry That Weight, that advocates on behalf of campus sexual assault survivors. In the shadow of her campaign stands Paul Nungesser, the student Sulkowicz says raped her. Today, the New York Times published the first interview with Nungesser himself. It’s the most intimate, high-profile portrait so far of a college student who was accused of rape—one who says that the system has failed him, too.

In his time at Columbia, three female students have accused Nungesser of sexual misconduct. He's denied each accusation, and has not been formally disciplined by the university. When one student accused Nungesser of groping her at a party, the university initially decided against him, but he successfully appealed the ruling. After another student accused him of intimate partner violence, the university dropped the case when the alleged victim stopped cooperating with the investigation. And when Sulkowicz accused Nungesser of raping her, Columbia declined to find him responsible, citing lack of evidence.

In lieu of any formal finding, Nungesser had paid a social cost. “He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him,” Ariel Kaminer reports in the Times. “He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle. … His name has been plastered on campus bathrooms and published in easily searchable articles. His face is visible online, too, in photos that detractors have posted as warnings to strangers.” Because Columbia failed to discipline Nungesser, Columbia bloggers, activists, and supporters have stepped in to exact their own punishment, and national media has fanned the flames.

Paul Nungesser, I have some advice for you. Your ordeal may seem pretty horrifying now, but when you return to Germany, hire a ghostwriter and publish an account of your situation (suggested maximum-sales title: 'How I Became the Victim of a Puritanical American PC Witch-Hunt'). It will sell millions, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.


'Cloth Insignia of the SS' by LTC (ret.) John R. Angolia

Not many posts recently, because I've been in Japan for the holidays, admiring Shinto shrines, being harangued by right-wing soundtrucks, ogling Harajuku cuties, and all the rest.

Browsing the bookstalls in Jimbocho, the used-book district of Tokyo, I came across a book which brought back fond memories. Good old Col. Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) John R. Angolia was a friend of the family, and used to take me to World War II war movies. Problem was, he knew so much about Nazi insignia that every couple of minutes, he would bust out and say something like 'What kind of moron directed this piece of crap? That cadet's sleeveband reads SS Schule Braunschweig in Sütterlin script. This movie is supposed to take place in 1941! Any fool knows that from 1936 onwards, Sütterlin script was reserved exclusively for the insignia of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler!' Sometimes he began clawing at the screen, and they had to drag him out of the theater.

Fortunately Old Leatherballs, as they used to call him in the army, found a productive outlet for his disturbingly profound knowledge of Nazi insignia:

Cloth Insignia of the SS cover.52

From now on, I'll never be embarrassed at dinner parties by insisting that all the sleevebands for the Heinwehr Danzig bore SS runes, when every rube knows that some of them did not. Imagine my humiliation when my host's 11-year-old son Hartmut had to correct me on that point, and then asked rhetorically: 'Daddy, why is the fat American lying?'

Below are are just a few of the 475 magical pages of this book:

SS lady.40

SS violinist.59

As for Old Leatherballs, he went on to write Leather Insignia of the SSMetal Insignia of the SS, and his famous memoirs, My Golden Hours Among the SS Insignia. How I miss him and his delightful stories of SS insignia. Rest in peace, Leatherballs.


The Boston Globe Praises My Book

A little blatant self-promotion here. Katharine Whittemore in the Boston Globe just began a round-up of seven books about capital punishment and life sentences with this punchy, but essentially accurate, abstract of my book's argument:

Why has Europe ended the death penalty, but we’ve still got it? The conventional answer trades on cultural divides: America is an immature cowboy nation, racist and trigger happy, while Europe is more measured, mature, and its societies, chastened by two world wars, are understandably keen to avoid further violence. They’re enlightened; we’re philistine. Germany, in fact, got rid of capital punishment in 1949 and Britain in 1969. Before I read today’s books, I’d vaguely guessed that the Germans acted in revulsion at their Nazi past, and the British embraced the moral revolution of the Sixties. I was flat wrong; in both cases, the people overwhelmingly supported the death penalty. But their leaders coolly, blatantly overruled them.

“Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) helped me, like no other book, to understand the worldwide evolution of the ultimate punishment. When Andrew Hammel, a professor of American law at the University of Düsseldorf, asked European jurists and pols why they’ve succeeded where we’ve failed, he constantly heard this refrain: Americans are naïve to think public opinion must change before the law changes. That’s because the “desire to see murderers executed is a basic drive of human nature, one which only the most educated are able to overcome.”

So that’s their strategy: an elite fait accompli. There are long roots here, for the earliest calls for diminishing the death penalty came from European philosophers invited by European monarchs to put their ideas into practice. Voltaire was pivotal and so was Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 landmark treatise, “On Crimes and Punishments” (Beccaria, 2013), remains powerful reading today and had a marked influence on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Beccaria found it immoral and illogical to treat brutality with brutality: “Murder, which [judges] would represent to us as a horrible crime, we see practised by them without repugnance or remorse.’’

In our era, when those on death row in the United States are in for heinous crimes only, we forget that the state once killed for far less. In 19th century Britain, you could die for some 200 transgressions, including vagrancy and “theft from the premises of a calico printers.” The march toward abolition was a slow one, steadily scratching offenses off — but it was basically a top-down process. Such condescension is a nonstarter in our more populist, pluralist society where 63 percent of Americans favor the death penalty. Eastern European countries had similar stats but, in order to join the European Union, they had to end the practice. The responsive structure of American politics guarantees, for now, it’s here to stay.


Letter Published in London Review of Books

In the July 17th London Review of Books, Judith Butler reviewed Jacques Derrida's On the Death Penalty, Vol. 1. She noted Derrida's reliance on a key passage in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents:

A brief passage in [Freud's] book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

I hadn't read Freud's book in quite a while, and had forgotten that he had discussed the death penalty in it. In any case, I was quite sure Freud's interpretation of this quotation was seriously wrong, since I had encountered the phrase several times in research for my death penalty book. I did a bit of research, and located the quotation. The London Review of Books just published my letter correcting Butler, Derrida, and most importantly Freud, who started the whole journey into erroneousness. Here it is, along with another letter which might be of interest to German readers: 

The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson

Augsburg