The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Having previously read Cat and Mouse by Günter Grass, I thought I was prepared for The Tin Drum. Sure, The Tin Drum is a much longer work and I expected it to be more complex, but I was definitely in for a surprise. The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse seem so different to me as to potentially represent two different authors. I can certainly see similar themes in both, but Cat and Mouse is just nowhere near as strange, as ambiguous, as modern. I could make something of Cat and Mouse. The Tin Drum…well, let’s just see what I manage to come up with.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jim Crace, 6th for Michael Griffith, 10th for Allan Gurganus, 7th for John Irving, and 10th for Thomas Keneally.)

Even before I got to the bizarre journey that Oskar Matzerath makes through pre-WWII, WWII, and post-WWI Germany (a journey that I’m not entirely sure goes anywhere linear), the very first paragraph signaled the opening of a very strange book:

Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.

So, we have a novel narrated to us by a mental patient. However, is he crazy, not crazy, or both? Should we trust him? He says fantastic things…but he seems so reasonable, so intelligent. Frankly, I can’t be sure whether to believe him, not believe him, or only partially believe him.

For example, he claims to have been born with full awareness. Supposedly, he heard his father at his birth say that he would grow up to be a grocer and thus decided never to grow up (beyond the age of three where he was to receive a tin drum from his mother). So that people don’t wonder why he doesn’t grow any bigger, he stages an accident:

It took me a minute or two to understand what the trapdoor to our cellar demanded of me. Not suicide, by God! That would have been too simple. But the alternative was difficult, painful, demanded sacrifice; and even then, as always when a sacrifice is demanded of my, my brow broke out in a sweat. Above all, no harm must come to my drum; I would have to carry it safely down the sixteen well-worn steps and place it among the sacks of flour to explain its undamaged state. Then back up to the eighth step, no, down one, actually the fifth would do just as well. But from there safety and credible injury could not be combined. Back up then, too high this time, to the tenth, and finally, from the ninth step, I flung myself down, carrying a shelf laden with bottles of raspberry syrup along with me, and landed head-first on the cement floor of our cellar.

Later, he decides to grow again and does at the exact same time that Kurt, either his son or his half-brother depending on whether you believe Oskar or not, throws a rock at Oskar’s head.

Is Oskar’s lack of growth, and subsequent growth, a result of his decisions as he says? Or, are both products of his respective incidents and only interpreted by him as his choice? Really, I can’t be sure. I kept going back and forth as I read and I still can’t make up my mind.

But, let’s consider the journey Oskar takes for a moment. He goes from drumming under bleachers to disrupt a Nazi rally to entertaining the troops, from youth gang leader to gravestone carver to model to famous musician, eventually to mental patient incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit but took the rap for on a whim. What does this all mean? What possible linear course is found in the summation of all these things?

Man…hell if I know.

What I do know is that The Tin Drum is wild and fantastic:

With no plan in mind, I made myself understood on tin. I forgot all the standard nightclub routines. No jazz for Oskar either. I didn’t like being taken for a maniacal drummer by the crowd anyway. Though I considered myself a decent percussionist, I was no purebred jazz musician. I love jazz, just as I love Viennese waltzes. I could have played either, but I didn’t feel I had to. When Schmuh asked me to step in with my drum, I didn’t play what I could play, but what was in my heart. Oskar pressed his drumsticks into the hands of a three-year-old Oskar. I drummed up and down former paths, showed the world as a three-year-old sees it, and the first thing I did was harness that postwar crowd incapable of a true orgy to a cord, that is, I led them down Posadowskiweg into Auntie Kauer’s kindergarten, had them standing with their mouths hanging open, holding one another by the hand, turning their toes inward, waiting for me, their Pied Piper…. Beneath a night sky studded with fairy-tale stars, slightly cool, but seemingly made to order for the occasion, in the spring of nineteen-fifty, I dismissed the gentlemen and ladies, who carried on for some time with their childish nonsense in Altstadt and did not return home till the police finally helped them recall their age, social position, and telephone numbers.

Oskar has no problem stealing Jesus from a church, but torments himself as responsible for deaths to which he only bore a tangential relationship. He fully commits himself to something, and then just wanders off when it seems to no longer interest him. Between the oddities of the character, the non-traditional flow of the plot, and the complexity even in the sentence structure, I can only say that I am surprised to see this book come out of Germany in the late fifties. I would have expected, whether correctly or incorrectly, something much more stolid and traditional.

In the end, I may not fully know what to make of The Tin Drum. However, I do know that it is an amazing book. I guess that will just have to do.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.

“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

Having only read Lolita and The Defense before, I was totally unprepared for the kind of Nabokov that I found in Pale Fire. It is definitely the oddest book of his I’ve ever read, though possibly one of his most interesting.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Chabon, 3rd for Mary Gaitskill, 1st for Michael Griffith, 4th for David Leavitt, 4th for Arthur Philips, and 3rd for Vendela Vida.)

To begin with, Pale Fire presents itself as a 999-line, four-canto poem by John Shade along with forward and commentary by Dr. Charles Kinbote. However, the poem, the forward, and the commentary are all fictional components of the novel. The poem is autobiographical, digressively examining Shade’s fairly ordinary life. The commentary, on the other hand, is anything but commentary on the poem.

Kinbote presents himself as Shade’s close friend, though he only knew him for a few months before Shade’s death and I get the feeling that Shade merely put up with Kinbote. Kinbote had tried to get Shade to write the poem about the escape of the king of a fictional country called Zembla and was disappointed to find out what the poem was really about.

Then, instead of actually commenting on the poem (which he pretends to do) Kibote uses the commentary to talk about his relationship with Shade, his own life, the colleagues he hates at the local college, and the escaped king of Zembla. Revealed through the commentary is the fact that Kibote believes himself to be the escaped king of Zembla (whether or not this is completely insane) and believes the unknown gunman who kills Shade to be a royal assassin named Gradus, actually sent to kill Kibote.

First, let’s look at a section from canto one of the poem (lines 13-28):

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter’s code:
A dot, and arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back … A pheasant’s feet!
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?

Next, let’s look at the commentary for a portion of this section:

Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray

By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man, whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d’Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities—printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican’s daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Now, I quote a fairly large portion here, but I think it is quite evident why. There is just no way to comprehend the oddity of Pale Fire without seeing how the poem and bizarre commentary interact. I think the above is the shortest section that illustrates this phenomenon quite this well.

For anyone like me who has only read Nabokov works such as Lolita and The Defense, Pale Fire is downright uncharacteristic. It is weird, metafictional, and darkly humorous. However, it is also incredibly good. Pale Fire may not have the same emotive power as Lolita, but it is much more unusual. I highly recommend it, though I do advise that it can take a little getting used to. It is well worth the effort if you hang in there.