I wanted to see what I could pick up from Gunter Grass’ THE TIN DRUM. It meant rereading the novel after more than thirty years, seemly not that long ago, considering. It fascinated me; and inside I found several techniques worth remembering. And here is an example of one of them, found near the end of the novel. If nothing else, reading the excerpt will put you touch with Grass’ prose.
About a quarter of way through the paragraph, Oskar’s keeper says (p. 408): “However, I have to put a supply of string in my pocket and as he tells his story, I shall start on the lower limbs of a figure which, in accordance with Mr. Matzerath’s story, I shall call ‘Refugee from the East.’ This will not be the first figure I have derived from my patient’s stories. So far I have done his grandmother, whom I call ‘Potato in Four Skirts,’ and his grandfather, the raftsman, whose string image I have called, rather pretentiously perhaps, ‘Columbus’; my strings have turned his poor mama into ‘The Beautiful Fish Eater’’ and the two fathers, Matzerath and Jan Bronski, have become ‘The Two Skat Players.” I have also rendered the scarry back of his friend Herbert Truczinski: this piece is entitled ‘Rough Going.’ In addition, I have drawn inspiration from such sites and edifices as the Polish Post Office, the Stockturn, the Stadt-Theater, Arsenal Passage, the Maritime Museum, the cellar of Greff’s vegetable store, Pestalozzi School, the Brosen bathing establishment, the Church of Sacret Heart, the Four Seasons Café, the Baltic Chocolate Factory, the pillboxes of the Atlantic Wall, the Eiffel Tower, the Stettin Station, in Berlin, reims Cathedral, and neither last nor least the apartment house where Mr. Matzerath first saw the light of the world. The fences and tombstones of the cemeteries of Saspe and Brenntau suggested ornaments; the knot up knot, I have….” And Grass goes on, taking the reader on a journey back through previous episodes of his book.
A novel as great as THE TIN DRUM can not be praised enough. It can not be dismissed. It is an epic, in scope and significance. It is a historic metaphor, filled with stories, little treasures the author never lets us forget. The technique, simply put, is repetition. However, every time Grass reminds us of something, it is given to us from a different perspective. Consequently, we relive each story over and over again; and it never gets old.
On the first page this method is revealed; there’s a link to the excerpt above and linked from the beginning, and the weaving has begun. Oskar (also known as Mr. Matzerath) is “an inmate of a mental hospital” and Grass has his character tell the reader what he (Oskar) is doing and what he (Grass) will do throughout the novel.
“So you see, my keeper can’t be an enemy. I’ve come to be very fond of him; when he stops looking at me from behind the door and comes into the room, I tell him incidents from my life, so he can get to know me in spite of the peephole between us. He seems to treasure my stories, because every time I tell him some fair tale, he shows his gratitude by bringing out his latest knot construction. I would swear that he’s an artist. But I am certain that an exhibition of his creations would be well received by the press (The Tin Drum was) and attract a few purchasers. He picks up common pieces of string in patients’ rooms after visiting hours, disentangles them, and works them up into elaborate contorted spooks (our novel); then he dips them in plaster (the process), lets them harden (the creation), and mounts them on knitting needles that he fastens to little wooden pedestals (the finished work). And of course, Grass has just started
Then on the next page the author tells us how we can approach his work: “you can begin a story in the middle and create confusion by striking out boldly, backward and forward (as in Joyce’s FINNEGANS WAKE, but where the comparison ends). You can be modern, put aside all mention of time and distance and when the whole thing is done, proclaim, and let someone else proclaim, that you have finally, at the last moment, solved the space-time thing.” So let us dare to be modern.
Follow what Grass says next and agree or disagree with delight. “Or you can declare at the very start that it’s impossible to write a novel nowadays (I can relate), but then behind your own back so to speak, give birth to a whopper, a novel to end all novels (The Tin Drum: however I disagree. Let’s be fair. FINNEGANS WAKE is the novel to end all novels.).” Read on, open that door, and if you do, well…I’ll let you make up your own mind. Randy Ford