- Series: Helen & Kurt Wolff Book
- Paperback: 560 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (May 5, 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0156319357
- ISBN-13: 978-0156319355
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,043,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Flounder (Helen & Kurt Wolff Book) Reprint Edition
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If you are intrigued by this line (page 219), you will love this book. If you don't feel intrigued, you will feel a different strong emotion. In brief, that's the best advice I can give to a prospective buyer. I have provided some further thoughts below.
Typically labelled "magic(al) realism", this book could be characterized much more specifically as a fusion of two magic-related genres: it is a fairytale reimagined as an origin myth. The fairytale is that of The Fisherman and His Wife, which is a story embedded in folk traditions from Slavic to Polish to Indian to Germanic. Grass is unsatisfied with the received wisdom of the conventional story, as related by the Brothers Grimm, which tells us of the disaster brought on by a pushover husband and his greedy wife when they happen upon an enchanted flatfish.
The Grimms' fairytale closely parallels a certain other story, also combination fairytale and origin myth. The story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, as told by (e.g.) Milton, tells us that the sorry state of humanity all boils down to females' ambition and males' failure to be in charge. Much of Grass's book is devoted to rewriting the received wisdom that history is a story of progress driven by masculinity. So we start in the paleolithic, where women are in charge, men are errand-boys, and everyone is apparently quite content. The historical era is related as a series of behind-the-scenes looks at how what we "know" of history might have had unrecorded dimensions -- that is, women might have had a greater role than we know. As speculative fiction, the major criterion for success for this aspect of the book is plausibility, and -- especially considering the outrageousness of some of the stories -- Grass makes his alternative histories impressively plausible and engrossingly human.
But, what can we make of plausible speculation? As Grass himself asks (290), "is it just something that might have happened?" Certainly we don't walk away from this book knowing that a particular woman had a particular unrecorded role in history. But after being impressed by how naturally we can imagine women "back" into history, and considering their overwhelming absence from the record, we do walk away with the *certainty* that some Awa or some Fat Gret somewhere must have existed. Ideas like this might seem boneheadedly simple today, 30 years after this book's publication, but that only testifies to Guenter's (and his peers') success.
Beyond arguing socio-historical points, Grass cuts even deeper, presenting this book as an endorsement of and experiment on a feminine literary aesthetic. Thus Grass has Fraeulein Bettina set among a discussion of her artistic friends thinking that each had a different but worthwhile contribution to make (348). "There was room enough for all their ideas. That's the way nature was in its beautiful disorder: spacious. All these thoughts could be set before the reader in their wild luxuiriance; little order was needed. The reader would know what to do with them." And that's a darn good description of this book. Geunter repeatedly hammers on the feminine virtue of "room," as a not-so-subtle response to phallic imagery. On the whole, the expansiveness of the book is an engrossing journey. ...I will admit though, the fluidity can seem at times superfluity, and the vast, plodding journey can occasionally drift between tiring to tiresome.
The major failing of the novel is, however, something greater: however much the writer is dissatisfied with the recieved wisdom of history, he is ultimately unimaginative about how the future might be.* The 20th-century women who discover the Flounder are simply reactionaries, women rejecting womanhood, and are mocked as such toward the end of the book. The only one of this group who is portrayed as a "hero" is a reactionary to the reactionaries, and is only a hero of the tragic type. The only alternative to male dominance the story offers is female dominance, which besides unconvincing is uninspiring in either its stone-age or its industrial-age incarnation. This book is a masterpiece of sorts, but I find it hard to feel comfortable with such a lack of imagination in a work of art! Perhaps I ask too much, when the book exudes (re-)imagination of so many past events. But the portions of the book that lack imagination are coupled to a pessimism that makes me feel like Grass's version of history leads precisely nowhere.*
Yet if the book's reactionary politics is a reason to disregard it for its failure to innovate, it is also a reason to pay attention to it for its success at faithful portrayal of how bad the received wisdom is. This book is not visionary, but it is luminary. When at the end the fisherman is reduced to an object of female utility, and agency along with the Flounder's counsel has passed entirely to women, Grass expresses the fantasy of an ex- German S.S. officer -- he hopes that his side of history has been utterly, finally defeated. In a way, this excuses the lack of projection into the future, since the fisherman's role of future-maker has ended, and the humility that properly accompanies postwar abdication requires that pronouncements about the future be left to others.
* Indeed, Grass wrote a subsequent novel picking up where 'The Flounder' leaves off, in which humanity throws itself off the cliff once and for all in nuclear war.
"The Tin Drum", the author's first book, remains one of the most white hot brilliant novels written in the last 100 years. It's the kind of book that in every sentence shows the desperate need the author had to tell his tale.
By contrast, "The Flounder" is a tepid excercise that expresses no such fiery need. Sure, there are good ideas and interesting sections. However, the whole doesn't amount to much - in fact the book is more like a Mrs. Paul's fish stick than a gourmet pan of white fish - in effect, there seems to be far too much breading and not nearly enough good solid sea food in every bite.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare everything Gunter writes to his first meteoric success. Still, when you have the power to write something like "The Tin Drum", you can't expect to get off with writing less.