- Hardcover: 672 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (November 1, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0151002304
- ISBN-13: 978-0151002306
- Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,005,157 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Too Far Afield 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Recent German unification is neatly, if protractedly, likened to the inner development of one of its bureaucrats in this novel of Berlin after reunification. The book is a worthy follow-up to My Century, which taught 100 years of history in human, understandable terms. Theo Wuttke, known as "Fonty" because he's obsessed with famous German novelist Theodor Fontane, is a former war correspondent now on his uppers as an elderly file courier in a government agency of the former German Democratic Republic. Blessed with an encyclopedic memory, Fonty often recites poems from different languages, to his co-workers' secret derision. Weary of life at the agency, he tries to escapeDonce to Scotland, another time to Great BritainDbut a spy named Ludwig Hoftaller, himself an incarnation of a 19th-century figure and often called Fonty's "day-and-night-shadow," always finds him. Hoftaller's motivation is never made clear: perhaps fear that Fonty will leak German state secrets, perhaps loneliness, perhaps both. The past keeps impinging on the present; Hoftaller knows truths about marital infidelities in Fonty's past that keep Fonty from rebelling too forcefully. The two old men wander the streets of Berlin, each struggling with WWII guilt, as both of them had connections to Hitler's regime. Some overlong passages detailing German history will be lost on American readers, and Fonty's rambling monologues constantly threaten to bring the novel to a halt. However, the psychologically complex portrayal of a man's gradual relinquishing of his social position in order to keep his spirit intact is more than enough to maintain a reader's passion in the work. Fonty does manage to escape eventually, his victory that of a profoundly human figure who embodies both the bitterness and the sweetness of an era's passing. (Dec.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
When this hefty novel was first published in Germany in 1995, many readers reacted antagonistically, finding it unmanageable and rudely outspoken. This, of course, hardly comes as a surprise. Grass has always unswervingly spoken his mind through memorable characters. His latest work is another sober commentary conveyed through the words and actions of two eccentric and weary but always vigilant 70-year-old protagonists who observe the logic, the aftermath, and the inevitable price of German reunification. Through a clutter of references to Germany's turbulent history, Grass blends the past with the present and almost convinces us that social history is politics, and yet politics remains the history of one. Like the legendary The Tin Drum, this is only superficially a work of magical realism. One of the key sentences, "I'm afraid the shame will live on," which actually alludes to the evasive ending of Kafka's The Trial, suggests that what lies beneath this multilayered, if a bit overambitious, story is a potent message that transcends even the actual characters and their humanity. One cannot help but wonder if the demanding form and content would be more decipherable if the novel had the accessible format of Grass's recently published My Century. Nevertheless, the recognizable honesty of Grass's literature still hovers in the background. This is why we continue to revere him.
-DMirela Roncevic, "Library Journal"
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
"The employees and the regulars were struck dumb with amazement. Nothing like this had ever happened at McDonald's before." Even "a beer-bloated skinhead, stuffed into much rivet-studded leather," commends the performance as "heavy."
Episodes like this one spice up a novel in which Grass constantly (and, at first, jarringly) shifts back and forth between Wuttke's life from 1919 to 1989 and Fontane's career in the second half of the nineteenth century as Wuttke re-imagines it--sometimes blurring the two men until it's not entirely clear who is being described. (Hoftaller, too, is transformed into a menacing Bismarck-era police officer named Tallhover.) Similarly, Grass mirrors post-Soviet German unification with the national unification of 1871 to reiterate his long held belief in the circularity of history. And, finally, the plots, themes, prose, and style of Fontane's many works pervade the book; Wuttke not only resembles his literary idol, who was born exactly 100 years earlier, but also he knows so much about Fontane's life that he has come to imagine that he lived it himself. Fontane is "the Immortal One" whose ghost survives in Wuttke.
All this will be confusing to American readers, most of whom (like myself), if they've heard of Theodor Fontane at all, know only of "Effi Briest"--the only one of his works currently in print in the U.S. Before attempting this book, then, one should read a good, brief summary of Fontane's life and work--novels, poems, and historical works. For example, to understand fully the McDonald's episode described above, I had first to learn that Fontane spend many years in England, under the thrall of Sir Walter Scott's romances, and that he had written the poem Wuttke--and Grass--quotes at length. (Like many of Fontane's works, it apparently has never been translated into English.) Reading this book made me wonder how non-English readers manage to appreciate novels about our own authors, like "The Master" or "March."
Likewise, it helps to know that many German readers were turned off by Grass's stance on German unification (he opposed it, arguing that Eastern Germany would be soured and corrupted by Western greed and materialism). Since many East Germans shared these apprehensions, Grass's incorporation of these beliefs into Wuttke's cynical worldview seems germane to the fiction itself--and Grass's portrait is a bit more ambiguous and nuanced than one might expect. Amidst the 600 pages of Grass's (understandably) parochial fixation with Germany's literary heritage, there are any number of comical scenes, poignant events, and two memorable characters (both Wuttke and Germany itself)--all of which make the exertion largely worthwhile.
"Too Far Afield" begins with a chronology of modern German history, which Grass implicatively traces back to 1685 when French Huguenots escaping religious persecution in their native country sought refuge in Prussia; Fontane, as his French-looking name indicates, was descended from Huguenots. Born in 1919, exactly a century after Fontane, Fonty leads a life that surrealistically parallels that of the Immortal. Like Fontane, Fonty is a man of letters with a keen interest in the march of war, a renowned poet and one of East Berlin's leading cultural figures since the second World War ended in a geopolitically divided Germany.
Grass's narrative takes place mostly in East Berlin in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In much the same way that Fontane had chronicled the unification of Germany under Bismarck in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Fonty reflects on the reunification of Germany following the collapse of the Soviet umbrella under which East Germany had been nurtured and the clash of cultures that results when the stagnant communism of the East is awkwardly reconciled with the dynamic capitalism of the West.
Fonty, in addition to his literary endeavors, has worked as a courier in the East German Ministries Building, where he runs files up and down the floors in a rickety elevator affectionately called the "paternoster" (Our Father) -- perhaps after a prayer uttered by the hapless passenger for his safety. The dissolution of his government after the Wall has fallen temporarily displaces Fonty, but fortunately the Ministries Building is taken over by a trust company called Handover, where he accepts a job as a consultant in their affairs to help reconstruct East Germany.
The political situation provides a backdrop for Fonty's personal dramas. His daughter Martha, a teacher, having lost her faith in socialism, becomes a Catholic and marries a wealthy West German builder she had met at a resort by the Black Sea several years ago; in this episode we learn that West Germans, whose currency was much more solid than that of the East Germans, received preferential treatment. Fonty's closest friends are Hoftaller, alias Tallhover, a spy for the former East German government, and the cynical Professor Freundlich, pointedly referred to as a "leftover" Jew, an anti-Zionist who is sour over his daughters' decision to move to Israel but eventually accedes to the view that Europe can never again be a haven for the Jews. We also learn that Fonty has a granddaughter named Madeleine, the offspring of a daughter he had illegitimately with a French woman while serving ineffectually as a soldier in World War II, who comes to him in his old age.
"Too Far Afield" bears little resemblance to Grass's 1959 masterpiece "The Tin Drum" (one of the best novels of the last century); of course, "The Tin Drum" did not anticipate a reunified Germany but instead assumed a permanently splintered one symbolized by its deformed protagonist Oskar Matzerath, whose piquant personality Fonty lacks. "Too Far Afield," facing the reality of what many Germans including Grass might have thought impossible, is less whimsical, as though it were wandering around in a daze contemplating the unexpected destruction of the physical barrier that had emerged emblematic of the great German divide of the twentieth century.
As for myself, I resolve to delve into "Effi Briest" as soon as possible. Dare I ignore the Immortal any longer?
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This work, which first appeared in Germany in 1995, is Grass's treatment of Germany's...Read more