I recently tried to read what is considered to be one of the classics of modern European fiction, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Originally published over 40 years ago, Grass’ novel is beautifully written, full of insight and wit, and thoroughly unreadable. I first tried to get through it as a senior in high school and managed a couple of hundred pages before I gave up in bewilderment. Now, 40-odd years later, I managed nearly twice that before giving up in frustration.
The Tin Drum‘s primary problem is the near-total unpleasantness and impenetrability of its narrator, a 3-ft dwarf named Oskar who claims to have dedicated himself to the beauties of drumming on a hunk of enameled tin mere minutes after leaving the birth canal. He also insists that at the age of 3 he decided he didn’t like the adult world and promptly forced himself to stop growing so that he could remain a 3-yr-old forever.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Oskar is currently living in a mental institution.
Oskar’s jaundiced and uniquely myopic worldview isn’t the only problem but it tends to make the other problems even worse. His friends and family, with few exceptions, are dull, selfish, frightened, and as common as dirt. They dream no dreams beyond the next meal, have no ideals that would make sense to anyone else, and chase the anonymity of social invisibility with a passion ordinarily reserved for gold-diggers and social climbers. The prose style, while at times hauntingly poetic, is more often dense and as prickly as a bramble bush. One wades through it, carefully, as one wades through a swamp, testing every foothold and avoiding the snakes. Ultimately, unless you have a taste for such clodding adventure, it simply becomes tiring and no longer worth the effort for the little you get out of it.
The biggest problem may simply be that it is too damned European. The characters in this book, from Oskar on through, are militantly provincial. The existence of an outside world is, for them, mere rumor. In fact anything beyond the limits of the next town over in any direction is strictly suspect, a matter of argument as to whether such a place as London is myth, dream, or actual reality however truncated or warped in the telling. France, Spain, and Italy are known of but no one has any interest in them. They’re too far away.
This relentlessly limited interest in anything beyond their own backyards may be – Grass certainly seems to think so – what allowed Hitler and WW II, and what he may in fact have done is craft a clever explanation for why Germany fell under the little corporal’s spell and turned a blind eye to its own destruction. If so, that’s a worthy theme and an important message. Unfortunately, that message is conveyed in the first 100 pages and nothing much is added to it in the next 300. It may be a significant journey for a European to make, especially if that European lived through it (the book takes place between Oskar’s birth in 1912 and Stalin’s death in 1953; you may make of that what you will), but it has less to say to an American than a Polish telephone book.
It is also, and one can’t deny it however one might like to believe differently of a Nobel Prize winner, ineluctably boring. It becomes a slog, a long, drawn-out and difficult tramp up a steep, slippery hill in the middle of an ice storm, by the time Oskar has an affair with his first love, an episode that briefly brightens the murk. That this book is part of an enormous trilogy is nothing less than terrifying. Three of these? My gawd! The humanity!
But I speak, of course, as a post-war American with little or no experience of Europe. When it is revealed as both an important part of his life and a major plot element that Oskar can break glass with his voice and do it with such delicate control that soon he is using his singing to carve hearts in drinking glasses for his to-be-girlfriend, I didn’t break a sweat. I found it amusing, much as I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude amusing, or Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings. But as the ignorance and the bodies piled up, and there was less fortissimo invention and more depressing and unimaginative death, all of it packed in a wandering wasteland of words and none of it by any means necessarily real outside Oskar’s cell, I began to wonder why I was bothering.
Clearly, this book hadn’t been written for me or for Americans in general. It was fully, totally, unabashedly and unapologetically European in flavor and outlook, the US be damned. It was a sentiment I could certainly understand, but what I couldn’t master was the reason this had become a huge best-seller here, spending months on the NYT’s best-seller list and being carried thither-and-yon by American students, as I saw it was when I got to college the next year. Was it simply the superlative writing that (occasionally) lifted the drab story and plebian characters out of the dust for a moment? Or was the attraction its very alienness, its strange other-worldly atmosphere and low-brow mythological character caricatures?
I don’t know, but when I reached the point that it was no longer speaking to me and hadn’t been for some 100 or so pages and didn’t look likely to be, I quit punishing myself and put the book back in the stocks where it belonged.
I haven’t thought about it since.