Friday, 3 July 2009

Ligging With Grass

We interrupt this interruption to bring you all the latest from a whole new world - for me - the community of Günter Grass fans, followers and favourites.

Last night was the long-awaited Grass reading at the LCB, celebrating fifty years of his phenomenal debut novel The Tin Drum - along with three of his translators, Breon Mitchell, Per Öhrgaard (Danish) und Oili Suominen (Finnish). You should be able to listen to the event on Deutschlandfunk on the last Saturday in July. The weather was gorgeous, absolutely perfect for a trip out to the Wannsee, and about 5000 people agreed with me. I blagged a seat a long way from the stage and craned my neck. But it was worth it.

Grass read three passages from the novel. Now what with my puerile rebellious streak, I don't usually have a lot of time for Günter Grass. But the reading reminded me that The Tin Drum must have been the first German adult novel I read, at the age of 17, presumably in Ralph Mannheim's translation. And it also called to mind how incredibly fresh and exciting the book still is, half a century after its publication. This is great story-telling, beautiful and angry writing that kicks over the statues of cosy economic miracle-era West Germany, and is rightly celebrated as a groundbreaking piece of literature.

The translators each read a passage of their own new versions, and I can hardly say how thrilled I was by Breon Mitchell's rendering. All those great words! I'm told he's in the closing stages of his translation - and I know I for one am going to read it as soon as it comes out. Although Mitchell defended his good friend Mannheim, citing the circumstances at the time and the fact that it's a heck of a difficult book, he didn't pull any punches about the quality of the existing translation - like a good many translators at the time, Mannheim thought he'd better simplify this young upstart's novel, slashing the sentences, skipping bits and generally translating in a way that's just not acceptable any more. Plus, translators today have many more resources at their fingertips than they did fifty years ago.

All the translators and Grass's charming editor Helmut Frielinghaus talked about the legendary meetings held with the author. I suspect Grass may possibly be a tiny bit of a diva, and there was an atmosphere of awe surrounding these meetings. The translators put their questions to him - no question is too banal - and he answers them by either explaining what he meant or by telling them to make something up. The Tin Drum meeting was held in Gdansk, and Per Öhrgaard's eyes went glossy as he recalled going into a church with the writer and the whole congregation whispering "Günter Grass, Günter Grass". Actually I made that bit up about the tears in his eyes - I could only see the back of his head from where I was sitting.

My favourite part of the event was of course when the moderator Denis "completely choochie" Scheck asked the translators how readers in their countries had reacted to the revelation of Grass's "membership of the Waffen-SS". The man himself leaped in and insisted on correcting Scheck: no, he wasn't a member, he was conscripted like 100,000 other young men. Scheck smiled and stood corrected. Apparently though, the whole issue has been a storm in a teacup outside of Germany.

And then it was over. And then came the whole new world. Once the photos had been taken and the autographs signed, the Grass community convened on the terrace. I somehow got swept along and even got a piece of Tin Drum birthday cake - which was absolutely delicious, with not an eel or a potato in sight. What can I say? Mr. Grass has a large number of acolytes, almost all of them male. Or perhaps that's too rude - perhaps it would be better to say that Günter Grass is his own mini-branch of the literary industry, generating enough work for a good few editors, critics, translators, PAs, hairdressers and cake-makers. A little like a small planet with many satellites. But a planet well worth exploring.

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