Campo santo, p.9
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       Campo Santo, p.9

           W. G. Sebald
 
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  II. GÜNTER GRASS:

  FROM THE DIARY OF A SNAIL

  The outstanding feature of the history of the 1969 campaign is the elation felt when the Social Democrats just snatched victory; once again, the true line of democracy in the Federal Republic was identified with the long march of the Social Democrats, and not least with the role played by the literary figures who forged ahead in the last phase of that arduous journey. Part of the sum total of this experience was the realization, now consolidated, that democracy is concerned with more than a healthy economy. Grass apostrophizes it in his Diary of a Snail by taking the popular clichés of the time expressing the nation’s new self-confidence and incorporating them in his text as quotations:

  “… and now after twenty-five years. From rubble and ashes we. From scratch. And today we are once more. Without false modesty. As the whole world is forced to. No one expected it. We can hold up our …”

  Yes, indeed. Story on story, and cost a pretty. Money in the bank all the same. Everything runs, flows, conveys, and lubricates itself automatically. Not just the victor powers, God himself comes to us for credit. We are again, somebody again, we are …15

  The question raised through this synoptic ridicule is directed at the nation’s mental identity and, as the collage effect of the Diary makes clear in its first pages, can be answered only by presenting the experience of success in the present together with the debit entries, still not correctly deciphered, of our past.

  So this literary and political guide to the election campaign in Germany also becomes an account of the exodus of the Danzig Jews and the description of a place that had long remained a blank area on the map of any work devoted to Danzig. Without the passages describing the fate of the persecuted minority, the Diary of a Snail would surely have remained a work written on a single level. For only the dimension of concrete remembrance lends substance to the central story of the schoolmaster nicknamed “Doubt,” and on another level substance to the reflections on melancholy. The presentation of local history does not, as usual in texts about that act of genocide, deal with “the Jews” in a sense that, however terrifying, is abstract; instead the author and with him the reader understand that Jews from Danzig, Augsburg, and Bamberg once really were fellow citizens and fellow human beings, and did not exist merely as a nebulous collective.

  The Fate of the Danzig Jews

  We owe the story of the Danzig Jews as Grass tells it not primarily to the work of the author himself, knowledgeable as he is about the history of Danzig, but to the Jewish historian Erwin Lichtenstein. It is quite surprising to reflect that Grass—if his own text is correctly understood here—may in a way have come by the story gratis. “On my visit to Israel from November 5 to November 18, 1971,” writes Grass in a parenthesis in the Diary, “Erwin Lichtenstein informed me that his documents on ‘The Exodus of the Jews from the Free City of Danzig’ were soon to be published in book form by Mohr in Tübingen.”16 And in fact the impressively real details that lend authenticity to the account of the journey of the Danzig Jews traveling from their home into exile and from exile home again derive almost exclusively from Lichtenstein’s research.

  We may leave aside the question of when, in developing his concept, Grass incorporated the exodus of the Jewish community of Danzig into the plan for his book. It is certain, however, that this chapter in the “dark, complicated story,” of which the narrator of Cat and Mouse says that it is not to be written by him “and in no case in connection with Mahlke,” could not ultimately be written by Grass himself, for German literati still know little of the real fate of the persecuted Jews.17 But as, to employ an image of Canetti’s, like all writers they follow their noses over the chasms of time, yet now, as Grass himself puts it, they have come home with “the sniffed insight that it smells everywhere, and not only in quaint one-family houses, that sometimes frankly and pungently, sometimes lavender-sweetened, here masked by refrigeration, there streaked with mold, and next door unspeakably, it stinks, because here, there and next door the cellars harbor corpses.”18

  Discovering the truth is thus shown to be the business of the dog described by Benjamin as the emblematic beast of melancholy, which, as Kafka too knew, “symbolizes the darker aspect of the melancholy” as well as its “tenacity.”19

  “A writer,” says Grass, reflecting with melancholy on his own profession, “a writer, children, is a man who loves fug and tries to give it a name, who lives on fug by giving it a name; a mode of life that puts calluses on the nose.”20 Despite this almost constitutional compulsion of the man of letters to carry out research, noted by the Mitscherlichs, “the real people we were ready to sacrifice to our master race have not yet appeared before the perception of our senses.”21 The fact that Grass succeeded in making up some of that deficit in his Diary is something he owes primarily to the efforts of a historian living in Tel Aviv, and that in its own turn shows that literature today, left solely to its own devices, is no longer able to discover the truth.

  The Character of Hermann Ott

  For this very reason the story of Hermann Ott that forms the backbone of the Diary, and is used by the author to offer the reader’s receptive imagination many consoling ideas, will not ultimately stand up to critical examination. Unlike the documentary passages about the exodus of the Jews and the electoral campaign, the writer’s own family life, and the essaylike digressions, it is pure invention although everything else relates to it. This fact, of course, is initially disguised by the repeated suggestion that we really have here an incident from the life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki which cannot at present be made public.

  Hermann Ott, nicknamed Doubt, by trade a teacher and a skeptic, has been teaching at the Rosenbaum private school since state schools were closed to the Jewish children of Danzig, and still buys his lettuce from Jewish tradesmen even when the market women call him names for it. This Hermann Ott is a retrospective figure created by the author’s wishful thinking; structurally no different, if of far less fateful import, than the angelic young Father Riccardo Fontano in Hochhuth’s The Deputy who provides evidence that good still exists even in the face of mass annihilation.

  In order to leave Hermann Ott’s German identity in no doubt, Grass gives us his literary alter ego’s Aryan family tree of all the way back to Groningen in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century. The implication here, as in everything we learn about Hermann Ott, is that there really were Germans of a better kind, a thesis that stakes its claim to a high degree of probability through the combination of fiction with the documentary material. Whether the good and innocent Germans leading their quiet, heroic lives in the country’s postwar literature really existed in the way suggested to the reader probably matters less, objectively speaking, than the obvious fact that, as we can read in Böll, they confined their effective activities to saying a Good Friday prayer which “even includes the unbelieving Jews.”22

  German literature of the postwar period sought its moral salvation in these fictional figures, of whom Günter Grass’s Doubt is certainly one of the most honorable, and, thus preoccupied, failed to understand the grave and lasting deformities in the emotional lives of those who let themselves be integrated into the system without questioning it.

  The invented figure of the teacher Doubt, enabling Grass to develop his snail-theme of melancholy, thus functions as an alibi to counter the programmatic intention of mourning, and the real aspects of the story of the Danzig Jews once again fail to get their due, despite the aid of Erwin Lichtenstein. One of the passages in the Diary where an appearance of truth is created by the confrontation of historical reality and retrospective fiction is a passage about the transports taking those Jewish children who were able to leave Danzig to England. Faced with his own children’s questions:

  “Did they have to go to school, too?”

  “Did they all learn English quick?”

  “And what about their parents?”

  “Where did they go?”23

  Grass respo
nds by telling them about an English journalist who came from Danzig and had accompanied him for part of the electoral campaign. To this journalist, who left Danzig at the age of nearly twelve on one of the children’s transports, pictures of his native town were still clear: “gables, churches, streets, porches, and chimes, gulls on blocks of ice and over brackish water—in chiaroscuro, like broken toys,” but “he couldn’t remember a schoolteacher by the name of Ott (known as Doubt).”24 The situation thus sketched makes one wonder whether the dominance of fiction over what really happened does not tend to militate against the recording of the truth and the attempt to commemorate it.

  The Social Democratic Electoral Campaign

  Another of the images of wishful thinking constructed by Grass in the Diary of a Snail is his idea of German Social Democracy, on behalf of which he undertakes all the stress and strain of a campaign trip covering 31,000 kilometers.

  The first striking feature in this context is that while Grass likes to describe the prehistory and early history of Social Democracy, he says nothing about the political debacle brought about by the party in Germany in the years after the First World War. We see August Bebel in his green turner’s apron, and “Ede” Bernstein, and we are told that Willy Brandt now owns the watch that once belonged to the first party leader and that it is still in working order, details conveying a pleasing air of family solidarity with the representatives of an upright past, but we hear nothing of Ebert and Noske, to name just two of the less glorious figures.*

  Nor is it explained to a younger generation of readers how a country which, in the late nineteenth century, produced the strongest and best-organized of all Socialist movements, came to fall into the arms of Fascism twenty to thirty years later. As Grass presents it, the historical background of Social Democracy is underexposed, merely adorned for effect with a few picturesque details and brave figures such as that of the upright Bebel traveling illegally through the country and setting the comrades an example under the anti-Socialist laws, thus of course helping the campaign of the new pioneers of Social Democracy to appear in a somewhat heroic light.

  From time to time a sense of fraternity in a common cause spreads among the generation of “quadragenarians” who hope for a new political dawn and who, Grass thinks, “seem to be trying to compensate by overproduction for the reduced achievement of a few decimated war years.”25 The reader almost feels that the author finds absolution for what still irks him about the German past, although he knows himself innocent of it, in his practical commitment to a better German political system, and that only in active politics and the hectic haste of traveling—identified by Böll in his Frankfurt Lectures as a particularly German form of desperation—can he keep a little way ahead of those resolute, monosyllabic snails Guilt and Shame.26

  Dürer’s Melancholy

  If the political activity in which, as Grass constantly emphasizes, he sees something more real than the construction of utopian plans, thus succeeds in warding off a despair that is moving in itself, then Dürer’s Melancholia has made her way into his traveling bag as fellow traveller and angel of his guilty conscience.

  That monstrous lady, in whom a dog lies buried, and whose draped garment covers the stench of the whole country, “with clammy fingers … holds the compass and cannot close the circle,” probably because—like the author himself—she is concerned, over and above the present task, with the problem of squaring morality implied by the question of whether by writing, and thus representing everyone else who does not write, he cannot make a contribution to the therapy of the nation, rather as Doubt cures his cold Lisbeth by the application of an “unidentified slug.”27 The black gall or bile that this curiosity of nature magically draws out of the depressive Lisbeth was, as Grass reminds us, still current in the sixteenth century as a synonym for the ink with which the writer draws his circles. However, a writer who uses black bile as a medium for creative work risks taking on the misunderstood depression of those for whom he writes.

  The further course of Doubt’s story illustrates this very forcefully. After he has proved “that melancholia is curable”—by means of a suction slug—the author condemns him to twelve years in a mental hospital where he lives forgotten, “muttering over the jumbled handwriting on his papers” until, we do not know how, he himself is cured and finds a niche as a cultural affairs official in Kassel in West Germany.28

  If we ignore this too optimistic turn in the plot, the story tells us that in the social system of the division of labor it is the writer squaring morality who overcomes the collective conscience and, like Dürer in his self-portrait (cited in Grass’s text), points his right finger to the site of illness in his pen and ink drawing, adding the words: “Where the yellow spot is and where the finger is pointing, that is where it hurts.”29

  In choosing Dürer’s demonstration of suffering as the emblem of his own philosophy of mourning, Grass transcends the question of whether melancholy is a constitutional or a reactive condition, a question that ultimately cannot be clinically determined. It may be true that the chronicle of Grass’s journey through Germany would have been a far less intelligent book without that contrapuntal excursus into mourning, but it is equally true that there is something laboriously constructed about the excursus, making it rather like the performance of a historical duty.

  III. WOLFGANG HILDESHEIMER: TYNSET

  In contrast, Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s novel Tynset, which has had nothing like the attention and recognition that its inherent qualities should receive, seems to have been created from the heart of mourning itself.

  The Anonymous Voice of Conscience

  The story of the first-person narrator of this lengthy monologue, who is tormented by insomnia and melancholy and is never clearly perceived as a character, only as a voice, begins at a time (somewhere in the postwar years) when he was still trying to live in Germany, “where the superannuated and retired criminals, now too old for prosecution” appear to lead their lives unchallenged “among their children, their in-laws, and their grandchildren.”30 Uneasy and disturbed by what he, like Hamlet, recognizes as a state of unsanctified legitimacy, the nameless narrator, who likes to leaf through telephone directories at night, cannot resist the temptation to pursue the sense of complicity and fellow-traveling that lurks hidden everywhere in the country. First at random, then more systematically following the trails that emerge from his random samples, he conveys to a series of upright fellow citizens the information that all is discovered, causing those who receive so urgent a message to leave home in haste, perhaps with a violin case under the arm, and disappear over the horizon like Kleist’s corrupt village judge Adam after the identity of the person who broke the jug has been revealed.

  In pursuing these activities the narrator, almost by chance, becomes an anonymous arbiter of conscience to his guilt-ridden contemporaries, a role that he adopts almost playfully, and not without relishing the grotesque comedy he has set in motion, until his hypersensitive ear, which picks up the slightest sound, one day hears the telltale crackle on his own telephone, and he knows that his own experimental system of persecution has turned against him.

  Nights Like Hamlet’s

  At this he acutely feels “the fear of the silence of the nights in which those beings that know no fear are at work,” and he decides to escape it by moving “to another country.”31 This other country, from which he now continues his narrative, can be identified as a remote region of the Alps but remains, for the reader, as anonymous and undiscovered as the figure of the narrator himself; in the further course of the story, indeed, it turns out to be that bourne from which, as Hamlet knows, no traveler returns, and is thus a metaphor of exile and death. The protagonist, now living there in deep distress, speaks to us from the fixed abode of melancholy which he roams by night, entangled in the inescapable associations of a terrifying past, which lies in wait for him on the stairs in the shape of Hamlet’s father. But having understood the dialectic of victim and persecutor by me
ans of his own experiment, he rejects the ghost’s request for revenge, the better to preserve his awareness of his own innocence. He now uses the telephone with which he woke the guilty from sleep in Germany merely “to listen, sometimes to listen only to the humming silence, the one sound made by passing time.”32

  Moving on under the eye of Hamlet’s father, who is waiting to grasp his little finger and then his whole hand, the narrator remembers his own father, “killed by good Christian family men from Vienna or the Westerwald,” who does not stand on the stairs “looking for means of revenge.”33 However, his own renunciation of revenge in emulation of this absent example does not exorcise the poor souls who walk by night, and he listens as intently and with as much longing for the crowing of the cocks as the Danish watchmen at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, for as everyone knows ghosts do not vanish until cockcrow.

  But the narrator of Tynset is denied the pious Christian hope articulated in Hamlet—“It faded on the crowing of the cock. / Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / The bird of dawning singeth all night long”—bringing the prospect of final liberation from the nightmare of the past by salvation.34 Indeed, the Christian idea of hope seems to be finally discredited by the alcoholic misery of the housekeeper Celestina, who seeks absolution from the narrator in one of the many nocturnal scenes, by the figure of the Chicago evangelist Wesley B. Prosniczer, who also visits him unasked and later finds a cold grave in a snowdrift, and by a 1961 press cutting describing a defense minister about to kiss the ring on the hand that is offered to him by a cardinal. The crowing of the cock, then, does not here promise the dawning of a new day in any higher sense, merely a brief respite from the coming of the next of the many nights still to be endured, nights which—as Kafka noted—are divided into phases of waking and sleeplessness.35

 
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