I don’t wish to appear as an elitist—and I am more than happy to admit my fondness for heavy metal music, horror movies and very bad TV—but I also can’t deny feeling very anxious at one of the transit areas of the Charles de Gaulle Airport about 24 hours ago, after realising that most of the bookshops at the main airport of one of the world’s indisputable literary centres boast piles of Fifty Shades of Grey (in English and in French) alongside aisles of self-help wickedness and trauma-inducing tomes on business and money.
I had already read the book that I had brought with me for the trip—Francis Wheen’s very entertaining biography of Marx—and was desperate to alleviate the harrowing boredom of my long return flight back to Melbourne (which was lengthened thanks to Air France pilots’ strike or, more precisely, thanks to the precarious conditions that have resulted in their strike). Determined that I would rather watch re-runs of The Office and play Pac-Man on the in-flight entertainment system than waste my remaining euros on books that I am more or less allergic to, I had decided to blow the above-mentioned euros on an outrageously overpriced café au lait, before coming across one more bookstore/gift shop/Eiffel Tower paraphernalia dispensary. And here I found, to my immense surprise, an affordable (English) copy of Günter Grass’s infamous political novel, The Tin Drum.
The rather whimsical and possibly verbose style of the above paragraphs is a testimony to the immediate effect that the German novelist’s work seems to have had on me. While I don’t think Grass’s prose (or, more precisely, the English translation provided by Breon Mitchell) is either whimsical or long-winded—satirical and penetrating would be more suitable descriptors—it is also clear that Grass’s narrator, unlike the narrators of so many of today’s literary novels, doesn’t give a damn about the modern sacred cow of show, don’t tell.
This 1959 classic of post-WWII European literature is unapologetically over the top, brilliantly sordid and gloriously immature. And it is totally addictive. I continued reading it during my final stopover in Singapore, on the bus from Melbourne airport to Southern Cross Station and on the train from there to the Melbourne suburb where I live. And it is not only Grass’s style which makes me very much look forward to finishing writing this blog and returning to the bizarre misadventures of Oskar Matzerath tonight. The book’s thoroughly gripping depiction of a society descending into fascism and war, and the fusion of this depiction with absurdly imaginative, wonderfully ridiculous pseudo-supernatural motifs make it far more compelling than a mere attempt at originality. This novel is neither a yawn-inducing, self-important cornerstone of literary heritage—despite more or less earning its author a Nobel Prize in Literature—nor an overhyped instance of postmodernist silliness. It is, simply put, a singular, extraordinary work of art.
I’m glad that I hardly remember any of Volker Schlöndorff’s Oscar-winning 1979 adaptation, which I saw on SBS sometime in the 1990s. Mental references to that film would perhaps excessively affect and probably dilute my appreciation of the book, in the same way that reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after seeing Schlöndorff’s film version influenced my perception of the novel’s scenes and protagonists whilst reading it. I’m also glad to be reading The Tin Drum after having read so many other novels which could be reasonably described as impossible without Grass’s precedent. I am now convinced that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is far more influenced by The Tin Drum than by anything written by the late Gabriel García Márquez. One can also hear the rhythm of Oskar’s drum in the narratives and tragicomical pathos of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as noted here. There’s indeed every possibility that I myself may attempt my own version of a novel fusing history and hyperbole, with a highly idiosyncratic, obsessive protagonist named Oskar/Oscar, once I’ve finished The Tin Drum.
Another book that I’m also currently reading is another major German work which contemplates Nazism, albeit from a philosophical perspective, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/47). I have read sections of this very important work before and have read a great deal of Adorno’s other writings and, having come across a cheap secondhand version of Dialectic recently, I decided that it was time for me to read it in its entirety. The argument of this highly influential—and, it seems, often misunderstood—critique of rationalism is developed slowly and unflinchingly. I am also reading the superb current issue (No. 131) of the Melbourne-based political and cultural magazine Arena (in which, I must declare, I have a piece) and I have enjoyed this issue’s fascinating articles on surrogacy and doping in sport, among others.
I also had the chance to read a couple of very provocative pieces—one on the connection between capitalism, the internet and mental disorder, and the other a manifesto on feminism and animalism—in the weekend 27-28 September issue of the French newspaper Libération. Finally, it was a pleasure to read Irvine Welsh’s thoughts on the Scottish independence vote in the current Guardian Weekly. But I suspect I won’t be reading much more news and newspaper commentary until I’ve finished The Tin Drum. Facts can be stranger than fiction—and in Grass’s novel, fiction becomes more urgent than facts.
Ali Alizadeh is a Melbourne-based writer and a lecturer in creative writing and literary studies at Monash University. His latest book is the work of fiction, Transactions. He is currently writing, with Justin Clemens, a book on myth and truth in contemporary Australian poetry, as well as a novel about Joan of Arc.