Posts Tagged ‘Gunter Grass’

Nothing new under the sun…

November 20, 2017

When are our tastes in literature shaped and formed?

I wrote recently about the phenomenon of older men reading less fiction, and the other day found myself discussing with my daughter the fact that I was not really that interested in much of what was being written now, or indeed films that were being released now, whereas in my student days I had been an avid reader of fiction and an avid film-goer. And we got on to thinking about how early on in life our tastes seem to be shaped and formed. It was interesting to find someone of a different generation in broad agreement with me, and I pondered things further…

I first met Sherlock Holmes, in print and on the wireless, at age seven. I’ve liked detective fiction – or a certain range of it – ever since; I’ve written else where in this blog about my enjoyment of Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters, Josef Skvorecky and others, too, no doubt.

I also first came across science fiction in my younger years, in the junior section of Stamford Public Library when I found the Lost Planet series, by Angus MacVicar. The premise was bonkers, as I recall, visiting a planet that had an orbit somewhat resembling that of a comet so that eventually it would be unreachable from earth, but the notion that there could be life elsewhere, and reachable from earth, stuck with me. As a student I became aware of science fiction with a political and social message, read lots and ended up researching and writing both an MA dissertation and an MPhil thesis on it. And I still keep an eye on what’s being written now, though I read very little of it.

About ten or fifteen years ago, there was a major shift in my reading habits as I began to explore all kinds of travel writing, and you don’t have to look very far in this blog to see how often I’ve written about it. I though this might be an example of a new direction in my reading, until I recall the voraciousness with which I tracked down and read every single book in the Young Traveller series in the local library. Again, a simple and repetitive premise which appeals to younger readers: a family travels – using some vague and largely irrelevant excuse – to a country, meets and converses with people, experiences local customs and food, visits important tourist attractions, all suitably sanitised for a readership of children.

I’ve always read a lot of fiction from other countries, mainly European, but do cast my net more widely. And I remembered friends at boarding school who pointed me at writers like Sartre and Günter Grass, and realised that here was yet another shaping of my literary tastes. Obviously when at university studying French Literature, my outlook broadened further.

So I have found myself wondering – is there anything I’ve acquired a taste for more recently, as in, since my student days of forty years ago? If there is, when I remember, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m struck by just how much the tastes and interests of one’s life are laid down at a pretty early stage…

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On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On re-reading

April 11, 2017

I know there are people who never read a book twice; I’ve never been able to understand why, since, if I’ve really enjoyed a book, I always want to come back to it again and again. We often used to discuss this in class at school, and I was happy that most students would agree with me; they also liked to return to a story once enjoyed, and when we looked more deeply, we found ourselves agreeing on the reasons why, too.

I think most of us would probably accept that on a first reading, it’s the plot that we are most interested in, and depending on how gripping or exciting it is, we perhaps find the pace of our reading increasing, and our attention to other details falling off. And, although I find I can forget quite a lot of the details of a plot, depending on how much time has elapsed since I read a particular book, I never forget everything; there has to be something left in my memory to trigger the pleasurable memory that drives me to eventually pick the book up again.

Second time around then, plot isn’t so important, and I can focus more closely on a different aspect: perhaps development of character, or the writer’s intentions, or her/his use of language; there will be something else to hold me as I relive that first pleasurable reading. And the same will be true in subsequent re-reads. My favourite novels have been re-read up to half a dozen times, I think – certainly Jane Austen, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in my science fiction collection, the novels of Philip Dick and Ursula Le Guin. Philip Pullman is catching up with them…

These well-loved books sit on the shelves in and among less-popular tomes; sometimes they are replacement copies because my first one has actually worn out and fallen to bits. But what actually triggers a re-read? Sometimes it’s a conversation – perhaps some aspect of Jane Austen’s work comes up, or we watch a film of one of the novels, and it will come to me that it’s several years since I last read a particular book, so I pick it out and read it. Sometimes I’ll be in a certain mood and feel a need for some science fiction, and go and pick out three or four Philip Dick novels – I rarely read only one when I go back to him. I may be gazing vaguely at the shelves when something will suddenly strike my eye. One novel may suggest another: I certainly find it difficult to have a plan of what books I’m planning to read over a certain period of time. Something else will always push itself in… There are some novels that do feel like old friends, needing to be visited every now and then, and there are others which are like nurses and come to look after me when I’m under the weather.

The other side of the coin, of course, is those novels that have been read once and put back on the shelves with the thought, “I’d like to re-read that one day…” and that day never comes; after some years I will realise that the moment has past, that I don’t actually want to read it again, and if I have the self-discipline at the time, I’ll put it on the pile to donate to the next Amnesty International book sale. And don’t mention the books that I’ve bought thinking, “That will be a good read one day…”. They sit there, calling and reproaching, elbowed aside by something else.

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

My travels: G for Gdansk

January 19, 2017

Gdansk is probably one of my most favourite cities anywhere. I first went there on my very first visit to Poland at the age of fifteen, so way back in the days of the communist People’s Republic; this was also round about the time when I first came across it as the setting for Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, in its pre-war incarnation as the Free City of Danzig.

It’s a coastal city and major port, on the mouth of the Vistula river, with a beautiful historic centre, featuring many gates, towers, streets of merchants’ houses, mills and of course, churches, including St Mary’s, which counts as one of the largest – if not the largest – brick Gothic churches in the world: it really is colossal, both from the outside and within. One of the things of which I’ve learnt in my travels around northern Poland is the brick Gothic church trail, which stretches all the way from Belgium to Russia: in England there were copious supplies of stone to be quarried for church-building in mediaeval times, but in northern Europe there weren’t, and so bricks had to be used; coming from England one perhaps has the impression that basic brick is a fairly ugly, utilitarian or pedestrian material from which to build a place to the glory of God, but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and there is actually an incredible wealth of really beautiful churches to be seen…

Gdansk is now also home to its very own Shakespeare Theatre and annual festival: apparently, in Shakespeare’s time, when the London theatres were closed by the plague, as they often were, Shakespeare’s company visited Gdansk and performed there a number of times, although there is no record that the dramatist himself ever went with them. And following in the footsteps of London’s Globe Theatre, the Poles recently succeeded in completing their own tribute to those times.

Why do I like it so much? It’s a walker’s city, with beautiful views along and across its many waterways which give that part of it a very spacious feel; strolling down the streets of merchants’ houses there is so much to see in the architecture and decoration – all the buildings are painted; it’s a city full of history and monuments. There is the famous Polish Post Office, which held out at the start of the Second World War and is immortalised in Grass’ novel, the site at Westerplatte where the Polish garrison withstood German fire for days that September, and of course the famous shipyards that were the site of the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s. There are also a couple of excellent micro-breweries.

It was Grass’ novel which fed my interest in the city over the years. The Tin Drum, and its sequels Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, are rooted in the past incarnation of the city as much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Edwardian Dublin. The Free City of Danzig, created by the treaties at the end of the Great War, lay at the mouth of the mighty Vistula river and on the edge of the infamous Polish Corridor, which granted the new nation access to the sea. You can follow the adventures of Oscar Matzerath and his family and acquaintances on a pre-war map; although the city had to be rebuilt post-1945 and all its streets, places and monuments acquired Polish names, these are for the most part the exact counterparts of their pre-war names; the city was both German and Polish, and in some ways Grass’ novels are as much of an elegy to a lost world as are novels like Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Roth’s The Radetzky March. Today’s citizens of Gdansk realise that Grass is an asset for the tourist trail; there is a Tin Drum restaurant, and various places associated with Grass’ childhood are marked out for the visitor.

It is a wonderful place, one to which I hope to return again and to spend more time exploring.

Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

My A-Z of reading: F is for Film

October 27, 2016

Novels get made into films. Sometimes we like the film version of a book we know well, sometimes it’s awful. But how much thought do you give to the transformation that takes place? The two media are so radically different. The printed text relies on verbal description to create place, setting, atmosphere: a film can do this in seconds, perhaps much more effectively, with added music and sound effects. A novel can take us deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts: how do you do this in a film? And what difference does any of this make, anyway?

I’ll start with Jane Austen. Her novels have been filmed numerous times, for the cinema, and as series for television. And here we find another difference: a film has a relatively fixed time duration – let’s say from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. A TV series could easily be twice as long. What is left in, and what is cut? Again, how does this affect the story – when does it cease to be the Jane Austen novel we know and love, and become something else? Film can do the settings, the houses, the costumes and the looks and interaction between the characters, but what about the thoughts, what about the irony, the subtle authorial interventions? These are lost. Some may be hinted at or suggested through refashioning dialogue, but… And what about the invented moments, Colin Firth‘s famous wet and clinging shirt in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, or the kiss at the end of Persuasion. These things may look good on screen, but are they not also doing violence to the original? No, a film is always a version of the original…

I have always liked the film of The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery works as William of Baskerville. The locations and the use of light create a very effective sense of atmosphere; the library is superb and the apocalyptic ending is marvellously done. And yet, only after watching it is it possible to grasp how much of Eco’s superb novel is missing: the stunning erudition, the theology, Adso’s reflections. The film is faithful to the original, but only so far. Similarly, Gunter Grass’ pre-war Danzig is superbly recreated, both visually and atmospherically by Volker Schlondorf in his film of The Tin Drum: the subtly growing Nazi menace creeps up on everyone, and we are not spared the horrors, but the film is only half the novel. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that it’s the better half, my point is, it’s hardly Grass’ novel!

There are more film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes than you can shake a stick at. Some are passable, some truly dire, some hardly Holmes at all, but I’m of the generation that was captivated by Jeremy Brett’s mannered performances in the 1980s for Granada TV. Fantastic attention to period detail, some re-arrangement of plots for dramatic effect, but fidelity to Conan Doyle’s original is perhaps easier to achieve when we’re (only) dealing with short, detective stories.

I have singularly failed to watch Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird. We set out to watch it in class one day, but found the opening so crass, so clumsy and so unconvincing after our reading of the novel that the class virtually booed it off-screen: I stopped the video after about fifteen minutes and we gave up… It was instructive to watch and compare the two versions of Lord of the Flies: the aged black and white version made with non-actors that was so faithful to the original yet so ineffective twenty years after it was made, and the horrendous ‘updated’ US version with swearing, rewritten plot and so many other pointless alterations bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Perhaps the most successful – or do I mean accurate? – film version of a novel that I can recall is Richard Burton’s last role as O’Brien in 1984, and John Hurt’s superb performance as Winston. Orwell’s vision of London is visualised stunningly effectively, apart from the smells, of course, which Orwell himself was only able to describe in the original. Fear, paranoia, menace all loom out of the screen; even excerpts from Goldstein’s book – often skimmed by reluctant readers – are read into the film. Brilliant; closest to being a film of the novel rather than a version of it. Unless you know better?

Siegfried Lenz: The German Lesson

October 21, 2016

41ufinpue1l-_ac_us160_A chance, passing reference somewhere recently sent me back to this novel, which I haven’t read for more than twenty years. I was instantly reminded of Günter GrassThe Tin Drum, a comparison which I don’t think had occurred to me on previous readings, and which got me thinking. Along with Heinrich Böll, these are three writers particularly associated with German attempts to reconnect with a sense of conscience and morality as they explore the cesspool of Nazism and its effect on the German people in various ways. It’s easy for a non-German to call this a necessary task; it’s certainly an incredibly difficult one, and I have a certain admiration for those who have persisted over the years.

Grass and Lenz share the fact that they originate from territories the Germans lost at the end of the war: Grass’ hometown of Danzig, an international city, has become Gdansk, in Poland, and Lenz’s hometown Lyck is now Elk in the Masurian region of Poland. The rights and wrongs of this ethnic cleansing are far too complex to elucidate here.

The setting of The German Lesson is Schleswig-Holstein, the area around the town of Husum near the border with Denmark, and gives the novel a far bleaker feel than Grass’ novels: small settlements and flat wind-swept coastlines are no match for the international and multiracial city of Oskar Mazerath’s story. Grass’ novel is narrated by a boy/man who is the inmate of an asylum; Lenz’s narrator is a juvenile delinquent incarcerated in an institution. It’s interesting that those who were children in the Nazi-time are not able to become ‘normal’ functioning adults – even Grass himself kept his forced membership (he was 14 at the time) of the SS a secret almost until his death, to the shock and horror of many.

Siggi’s father is a village policman given the task of monitoring a painter who has fallen foul of the Nazi authorities and been banned from painting; he takes this duty very seriously, obsessively even. He is a very strict father, and his wife a taciturn and sour woman; they make their children’s lives hell, imposing senseless rules and vicious punishments; in the end the children are desperate to escape. The elder son shoots himself in the arm to avoid military service and is repudiated by his parents, cast out from the family never to be mentioned and when he turns up back at the family home, having been seriously injured in an air attack, they turn him in. Siggi begins to take and secrete paintings to save them from his father, who, even after the end of the war, does not give up the task he was set by the Nazi authorities…

Lenz puts the idea of duty under the microscope. We see Siggi’s father’s idiotic and overbearing sense of it poisoning all family relationships and friendships, tipping him into mania. Max, the painter, sustains his duty to his art through a series of invisible paintings in a cat-and-mouse game with the policeman, that we aren’t always invited to approve of, I think. And Siggi the delinquent is punished for not writing his essay on the joys of duty by the prison governor, at which point he makes it his duty to explain himself – through the novel, demonstrating a similar, if less harmful (?) obsessiveness to his father.

It’s a far more pessimistic novel than I remember: Siggi the delinquent cannot live a straight life though he may wish to, and has nothing to look forward to outside the juvenile offenders’ institution; can he even have a clear picture of what an ordinary life might be? Irrevocably shaped – perverted and twisted by his father, and equally, though with out violence and horror, cajoled and patronised into accepting another duty by the governor – what chance has he?

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

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