The Flounder

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094

Before Günter Grass’s latest novel appeared in Germany in 1977, it had raised great expectation among critics and readers. The author had been at work on it for five years and had promised it for the celebration of his own fiftieth birthday in November of that year. Enough information about the book had been released to whet the appetite of the reading public. When it did appear, it without a doubt disappointed some, but also fascinated many others; and soon it was a best seller and a favorite topic of conversation among German readers.

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In this novel Grass—if possible—outdoes himself in his natural propensity for shocking the bourgeoisie. All taboos are lifted. The novel is definitely bawdy, scurrilous, gross; and yet it is fascinating, captivating, and challenging. Unfortunately the novel loses some of its immediate appeal in the English translation. Grass’s language is earthy, sensual, and very rich. By his choice of words, the author plays on all the reader’s senses; he creates associations which are revealing and contribute to the understanding of the novel but which also may be strikingly funny. In this respect Grass’s imagination knows no limit, and there is little doubt that some of these delightful expressions are of Grass’s coinage. The visual image and the intimacy of embrace are heightened by substituting, for the common German word for “to embrace” umarmen (to put arms around), his own umbeinen (to put legs around). When the flounder is originally caught, he informs the fisherman-narrator in his early know-it-all manner that he has prepared himself for this event by learning the dialect of the Baltic coast. This, the flounder explains, was not too difficult since what is spoken there seems at best a wretched Gemaule (a low animalistic form of language; Maul is the mouth of an animal). In the English edition this word is translated as “stammering,” thus suggesting nothing but the most basic meaning. What has happened to the reader’s delight in seeing something expressed as it has never been expressed before? What has happened to the pun, the humorous twist, of hearing from the mouth of the high and mighty flounder, an animal, a term intended to show his disdain for the people of the region, but which at the same time makes them his equal?

All too often this richness of Grass’s language is lost, either as described above, or through a circumlocution which lacks all the newness and the pointed ready wit of the German original. A beautiful coinage like Fürund-fürsorge (für und für is of course “for ever and ever”; Fürsorge is “provision,” “care,” but also suggests social welfare) becomes “perpetuation of loving care,” and loses in English its stunning newness as well as its cynical implications. This also happens when very earthy expressions are translated by overly scientific terms, as, for example, “incarnation” for Fleischwerdung (becoming flesh). Here the associations with food, gluttony, and cooks and their dealings with flesh are lost. But even with these weaknesses of translation, The Flounder is a fascinating book which will intrigue the American reader as it does the German.

The novel gets its name from the legendary talking flounder which in the Grimm brothers’ tale is caught and released by a simple fisherman after it informs him that it can and will grant his wishes. When the fisherman’s wife, Ilsebill, hears of the catch, she sends her feeble husband back to the water to relay her ever-increasing demands: first for a cottage, then a castle, then a kingdom, and even elevation to the papacy. When she finally demands control of the sun and the moon, the flounder draws the line and returns the couple to the hovel they had lived in to begin with.

In the novel this misogynistic fairy tale is retold with variations and ostensible corrections. The flounder is caught again by three women and tried in a feminist court for having enticed the male to break away from matriarchy and advised him through the ages in his quest for superiority over women.

Parallel to and closely interwoven with the court action runs the narrator’s story told to his wife, Ilsebill, during the time of her pregnancy. The historic span of this narration reaches from the Neolithic age to our time—or, more specifically, to a 1970 dockworkers’ strike in the author’s native city of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Within this time frame the narrator moves with ease since he is equally well at home in all ages, having lived through them all in some male incarnation or other.

The incidents related always center around a woman, beginning with the arch-archetype of the matriarch, Awa, who has three breasts and who satisfies man’s every physical need, thus keeping him in the mental state of suckling infant. This prevents him from dreaming and yearning and robs him of the initiative to bring about change. It takes the flounder centuries of prodding before the man makes even as much as a quickly aborted attempt to free himself. He decides to follow the Goths as they move south from the Baltic coast, but quickly has enough of the unknown and returns to the matriarch’s breast. But slowly the age of myth is left behind, the age in which nothing beyond the number three, the number of Awa’s breasts, is quantified, and in which the individual is of no significance and no single deed is deserving of recognition. The heroic age begins, the age of the male principle, of change, of progress, and of wars.

Now the narrator is often incarnate in some historic person, a fact which adds an additional dimension to the novel. The reader gains the feeling of being made privy to personal information about historic figures. Memorable are the descriptions of a fictional meeting between Martin Opitz and Andreas Gryphius, as well as the story of how the miserly and pedantic Martin Opitz attracts the plague by giving a beggar a silver coin and demanding change.

It is significant that almost all male persons in the novel have some historic authenticity, starting with Bishop Adalbert and continuing on to Willy Brandt. This is not the case with most of the women characters. Nevertheless, it is the woman who stands out in the novel as the pillar of society. She is, with exception of some of the “new women” on the “Womenal,” the feminist court, of almost mythical dimensions, overshadowing everything and everybody else during the age in which she reigns as cook. The contemporary Ilsebill is described as landscape and in terms normally associated with descriptions of nature. This endows her with dimensions which are otherwise not as obvious in her as in her predecessors. The women have permanency and it is not unusual that one cook outlives two or more incarnations of the male narrator. While the narrator may be split up into several personalities simultaneously, as, for example, Friedrich Batholdy, Pastor Bleck, and Jean Rapp, the women are unique. Although they do not make history that is recorded in books, each age within the novel is determined by and gets its special characteristics from the heroines.

The portrayal of women is not all positive—nothing is in this novel. The early matriarchs were reactionary, forbidding things new, and thus retarding artistic production and technical progress. Initially man is prevented from quantifying anything beyond the number three, the number of Awa’s breasts. Later that is extended to 111, the number of dimples on Awa’s body. Men originally are refused permission to traffic in metal objects, but before having all such objects destroyed, the matriarch herself hides away a kitchen knife for use in her cooking.

The imagination and creativity of women become apparent primarily in what they do to satisfy man’s physical needs. When it comes to cooking or supplying food, their imagination and resourcefulness are limitless. The recipes and descriptions of food preparations show never-ending innovation. Awa teaches man to fish and invents the cooking spit; Wigga plants and hybridizes beets; it is Amanda Woyke who introduces the potato into Prussia. Amanda not only develops the innumerable recipes for utilization of the potato but supervises the growth of potatoes throughout northern Europe. Naturally her singular efforts at providing food during a time of need are not recorded in the history books. This honor goes to Count Rumford, with whom Amanda corresponded.

When women leave cooking pots and beds and reject their traditional roles, they become unlikable, as evidenced to a degree by Dorothea of Montau and then by the feminists Maxie, Frankie, and Siggie, the lesbians who catch the flounder in modern times and bring it before the “Womenal.” These three, who think of themselves as the “new sex,” encompass all the negative elements of the male psyche. But when their male mania is driven to its extreme at the Father’s Day festivities and they successively rape the Awa-type woman, Billy, men immediately demonstrate that they can behave in an even more dastardly fashion. The technology that has supplied Maxie, Frankie, and Siggie with plastic penises has also provided man with artificial extensions of his sexual organ, in this case motorcycles. With their cycles the Black Angel gang repeatedly ram and kill Billy, who has just escaped her earlier tormentors. Thus even the most dismal portrayal of women is topped by an even more derogatory statement about men.

Günter Grass has been accused of jumping on the bandwagon of the feminist movement with this novel. He has also been accused of male chauvinism, and the German feminist publication, Emma, designated him as “Pasha of the Month” when the novel first appeared in Germany. Such criticism is superficial and leads nowhere since it is as easy to prove that the author favors one side as the other; indeed, it is obvious that neither the male nor the female principle, as the flounder expounds them, would lead to the salvation of the world. The final scene of the novel is not very promising. The woman, Maria, confers at length with the flounder, which again has been released into the Baltic Sea. When she emerges from the water, it is not Maria but all women or womankind which takes on mythical proportions and overlooks and oversteps the male, who is lying spent on the beach. As she walks off in her new majesty, he humbly follows. We know what the flounder’s one-sided counsel of the male has led to. In the novel we are given no indication that his jumping the fence to throw his support to the other side is going to be any better. Therefore, this last scene seems to indicate a repetition of history instead of a new beginning.

What, then, is the thrust of the novel? While From the Diary of a Snail and Local Anesthetic show definite tendencies, The Flounder seems to avoid that, and this may be its strength. The growing didacticism and moral and political fervor in Grass’s works from The Tin Drum to From the Diary of a Snail are paralleled by a loss of vigor and dynamics in the narration. Whatever has been said in praise of Grass’s prose style in The Tin Drum—it has been called vitalistic, sensual, visual, and effervescent—is true for The Flounder as well; and that is very important. It is the vitality in the smallest structural components of the novel—the word, the sentence, the image—which counterbalances the lack of dynamics in the overall structure of the novel. There is no simple narrative development, beginning with the Neolithic age and continuing up through history to the present. A linear concept is missing both with respect to time and space. Everybody and everything are interrelated and interdependent. This is structurally illustrated by having the first and the last incarnation of Ilsebill appear contemporaneously with all other incarnations, and by the breakdown of the traditional distinction between past and present, before and after. The special interrelationship is, among other things, shown by some seemingly superfluous passages, such as the Calcutta chapter. The repetitiveness and “static” caused by this method would become tedious were it not for the vitality of the language and for the insertion of some fifty passages of poetry. These poetic summaries or comments at the end of most of the chapters are pointed and witty and provide relief for the reader in breaking the voluminous flow of the sixty-some episodes of the book.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass, 1985.

Hunt, Irmgard Elsner. Mutter und Muttermythose in Günter Grass’ Roman “Der Butt,” 1983.

Keele, Alan Frank. Understanding Günter Grass, 1987.

Mews, Siegfried. “The Fisherman and His Wife”: Günter Grass’s “The Flounder” in Critical Perspective, 1983.

Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. Adventures of a Flounder: Critical Essays on Günter Grass’s “Der Butt,” 1982.

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Critical Essays