The Meeting at Telgte
“I,” the narrator
At a recent writers’ conference, a literary agent was asked about the gap between copies of a book sold and copies actually read. The agent replied that he did not know and did not care. In the case of The Meeting at Telgte, readers encountering Günter Grass for the first time (and some readers of his previous big books) are likely to feel put upon, and this little book will make a quick trip from coffee table to attic.
The potential readership of Grass’s new novel is broader than one might expect from the subject matter: a fictional conference of the actual leading German writers of 1647. Those familiar with this period in German history and literature will receive the maximum value from this book. The information in the Afterword and other appendices will refresh memories but will not provide remedial education.
Most helpfully, the Afterword puts this novel in the context of Grass’s life and work. This 1674 conference exists in parallel with a real conference in 1947 convened by Hans Werner Richter. The question of what German writers could do for a troubled Germany was more positively answered in 1947 and launched Grass’s own career.
The broadest base of readers who will understand and be entertained by this novel consists of writers and scholars who will experience a peculiar déja vu. If it is Grass’s joke that writers and scholars are the same through the ages, it is also true that Germany has so insidiously shaped learned societies throughout the Western world, especially literary societies, that the agenda, paper topics, and problems of Grass’s imaginary conference in 1647 are strikingly similar to those of the annual Modern Language Association convention and practically any regional or local gathering of English teachers on “creative writers.”
The initial problem of the conference is raising travel expenses. Comic relief is provided by the bungling of the “arrangements committee.” The conference begins with tributes to departed colleagues and papers on linguistics and rhetoric. The first day ends with the more staid types going to bed early, a few seeking sex, the majority spending the night with drink, bawdy wit, and gossip. Events in the real world become matters for assimilation into scholarly consideration. The relations between music and literature are explored and dull details about travel to and from the conference fill the leisure time. Various manifestos on politics and literature are debated. “Natural art” and artificial art are compared. The arrangers come into ethical conflict with the fund raisers over the big banquet. The conference site burns to the ground. This is the...
(The entire section is 1112 words.)