"The Flounder" by Gunter Grass (1977)
"Don't worry, Ilsebill. Naturally the flatfish recovered. And the trial took its course. Further quotations from letters were admitted as evidence. The recipe for Rumford soup for the poor was read: 'Dried peas, barley, and potatoes are boiled for two and a half hours until they form a mash; then soured beer is stirred in; then diced stale bread is fried crisp in beef fat and added; then the whole is seasoned with salt.' Amanda's violent reaction to this mushy perversion of her potato soup was quoted: 'I wouldn't feed such pap to the Devil himself.'"
Gunter Grass is a German novelist. He is perhaps best known for The Tin Drum, his novel about life in Germany under the Nazis. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999.
The Flounder explores the battle of the sexes from three perspectives. One of these perspectives could be described as that of the author, or the protagonist, or the male principle. Another perspective could be described as that of the author's wife, or various women acquainted with the protagonist, or the female principle. The third perspective is that of The Flounder, a talking fish that has appeared during crucial moments in human history, to the advantage of either the male or female members of the species.
Beyond the above, the story is hard to reduce to essentials. It encompasses the whole of human history right back to the Ice Age, and traces the slow decline of mother goddess worship in favor of later male deities and Western rationalism. It is also framed as the feminists' staging of The Flounder's trial, in which they attempt to pass judgment on his previous actions, and how they may or may not have benefited womankind. It is also the story of several women, and their struggles for freedom from male oppression. As a story The Flounder tries to do a lot of things, and in the midst of these things it describes outmoded recipes, antiquated religious debates, and political problems that few bother with anymore.
In keeping with the plot, the characters which populate this novel are also difficult to define. Often they are doppelgangers for one another, or for a larger male or female principle. This is especially true for the female characters - for although they are described in more detail, they are also left more ambiguous. Their motives are questioned, and their role in various affairs is debated at length.
As Literature goes, this about as heavy going - and as German - as you can get. It's very much in the high intellectual tradition of books like The Magic Mountain and Magister Ludi, though it contains an element of ridiculousness that works by Mann and Hesse lack. But for all its attempted playfulness it's just as difficult to get through, and in terms of thematic material it's equally pretentious. It lacks the humanity - and maybe also the humility - that made The Tin Drum so good. It's almost as if Grass were attempting to make up for what he regarded as earlier, less mature, less philosophically sound novels, and was in their place offering The Flounder as his own summa germannica.
I should add that I agree with some feminist critiques of this book. Many critics have argued that women are objectified in this book, and I think that this is to some extent true. The female characters in this book are strict reactionaries, and their actions rarely seem guided by an internal logic. They oppose themselves to the male will, but the deeper motivations - either in a pan-female sense or on the individual level - remain elusive. They are little more than ciphers, lacking in the three dimensions that comprise an actual living, breathing, female human being.
Yes, Mr. Grass, I get that you don't get women all the time. But come on now. They're still people after all.
I went into The Flounder wanting to like it. The Tin Drum remains one of my favorite books, and it led me to seek out this book. Yet I'm thinking that even Gunter Grass may have, at a later date, found reasons to doubt The Flounder - and not only for the simple reason that it's very repetitive, and very boring.