If a mid-century German Crime and Punishment exists, it’s this one by Günter Grass. The Tin Drum is a desperate mea culpa on the way to absolution.
The Tin Drum · Günter Grass · 1959
Ralph Manheim translation · MJF Books/Fine Communications, 1987 · 465 pages, hardcover
The Tin Drum is the first novel in Grass’ Danzig trilogy, a loosely composed series that views the interwar and wartime era through the perspective of what was then the Free City of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.
The spirit of Grass’ most major work is secreted in his protagonist Oskar’s first readings, a dichotomy of Goethe and Rasputin. It’s a fractured spirit of rational romanticism and lurid mysticism that Hesse, perhaps, would have envied.
The Tin Drum is a lament from one who balked at the storm but couldn’t drum a din loud enough to stop it, and Grass’ novel is bent on understanding this psychology. But to get at those things he’s unwilling to tell us, his readers must care enough to pry into his mind. Continue reading
The Magic Mountain · Thomas Mann · 1924
John E. Woods translation · Vintage, 1996 · 720 pages, paperback
There are few novels that give sickness its due. There are even fewer that play with it as a state of mind or treat it as the defunct policy of nation states.
Though Thomas Mann began work on The Magic Mountain in 1912 when he visited his ailing wife at a sanatorium (which served as the model for the Berghof of his novel), his writing soon bent to a different angle when war broke out two years later. By the time he completed it in 1924, the sickness of the body had become further distorted into the sickness of the body politic, and his novel became a reification of the period’s irrationalism. Continue reading
Steppenwolf is two parts opera, one part philosophy and one part dreamstate, all of it laced with cocaine and limned in neon – oh, and balanced on the four hands of Vishnu. It’s a bit of a trip.
Steppenwolf · Hermann Hesse · 1927
Basil Creighton translation · Picador, 2015 · 218 pages, paperback
Harry Haller barely makes out the invitation carefully etched into the church door: Magic Theater. Entrance not for everybody. For Madmen only! He’d love to go inside! His mind is filled with torments, with a dissonance that clashes more violently as he tries to wend through it and sort out exactly who he is and what he thinks. Poor Harry, he turns up only despair and the pathetic simplification of the Steppenwolf: Man and Beast. It’s a Faustian dichotomy of his soul that gives him no peace. Though he’s yet to learn it, Harry wants nothing more than to rend his soul from his body and mind, and briefly – oh, very briefly because he’s so in fear of it – he thinks of suicide.
And all of this (but particularly death) is with an aim at immortality. True to Hermann Hesse’s own dabbling in Eastern mythology, his Steppenwolf Harry Haller, in thirsting for immortality, is actually scavenging for reincarnation. And true to classic German literature, Steppenwolf the novel is heavy on philosophy. But this is no treatise (despite the inclusion of one given to Harry by a man clearly from this elusive Magic Theater).