restricted access Günter Grass's Der Butt: Sexual Politics and the Male Myth of History (review)
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Reviewed by
Philip Brady, Timothy McFarland, and John J. White, eds. Günter Grass's Der Butt: Sexual Politics and the Male Myth of History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990. 235 pp. No price given.

In this remarkable compendium of essays on Günter Grass's Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, trans. Ralph Manheim, 1979), Peter Prochnik heads his "Male and Female Violence" with an epigraph from Marilyn French: "I find it ironic that the sex which cannot control its sex organ is the one that considers itself fit to control the world." The quotation might well stand at the beginning of the volume, marking, as it does, the quintessential ambiguities of a project such as Grass's, which demonstrates in content and form the author/narrator's simultaneous control and lack of it. For what these eleven essays show, despite their diverse approaches, is Grass's singular inability ultimately to abandon a male perspective in a work whose central theme is sexual conflict and whose ambiguous utopian project is to discover "was Drittes"—a third way of resolution that would make irrelevant the need for one sex to control the other.

Using a variety of maps, the authors return repeatedly to this dilemma, one that is rooted in the problematic role of the novel's autobiographical elements. The differences in approach signal the value of the volume, which is extremely rich in interpretations that generate productive possibilities for interaction with the text. Such a well-considered and carefully constructed anthology is paradigmatic, both for its genre and, more generally, for ways to approach any postmodern work that is as multi-leveled and multi-voiced as Grass's.

Despite their diverse reading angles, all the articles speak to each other at one or more levels. This is partially due to their common focus and to the volume's fine organization; it is also determined by the genesis of the collection: as the editors explain in their introduction, the authors—all from British institutions—met in 1985 and 1986 in a series of seminars, during which drafts of these articles were discussed. The seminar project, which takes shape in the volume, is "to trace the sources of [the work's] complexity and to analyse some of the interlocking [End Page 976] and interfacing themes" in an "attempt to determine the exceptional artistry that has created this exceptional work."

Different readers of this volume will benefit from it in different ways, finding some articles stronger than others. My suspicion is that the relative judgment is more likely to lie in the reader's own methodological and theoretical propensities, however, for none of the contributions fails to chart new analytical territory or to ground itself soundly in its field of reference. I was most intrigued by Joyce Crick's brilliant reading of Grass's concept of "Vergegenkunft" in "Future Imperfect: Time and the Flounder," and by the "new historical" approaches of David Jenkinson ("Conceptions of History") and Timothy McFarland ("The Transformation of Historical Material: The Case of Dorothea von Montau"). The latter, especially, provides a fascinating and genuinely informative account of Grass's appropriation, by circuitous routes, of "the first woman in the history of Danzig about whom a great deal is known."

But there is also much to be gained from the others. Ronald Speirs grapples with the novel's symbolic terrain in "The Dualistic Unity of Der Butt," while Hanne Castein's "Grass and the Appropriation of the Fairy-Tale in the Seventies" sees Der Butt as part of a firmly established tradition and focuses usefully on a comparison of Grass and Irmtraud Morgner. The volume moves from these first five essays on duality, time, history, and fairy tale to a series of four on body, food, sexual violence, and the "third way." John J. White ('"Wir hängen nicht vom Gehänge ab': The Body as Battleground in Der Butt") argues that "the contrast in Der Butt is . . . between female bodies and male minds"; in "Rabelais's Sister: Food, Writing, and Power," Anthony Phelan, returning us to earlier essays, reads the distinction between zählen (count) and erzählen (recount) as ultimately indicative of the author's guilt. Here...


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