Friday, August 26, 2005

A great novel for writers & artists

'Even if they should be stoned and buried in hatred, a hand with a pen would rise out of the stone pile.'

My intent this morning is a short blog with some thoughts on the book I just finished reading about an hour ago, Gunter Grass' 'The Meeting at Telgte', from which the above quote is taken. This is the first book I have read from Grass, and like I have done with other famous writers before, instead of reading the book for which they are best known, I have come into Grass' body of work through a relatively obscure and short novel, first published in 1979. The most famous of Grass' works is his first book, 'The Tin Drum' (which I certainly will read, especially now). This short novel, really more of a novella at 132 pages, will not appeal to everyone. It concerns a fictionally-imagined 17th century gathering of poets and publishers in a small German village, organized for the explicit purpose of combining their pens and talents together to produce a statement or text that could be presented to the rest of the nation in order to preserve the German language and artistic/literary heritage. The historical context is the waning years of the Thirty Years' War which had been ravaging the country from most of the first half of the 17th century. Thus the novel is somewhat timely today in that it imagines artists combining their visions in a time of war.

But the trigger for this story was from Grass' own experience in a group called, simply, 'Group 47', that gathered under similar circumstances in the middle of the 20th century in Germany for the same reason. Grass was a member of the group, and this was where he first read from his 1958 novel 'The Tin Drum'. He clearly saw a parallel in history between the war of his century and the war of the 17th century, which at that point had been the most destructive in German history. So he fictionalized the meeting 300 years before his time, and the result is a book that concerns itself primarily with literary exchanges, hilarious artistic disputes and the dynamics of artists in dialogue and sharing their work with one another.

You see why the book may not interest everyone. It wouldn't appeal to those looking for a cracking story or an historical novel in the traditional sense. But for anyone who is interested in the function of art, especially in connection with the identity of a nation, this is a stimulating and enlightening book. Grass is a political activist as well as an artist. He gets involved in his nation's heritage and preserving that heritage; in short, he is a dedicated citizen. While I doubt I would agree with his political views, his determination to interpret the events of his time for the generations of Germans to follow is admirable.

'The Meeting at Telgte' is a hilarious book in many ways. The poets' petty arguments and disputes are high-falutin farces and their exploits with the local village women are amusingly rendered also. Another interesting aspect of the novel is the fact that some of the artists are Lutherans, which was the predominant religion of Germany at that time, and others are Catholics, and their discussions also reflect the tensions of those two groups at that time.

Finally, the prose is magnificent, and worth reading for its own sake. Even in translation I was amazed at the broad vocabulary and beauty of Grass' sentences. For those who enjoy well-written works of fiction in an historical context with parallels to our age or to any age, 'The Meeting at Telgte' is a worthy investment of a small amount of reading time.

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