Just needed to get that out of my system as I have been unable to get the song out of my head this week and not just because of the fabulous drums. I’ll come back to it later.
So, here we are. I hope my fellow Tin Drummers are all present and correct and have enjoyed the first part of Grass’s masterpiece. Is this your first time of reading? Your second, third or even, as in my case, your fourth? Which edition are you reading? I have a number to choose from. From the top, the first copy I read in Munich in 1980. I remember it well – it took months and I was a full-time student. It’s grubby and foxed now, but it did survive a flooded cellar in Frankfurt in 1989, where many other volumes perished. In the middle is the recently published new translation by Breon Mitchell. the edition that I’m reading this time round – although as we shall see, I’ve also been dipping into the third book in the pile – an omnibus edition of the complete Danzig trilogy translated by Ralph Manheim.
I’m so pleased that all editions have retained that classic image of Oskar. What do you make of him, his voice, his drumming? Is it possible to believe anything he says, his first sentence beginning “Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution …..” It’s a surprising start to a book which surprises even on a fourth reading. In 2005 when Grass prepared to run a workshop for the translators commissioned to retranslate the book to commemorate its 50th anniversary, he “reread The Tin Drum for the first time since (he’d) written it, hesitantly at first, then with some pleasure, surprised at what the young author of fifty years ago had managed to put down on paper”. The question is how surprised were you?
The inventiveness of this first section just amazes me. It begins with the comic tale of Anna Bronski’s wide skirts and ends with a lament – can’t you hear the drum beating – following the events of Kristallnacht. But I run ahead of myself. Back to chapter1. I love that story and at least another dozen in this first section alone. As each one began, my toes would curl in anticipation of the pleasure to come. The hilarity of the disrupted Nazi meetings, the intrigue of the love triangle, the sadness of Herbert Truczinski’s back and the unstoppable disaster that is Oskar’s first day at school. Which brings me to Alice Cooper or a lesson in translating technique.
Demnach beschloss ich keinesfalls beim Verlassen der Pestalozzischule: Mein erster Schultag soll auch mein letzter sein. Die Schule ist aus, jetzt gehn wir nach Haus. (Grass)
Accordingly, when I left the Pestalozzi School, I was far from deciding that my first day should be my last, that I had my fill of pencils and books, not to mention teacher’s dirty looks. (Manheim)
So I had by no means decided, having left the Pestalozzi School, that my first day at school would be my last. No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” (Mitchell)
While there is a rhyme in the original, it is not based on pencils, books and teacher’s dirty looks. Manheim inserted these into his 1962 translation. (10 years prior to the release of School’s Out .) Mitchell has stayed with the idea but updated and strengthened it by using the well-known phrase from Alice Cooper’s iconic song of teenage rebellion. It’s entirely appropriate for Oskar whose refusal to join the adult world is affirmed by both his stunted growth and his insistent drumming. When he’s feeling aggressive, he unleashes his glass-shattering screams.
While Oskar’s aversion is entirely understandable – it is after all a world in which the forces of Nazism are in the ascendant – he is still a monster – isn’t he? And Matzerath, the Nazi, is quite a sympathetic human being. It’s not at all straightforward. Even the love triangle has layers of symbolic complexity. Bronski, the Pole, loves Agnes, the Kashubian Pole, who is married to Matzerath, the German. Agnes’s dilemma, torn between two lovers, reflects the dilemma of many torn between the two countries at that time. The struggle between the two countries is never far from the page – count how many times the colours red and white appear – they are the colours of both Polish and Nazi flags and the lacquered paint on Oskar’s tin drum. The question is – and it’s the final one I’ll pose for now – which country is he beating to a pulp?