Beate Schirrmacher (Stockholm)
Since his very first novel, Die Blechtrommel (1959), Günter Grass has
been interested in breaking with the limitations of chronological narration. Throughout his
work Grass undermines the temporal structure of events with a fourth tense, where past,
present and future meet. Grass calls this tense ‘Vergegenkunft’, or
Wir haben das so in der Schule gelernt: nach der Vergangenheit kommt die Gegenwart, der die
Zukunft folgt. Mir aber ist eine vierte Zeit, die Vergegenkunft, geläufig. Deshalb halte
ich auch die Form nicht mehr reinlich. Auf meinem Papier ist mehr möglich. (Kopfgeburten, 127)
As Edgar Platen points out, by bringing both past and future into the present tense of the
narrative Grass re-establishes a repressed past. Grass uses a diversity of techniques to replace the temporal structure in
narratives. In örtlich betäubt (1969) and Die Rättin
(1987), Grass uses intermediality, employing different modern media, such as TV, film, and
video, to show past and future events in the present of the narrative. The effect of this
intermediality is a layering of different temporalities: The television program playing in the
background imposes on the narrative front-story a narrative from the past. The front story and
the intermedial narrative are superimposed in a way not unlike double exposure. Grass also
experiments with acoustic simultaneity. Especially in the novella Im Krebsgang
(2002), the simultaneity of paspresenture is realized not only in references to cyberspace but
in the author’s musicalization of his prose.
Connecting Günter Grass to music may seem surprising at first sight. Grass’s
interest in music is not as apparent as it is in other authors, e.g. Thomas Mann. There are,
however, several biographical hints documented and discussed only recently by Anselm Weyer,
including Grass’s participation in a jazz-band during the 1950’s, his frequent
cooperation and contact with musicians, and his interests in musical composition. His most
famous character, Oscar Matzerath of Die Blechtrommel, is a musician. The novel
Hundejahre (1963) reflects on and parodies Wagner’s
Götterdämmerung (cf. Cicora) and in Die Rättin (1986)
the cosmic music of singing jellyfish points the way to the utopian, sunken city of Vineta. It
has also been noticed that Grass develops literary themes more than “conceptual
constructs” (Rimmon-Kenan, 14)
like musical themes, they are restated, repeated, and varied in his work (cf. Brode, 75 and
von Schilling, 58). This quality may correspond with Grass’s demand for stylistic
concreteness. While Enzenberger relegates Grass’s use of repetition to leitmotif, in
fact his tendency to repeat themes is more comprehensive than the leifmotif’s repeated
allusion to a person, object or idea.
Grass often refers to Alfred Döblin as an inspiration (Grass, “Über meinen
Lehrer Döblin”). Contrast and repetition were essential to Döblin’s
musically oriented poetics (cf. Gespräche mit Kalypso). Döblin also
found that the combination of different voices in music creates eine Gleichzeitigkeit in
der Tiefe, or spatial simultaneity, and the repetition of musical patterns conveyed temporal simultaneity
(Nutzen der Musik für die Literatur, 160). Döblin argues that such a
use of musical techniques solves one of the problems modernist writers seem to have posed for
themselves, to depict simultaneous, sometimes incongruent, events (Huber, 158-61). In what follows this connection between
Grass’s concept of ‘pastpresenture’ and the structural use of music shall be
explored in the novella Im Krebsgang (2002). After a short summary of the
novella’s plot, Grass’s thematization and structural imitation of music will be
explored as a way he realizes paspresenture.
The flight of German citizens from the approaching Russians at the end of WW II is the
background for the Im Krebsgang, which deals with the 1945 sinking of a cruise
ship overloaded with over 9,000 refugees on board. The Nazi cruise ship, named after the Nazi
leader Wilhelm Gustloff, was torpedoed by a Russian submarine commanded by Captain Alexander
Marinesko. Paul Pokriefke, the narrator, begins his account in 1936, when the Jewish student
David Frankfurter shoots Wilhelm Gustloff in Davos. In Grass’s novella, Tulla Pokriefke,
already known from Katz und Maus (1961) and Hundejahre (1963), is a
passenger on the Gustloff. At the very moment of its sinking Tulla gives birth to
a son, Paul, on one of the ship’s lifeboats. Paul accuses his mother of ruining his life
by giving birth to him under these circumstances. Paul’s son, Konny, shoulders
Tulla’s expectation that someone should “bear witness” to the sinking of the
Gustloff, now forgotten in post-war Germany. Konny’s website on the
subject, where he chats as “Wilhelm”, shows a strong identification with Gustloff
and neo-Nazi views. A certain “David” frequently challenges
“Wilhelm’s” views in chats and, when the two meet, Konny/Wilhelm shoots
David to avenge the assassination of Gustloff. While in prison Konny builds a model of the
ship that he later destroys in front of his father. At the end of the novel, Paul finds a new
website, paying tribute to Konny in terms similar to those Konny used to idolize Gustloff.
Paul concludes the novella with the observation, “Das hört nicht auf. Nie hört
das auf/It doesn’t end. Never will it end” (216/234).
Intermedial references, especially structural imitations of other media, depend on the
thematization of the original medium as a paratextual marker for the reader (cf. Rajewsky,
79-82 and Wolf, 44-46). The title Im Krebsgang can be understood as such a
paratextual marker. Krebsgang is a translation of the Latin cancrizans,
crablike, and refers to retrograde contrapuntal variation. The German term refers most
literally to the actions of the Flusskrebs, crayfish, which retreats backwards by the
rapid flipping of its tail when in danger. This peculiar phenomenon gave rise to the popular
image of the backward-walking Krebs. The illustration on the novella’s dust
jacket, drawn, as always, by Grass, shows a pair of Strandkrabben, shore crabs, that
neither by name nor by movement are connected to Krebsgang, as the shore crab
moves forward by scuttling sideways. In addition, unlike other animals in Grass’s
novels, a cat, a dog, a flounder, and a rat, the shore crab does not appear in the novella,
apart from Paul’s narrative reflections:
Aber noch weiß ich nicht, ob, wie gelernt, erst das eine, dann das andere und danach
dieser oder jener Lebenslauf abgespult werden soll oder ob ich der Zeit schrägläufig
in die Quere kommen muß, etwa nach Art der Krebse, die den Rückwärtsgang
seitlich ausscherend vortäuschen, doch ziemlich schnell vorankommen? (8,
But I’m still not sure how to go about this: should I do as I was taught and unpack one
life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go
backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward
fairly rapidly?” (3, emphasis mine)
Reflecting on an alternative way of narration, Paul refers to the sideways walk of the
shore crab and to the backward movement of the crayfish, conflating the two animals and their
movements. The novella’s narrative moves multi-directionally, at times scuttling
sideways like the shore crab and at other times backwards like the crayfish, creating the
doubling and ambiguity typical of paspresenture (cf. Rohm, Platen).
The musical references in Krebsgang indicate the thematization of music
throughout the novella. Paul tends to emphasize the acoustic, e.g. he describes the internet
as a space filled with voices and while in a chat room his ear is filled with
“Gequassel/irrepressible jabber” (89/93), where the agitated discussion becomes
“vielstimmig/polyphonic” (117/123). However the internet is not the only site for
polyphony. Paul refers to groups of two or three people as duets and trios, and to laughter as
“zweistimmig/two-part harmony” (174/187). At one point Goethe’s well known
verse is set to music: “Die Arie ‘Stirb und werde’ hatte mehrere
Strophen” (145/154) and at
another Paul replaces speech with song: “Dieses Märchen hat mir Mutter von Kindheit
an vorgesungen” (65). As the
Gustloff sinks the “finaler Schrei/final cry” (145/155) of the
drowning refugees arises together with the ship’s siren as a “grauenhafter
Zweistimmigkeit/grusome duet” (146/155). Paul compares his mother Tulla to a
“Platte mit Sprung/broken record” (205/222), stuck at the point of the sinking of
the Gustloff and unable to find words or tones for the event: “Da hab ech
kaine Töne fier/there’s no notes on the scale for it” (136/144). Paul’s
failure as a father emerges as a leitmotif (194/209) that he suspects is “eine [Tulla]
gefällige Musik/music to her ears” (194/208). His report, Paul remarks, is not
meant to resemble a “deutsches Requiem/German Requiem” (139/148), but when he
mentions the fact that Wilhelm Gustloff’s house was located at
Sebastian-Bach-Straße in Schwerin (170/183) Grass may be offering a hint about the
origin of the narrative’s musical inspiration. At times, reiteration, along with the
thematization of acoustics and music, combine to suggest stasis. Tulla’s standard topic
of conversation is the “Story vom ewigsinkenden Schiff/the tale of the endlessly sinking
ship” (44/43) is also the only topic Paul and Konny seem to know. Finally, reiteration
is also found in Paul’s affection for circular formulations: “Das Wetter ist, wie
es ist/The weather is as it is” (93/translation mine) and “Ich blieb, was ich
bin/I remained what I am” (43/translation mine).
The novella’s title connects it to contrapuntal compositions marked by the frequent
repetition and variation of one theme; however specific musical forms, such as the fugue or
the canon, are not mentioned. In the novella the Gustloff sinks not only once
but, like a theme with variations, returns continually. Variations and repetitions of the
theme of death and destruction govern the novella’s macrostructure as follows:
The six narrative threads enter one by one in the first chapter like a musical canon. The threads change frequently, every
second or third page in the beginning. The frequent change of threads is similar to the
constant leaping between different pitches, used to create the illusion of two independent
parts sounding simultaneously, found in some monophonic compositions (Wolf, 21). Secondly, the
narrative threads in Im Krebsgang often overlap in the closing sections, e.g. a
word or phrase associated with the following thread is used at the end of the preceding
thread. For example, the second
thread is introduced before the first one ends. This might be understood as an imitation of musical
Engführung, or stretto, in which a subsequent entry of the musical
theme begins before the preceding theme is finished. Grass sometimes carries this technique to
the extreme, as when the different threads not only meet in the same chapter but in same
[III] Nein ich habe keinen richtigen Vater gehabt, nur austauschbare Phantome. [IV] Da waren
die drei Helden, die mir jetzt wichtig sein müssen, besser dran [III] Jedenfalls hat
Mutter selbst nicht gewusst, wer sie geschwängert hatte, als sie mit ihren Eltern am
Vormittag des 30. Januar fünfundvierzig vom Kai Gotenhafen-Oxhöft weg als
Siebentausendsoundsovielte eingeschifft wurde. [I] Derjenige, [II] nach dem das Schiff getauft
worden war, [I] konnte einen Kaufmann, Hermann Gustloff, als Vater nachweisen. [II]Und
derjenige, dem es gelang, das überladene Schiff zu versenken, ist in Odessa [
Vater Marinesko ziemlich oft verprügelt worden, was eine spürbar väterliche
Zuwendung gewesen sein wird. [I] Und David Frankfurter, der von Bern nach Davos reisend
dafür gesorgt hat, [II] daß das Schiff nach einem Blutzeugen benannt werden konnte,
hat sogar einen richtigen Rabbi zum Vater gehabt. [IV] Aber auch ich, der Vaterlose, bin
schließlich Vater geworden. (22)
[III] No, I never did have a proper father, just interchangeable phantoms. [IV] In that
respect, the three heroes I‘ve been instructed to focus on, were better off. [III]
It‘s clear at any rate, that Mother really had no idea by whom she was pregnant, when
she set out on that morning of 30 January 1945 with her parents, leaving the
Gotenhafen-Oxhöft pier as passenger number seven thousand such-and-such. [I] The man,
[II] for whom the ship has been named, [I] could identify a businessman, Hermann Gustloff, as
his father. [II] And as a boy in Odessa, the man who succeeded in sinking the overcrowded
ship, had received fairly regular beatings from Papa Marinesko. [I] And David Frankfurter, who
travelled from Berne to Davos to set in motion [II] that the ship came to be named for a
martyr, had an honest-to-goodness rabbi as his father. [IV] Even I, fatherless, though I was,
would eventually become father. (18)
In this quotation, thread III, concerning Tulla and Paul, is interrupted by Paul’s
situation as an adult. Likewise, thread I is interrupted twice by thread II, Marinesko and the
Gustloff. Considering that these overlapping passages often occur at the end of chapters in
Grass, the use of the term stretto appears even more justified. Finally, the telescoping effect,
first observed by Calvin S. Brown, in his Music and Literature (cf. 156), can be
found in the gathering of nearly all threads on the subject of fatherhood seen in the above
Paul’s report and Konny’s web site, both of which deal with the same theme,
create another multi-layered, polyphonic effect. The web site provides a constant commentary
on the report and Paul names the web site as his source. Moreover, Paul distances himself
from Konny’s neo-Nazi attitudes by quoting the web site’s contributors directly.
The reappearance of these passages in the middle of Paul’s narration also represents
Paul’s own repressed thoughts. Moreover, because the web site and Paul’s narration
are blurred, the reader cannot tell which text is the source of the other. Konny uses family
stories to support his position and Paul, even though he would challenge Konny’s
politics, relies on Konny’s research. The combination of Paul’s report and
Konny’s web site resembles a set of contrapuntal variations on a musical theme, in which
the voices are both interdependent and combine to form a single unit.
Several of the threads listed above can also be connected to common variation techniques.
For example, Konny’s destruction of the model ship Gustloff is a diminutive
version of the actual disaster in 1945. The imitation is so exact that the destruction of the
model follows the same sequence as the actual destruction of the ship, e.g. the lifeboats of
the model pop out of their davits like the lifeboats did as the Gustloff went
down (233). Likewise, the sinking of the Gustloff is an augmentation of the
assassination in Davos and the four pistol shots that kill the Nazi leader appear, in varied
form, as the four torpedoes that sink the ship. Finally, from the assassination in the high
Alps the narrative descends to the surface of the Baltic Sea, similar to a vertical
Retrograde, or cancrizans, statements of a theme move in a backwards fashion. The
fact that Tulla gives birth to Paul at the moment when thousands die states the theme of life
and death in retrograde. In structuring his autobiography, Paul tells the story of his life
backwards, and the shooting of the Philo-Semitic “David” by the Neo-Nazi Konny is
a retrograde variation of the Davos assassination. Indeed, all the variations on the theme of
life and death connected with the Pokriefke family are in retrograde (Weyer, 46). Retrograde
statements in music are not easily perceived by the listener and are often thought of as
esoteric. Apart from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonate and the twelve-note
style of composition initiated by Schoenberg, traditional examples of retrograde appear in
crab canons (Drabkin). Crab canons,
often called puzzle canons, can be notated in the form of a single voice, implying that one
voice is to play the theme from beginning to end while at the same time another voice plays it
backwards. Paul’s mention of Krebsgang is connected to his family history that,
it seems, can only be properly told in a retrograde (e.g. 88/91, 107/112). Likewise, while
they are not exact palindromes, Paul’s repetitive expressions, such as
“Täglich Neues. Neues vom Tage/News every day. Every day’s news”
(7/translation mine) or “Das hört nicht auf. Nie hört das auf/It does not end.
Never will it end” (216/234), resemble a theme given followed by and its restatement in
retrograde. Tulla is also caught in
this backward movement. After a journey to Danzig in the 1990s her recollection of the
catastrophe closes with the same words used at the beginning of her story: “Is ja
aijenlich ain scheenes Schiff gewesen
/That was one beautiful ship
(206/223). Finally, when Konny, as “Wilhelm”, shoots “David”, he plays
a theme backwards. As the narrator observes, Marinesko’s torpedoed the
Gustloff because he believed a military success might help him avoid imprisonment
(128/136). Nevertheless, Marinesko is arrested and sent to Siberia after the war
(167ff/179ff), whereas only after Konny is imprisoned does he destroy the model of the
Musical retrograde also informs the overall construction of the novella, in which
historical circumstances move forward while the account of the family’s life moves
backwards. In the first part of the novella the historical themes concerning Frankfurter,
Gustloff, Marinesko, along with the fate of the Gustloff, predominate. The
backward looking nature of Paul’s family history contrasts with these historical themes
and comments on them in retrograde form. The turning point of the novella is the sinking of the
Gustloff in 1945. Here the final cries of the drowning victims and the first cry
of Paul at the moment of his birth overlap as a single note in Tulla’s memory (145/155).
After this the family’s retrograde ‘Gustloff-complex’ becomes crucial while
the historical characters appear only occasionally. Finally, the novella, which starts with
Paul’s discovery of Konny’s web site and ends with the discovery of a similar site
idolizing Konny as a martyr, ends with the sentences: “Das hört nicht auf. Nie
hört das auf/It does not end. Never will it end.” (216/234).
The imitation of musical devices in Im Krebsgang constitutes a structural
realization of Grass’s paspresenture. Passages that suggest the spatio-temporal
simultaneity of this “fourth tense”, which does not accord with a particular time
but surpasses past, present, and future, can also be found in Grass’s other works;
however paspresenture is not automatically connected to the notion of music. By contrast, Im
Krebsgang, in which the allusions begin as early as the title, can be described as a
work of total musicalization.
As a narrator, Paul resists adding further drama to his story. He will not write according
to the plot of a love story, for such a plot would compete with Hollywood movies like
Titanic (113/119) and he also rejects epic narration (136/144f). The imitation
of musical structures provides an alternative. Moreover, the use of musical patterns might
serve as a device for distancing the narrative from the incomprehensible nature of the
Gustloff’s sinking. With his crabwalk Paul shirks his responsibility as
narrator and, like many of Grass’s narrators, he prompts the reader to question his or
her own point of view (cf. Schirrmacher). Paul’s narration also underlines the fact that
he is unable to handle Germany’s responsibility for the catastrophe. In his narrative a
Jewish student is connected with the death of thousands of refugees and only at the end does
Paul admit that Konny only carried out his father’s most repressed thoughts (210/227).
Paul’s narrative appears to arise from the dilemma of how to understand the relation
between the present and the past, beginnings and endings, which the retrograde element of the
crab canon is especially well suited to represent. Theodor Adorno describes the circular form
retrograde as a realization of entrapment and hopelessness (Musikalische Schriften V:
Neunzehn Beiträge über neue Musik, 68). Furthermore, the circular nature of
crab canons conveys a sense of absolute standstill symbolic of death and eternity. Thus, the
crab canon corresponds to the novella’s thematic repetition both symbolically and
structurally (Prieto, 322).
Musical structures often substitute for narratives based on causality in literary works
dealing with the monstrosity of WWII. The musicalized form of Im Krebsgang is
yet another example of this practice. Other writers who have used musical forms to describe
the human catastrophe of WWII and the Holocaust include: Paul Celan and his
“Todesfuge”, Walter Kempowski’s collective diary of WWII titled Fuga
furiosa (which also deals with the flight from East Prussia), and of course there is
the connection of music to German history in Thomas Mann’s work, especially Doktor
Faustus (cf. Vaget). As in Doktor Faustus, Grass uses musical structures
to substitute for an epic interpretation of this history (Huber 150). Im Krebsgang examines
death and the vicious circle that results from the repetition of the irresponsibility of
flight. The musical structures in Im Krebsgang allow Grass to show how
‘paspresenture’ prevents events from being placed in the past where they might
finally be resolved.
1. “We’ve learned in school
that the present comes after the past and is followed by the future. But I work with a fourth
tense, the paspresenture. That’s why my form gets untidy. On my paper more is
possible” (Headbirths, 103). Return to the article
2. This is one reason why the novels of
Grass tend to be controversial, especially in Germany. They remind the reader of details he or
she would rather forget (Platen, 211). Return to the article
3. As Werner Wolf observes, authors tend to
“avoid verbatim repetitions” of literary themes (Wolf, 20). Return to the article
4. Enzensberger finds that absolutely
“everything” becomes a leitmotif in Katz und Maus (cf. Neuhaus and
Hermes, 121 ff.).
Return to the article
5. Literally “a simultaneity in
depth”. Return to the article
6. As Eric Prieto observes, the repetitive
patterns of music are often used as an alternative to the temporally governed syntax of linear
narratives (66). Return to the article
7. Unless otherwise indicated all
translations come from Krishna Winston’s 2002 translation. Return to
8. “The aria ‘Stirb und
werde’ had several verses.” (my translation). The reference is to “Seelige
Sehnsucht” in Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan. Return to the article
9. “Mother had sung me this tale
since my childhood” (67). Return to the article
10. In a canon different parts sound
simultaneously which is impossible within the linearity of a narrative text. Return to the article
11. This effect is not unlike
Bakhtin’s ‘double-voicedness’. Return to the
12. This overlapping is first described
by Roehm concerning The Rat (42). Return to the article
13. The Roman numerals refer to the
novella’s six narrative threads as listed above. Return to the
14. This stretto-like quality is
found in other of Grass’ works and may throw light on the general importance of musical
structures in his fiction. The term has been used to describe Grass’ work, but only in a
very impressionistic way (cf. Mayer and Hermes, 171). An exhaustive analysis of
Engführung in Grass’ fiction is yet to be carried out. Neuhaus connects
the term to Paul Celan, but offers no further explanation (131). Return to
15. It must be remembered that
counterpoint does not merely constitute a simple opposition of voices, but entails a repeated
theme that is shared as well as resisted. Return to the article
16. The famous canon a 2
cancrizans from J.S. Bach’s Das Musikalische Opfer might be a
possible model for Grass, however this piece of music is not mentioned in the novella. Still,
Opfer is thematized in the novella, not as a musical offering but in the
sense of the offering of victims. Even the fact that Paul’s report is commissioned from
“der Alte”, the fictional alter ego of Grass, might be read as a connection to
Bach’s Musical offering, written by the old Bach on a theme given by the
younger Frederick the Great. Return to the article
17. This corresponds with Grass’s
general affinity for inversion (Weyer, 44f). Return to the article
18. For example, the baptism of
Paul’s son connects to the naming of the ship Gustloff in retrograde. The
Gustloff is named after a Nazi shot by a Jew and it will
sink in the Baltic Sea, i.e. the shooting precedes the drowning. On the
other hand, Konny is christened after Tulla’s brother, Konrad, who
drowned in the Baltic Sea (Hundejahre 175-177) who will later
become a neo-Nazi and shoot his Philo-Semitic chat-partner, i.e. the drowning
precedes the shooting. Return to the article
19. Adorno’s aesthetics of music
offered Thomas Mann a structure for Doktor Faustus that the epic concept could no
longer supply. Mann’s theory of evil was unable to explain the combination of modernity
and barbarism Nazi-Germany represented (Koopmann, 142). Return to the
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