(A conversation about The Tin Drum)
Below is an annotated version of the conversation I had with my mother last weekend via Zoom. It’s annotated because she’s my mother and references some things that I don’t need explained, but probably need a little explaining.
This is also part one of two, so stay tuned for part 2!
MOM: Is that your desk where you sit when you’re working?
ME: Mm-hmm. Yes… do you have thoughts on it? (I laugh when I say this; I can’t decide if I’m going to indicate laughter at every point in this interview where there was laughter, so you, dear reader, can feel free to mentally insert it, or not, wherever you see fit.)
MOM: Well, I’m just looking at the background. That’s all.
ME: Did you know you can also do this? (I make the background blurry; we chat a little about Zoom backgrounds. We both generally prefer to just go with no background. Above is my mom’s background; this is now her desk, in the living room; when I lived there, that was my desk, where I did my homework.) So, how far are you in The Tin Drum?
MOM: Well, I just today got to the last section, after he leaves what do you call it… he leaves with Maria after the war. So I’m up to the last section. So I’m two-thirds full. Done.
ME: And is it like you remember it?
MOM: Well, here’s the thing that’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking about it: I remember some very specific things, like I remember the grandmother’s skirts, and the eels (not going to over-annotate these because of course you’re ecstatic to read TTD after reading along in these diaries, but Oskar likes to hide under the four skirts his grandmother wears, and the family has a meal of eels that they find all over a dead horse on a beach)… but I don’t remember so much specifics, as just this sense of reading it.
ME: And is the sense the same?
MOM: Well, I think it’s actually… I’m thinking more about it… here’s what I think about it: I think that what I like so much is that every chapter is like this little story. And I enjoy each story tremendously. Because there’s all these odd things in each of the stories. And then I was thinking about how — and I wouldn’t have thought about this last time — it kind of reminds me of the way that I feel about my art. Which is that, a lot of times, when I make something, it ends up being this little story… that if it were visual, The Tin Drum would be the same thing, there’d be all these little vignettes of strange things happening.
And then — and this is new! — I told you I finished my second book, right? (My mother made a little book, so this would be her first book, called A Little Book About Me and Radiation; samples below.) It’s called A Little Story About My Mouth. And I enjoyed doing it a lot. It was healing in a way, but it was also just sort of fun to do. So I’ve been thinking that I might do my next little book about The Tin Drum. The same format, and each page would be a picture of one of the little stories.
MOM: There’s not too much I didn’t like (in The Tin Drum). There was one part, maybe… I can’t remember which part now.
And the other thing I thought about, which I don’t think I thought about before, is how narcissistic Oskar is! He’s not a loveable guy at all.
ME: No, not really, because he just kind of behaves on impulse. He’s just like, “I want this to happen now.”
MOM: Right, and he doesn’t really have any… you know, in most books, all the awful things that befall him would kind of affect who he was.
ME: Yeah… no.
MOM: Nothing affects him at all! And it does not seem to impede the pleasure I get out of the storytelling.
ME: Well, that’s where the sort of magical realism comes in, right? Because if it seemed more like a real person it might be more horrifying.
ME: So since it is like that — it’s just these little vignettes and this strange guy, going through his life — do you think it’s trying to say something, about war, say something broader about life? Because he does interact with that kind of stuff.
MOM: Yeah, I think that Gunter Grass definitely wanted — this was how he chose to do it, but I think he definitely wanted to say something about all of that. He’s a kind of quirky guy, and so he chose to do it this way.
ME: So what do you think it is? Do you think there’s a message for humanity in it? Is it just that war is terrible?
MOM: I don’t think so. I think he just wants to show… I guess I feel like it’s more like a display of humanity. In all of its positive and negative forms. And Oskar, because he’s kind of outside of that, and has decided to stay outside of that, sort of gives us this view of it, in fact, from somebody who’s not involved in it in the same way.
I mean, all the little stories, like… the story about his mother and Jan and his other father (it’s unclear who Oskar’s father is, whether it’s the person formally known as his father or this guy Jan, a cousin of his mother’s who has a continuing affair with her throughout Oskar’s life) … You could see that being the plot of a novel, but it would have all of this emotion in it that isn’t there at all.
ME: That’s true, he doesn’t really have a feeling about this other person. In the beginning, when I wasn’t really acclimated to it yet, it’s like you’re looking for that — “Here’s this person who’s my mother’s distant cousin who comes and has sex with her” — and I found myself being like, “Did I miss where he said how he feels about that?” And then, as the books goes on, it’s just like, “Oh, I like that guy, and he was probably my father. I guess the other guy was okay too.”
MOM: Yeah, he doesn’t really express any particular feeling about it.
ME: No, he doesn’t.
ME: So I’ve asked you this before: you don’t remember when you first read this, or how it came across your radar?
MOM: Hold that thought, I’m going to go check my apple crisp. (I know this sounds like the most mother-y thing in the world in the middle of this mother interview, but I don’t really associate my mother with making baked goods on a whim on a Saturday. I want to be careful here; I’m not saying that never happened, or impugning her cooking in general, I’m just saying, in the interest of a full portrait of my mother, this isn’t like an inherently domestic mom thing, it’s a retired, quarantine thing. Just so you weren’t wondering why I didn’t answer her with, “Aw, man, your famous apple crisp, I wish I were there to taste it! Classic mom!” I just said ok and waited in silence for a while until she came back.)
ME (when she returns): How’s the crumble?
MOM: Oh, it looks quite good. I have it with my yogurt in the morning. (Aha! Also, now my mom has some specific dietary needs because of the medical stuff she’s had done under her tongue, so there’s always a demand for new tasty soft foods.)
ME: Okay, so when did this book —maybe now you remember when you first read this book?
MOM: Well, I was trying to remember… I’m sure it was while I lived in Chicago.
ME: So you were between the ages of what and what?
MOM: Probably between the ages of 20 and 24. (So that would be 1967–71.)
ME: Really? Didn’t you go to college (University of Chicago) when you were younger?
MOM: Yeah, but I don’t think I read it right away. But I was wondering… one of the courses that was in my major was European Intellectual History. And I read Goethe (she pronounces that in a very German way, so it rhymes with “hair the”) and Herman Hesse and Schopenhauer and all those guys.
ME: Lotta Germans. Was it really “European” Intellectual History or just Germans?
MOM: Well, a lot of Germans, yes. So I wondered if that’s around when I knew about Gunter Grass.
ME: Which of those other authors did you like?
MOM: Well, you know, Herman Hesse was like this big influential person back then.
ME: In the sixties?
MOM: Yeah. Siddartha and Steppenwolf… and I think I also read Magister Ludi, which was like his really long book. (Okay, I had no idea what she said and I had to look it up; this book is more commonly known, in English-speaking countries at least, by its English title, The Glass Bead Game. As with the apple crumble, I do not associate my mother with any kind of casual proficiency with German, but it seems I may have just missed that.) But they were much more… they had a story, and a message to tell, as opposed to this.
And I was confusing… I remembered, quite distinctly, this part of a book where this person stays in bed all the time, he never gets up, and he has this big pot of spaghetti….
ME: That’s in The Tin Drum! You just haven’t gotten there yet.
MOM: Oh! Because I thought, maybe it’s from this other book that I like, called Oblomov. Did you ever hear of that?
ME: No, who wrote that?
MOM: It’s a Russian, Goncharov. And that is indeed about a guy who never leaves his bed. But he’s, like, a Russian. So it’s a different tone.
ME: I have a light spoiler, that’s a friend of Oskar’s.
MOM: Well, I’m glad, because I thought, really, I confused these two books?
ME: He goes to see him and I remember because it’s actually funny… (I reach over and pick up the book)
MOM: Let me see your copy, hold it up for me. (I do.) Oh, that’s a different — oh, that’s a neat cover! And mine is a new translation.
ME: Oh, interesting. So we kind of read a different book.
ME: The spaghetti, though… he goes and visits this guy, and he sees that he never leaves his bed and he has this pot of spaghetti, and it’s this moment that’s very funny, in, I feel like, a very contemporary way, how it would be written now… Here it is:
Then it happened. This was just what I had feared, and hoped that a long and widely ramified conversation might avoid: “Ah, my dear sir, won’t you please join me in a plate of spaghetti?” There was no help for it. We ate spaghetti prepared in the fresh water I had brought.
MOM: You know, it was also this time when everybody was a little bit weird. There were days that I would stay in bed all day, and Jon (a dear friend of my mother’s whom she met in college; we’ll talk more about him later) wouldn’t leave his bed… so it seemed particularly appropriate.
It’s a pretty funny book in certain places.
ME: Oh, definitely.