December 4th, 2019

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Two Brothers, by Ben Elton; My Century, by Günter Grass

Second paragraph of third chapter of Two Brothers:
‘I’m sorry, Frau Stengel,’ the doctor said. ‘The second child is stillborn.’
Second paragraph of third chapter of My Century / Mein Jahrhundert (the chapter set in 1902):
Damals war vieles neu. Zum Beispiel brachte die Reichspost reichseinheitliche Briefmarken in Umlauf, drauf die Germania metallbusig im Profil. Und weil allerorts Fortschritt verkündet wurde, zeigten sich viele Strohhutträger neugierig auf die kommende Zeit. Meiner hat manches erlebt. Ich schob ihn in den Nacken, als ich den ersten Zeppelin bestaunte. Im Cafe Niederegger legte ich ihn zu den druckfrischen und den Bürgersinn heftig aufreizenden »Buddenbrooks«. Dann führte ich ihn als Student durch Hagenbecks Tierpark, der jüngst eröffnet worden war, und sah, so uniform behütet, Affen und Kamele im Freigehege, wie mich hochmütig Kamele und Affen begehrlich mit Strohhut sahen. There was much new at the time. The Imperial Post Office, for instance, had just issued uniform stamps for the entire Reich featuring a metal-bosomed Germania in profile. And since progress was the keynote of the day, many straw hatters were curious about the times to come. My hat had all kinds of adventures. I shoved it back on my neck while admiring the first Zeppelin. I laid it next to the newly published scourge of bourgeois sensibility, Buddenbrooks, while sipping coffee at the Café Niederegger. Then, during my first year at the university, I wore it through Hagenbeck's Zoological Garden, which had just begun operation, and, thus protected, I observed apes and camels in the open while they covetously observed me and my hat.
One of those nice quirks in my reading lists threw me an interesting pair of novels, both looking at Germany in the twentieth century from different angles which still end up in much the same place.

I know Ben Elton mainly as a left-wing comedian from the 80s and 90s, though I did read his second novel Stark (and wasn't hugely impressed). I had not realised that his uncle was the historian Geoffrey Elton, or that the Elton family, originally Ehrenberg, had fled Nazi Germany to England. In Two Brothers, Elton takes a family situation very loosely based on that of his own father and uncle, and takes us through the brief but horrible history of Nazi Germany, looked at from the point of view of two brothers who it turns out are not biological twins after all, one of them being a non-Jewish kid adopted at birth by a Jewish couple. There is a framing narrative in the 1950s where one of the brothers, having escaped to England and joined the Foreign Office, goes back to East Berlin in search of the girl they both loved. But the core is the story of what life was like for those who were not as fortunate as Elton's own family. it's written from the heart, though I think also with an eye to educating Elton's core audience (young Anglophones) about how a normal society can swiftly degenerate to horror.

I was a bit annoyed by a couple of Elton's presentational quirks. There is a comedy MI6 sequence in the 1950s, which takes away from the seriousness of the theme. And the teenage German protagonists refer to each other by very British nicknames, which I suppose could be allowed as a translation convention, but it grated for me. Still, I give the book a lot of credit for effort and good intentions. You can get it here.

I had read both The Tin Drum and the autobiographical Peeling The Onion previously; My Century is different from both in that it is straight non-genre narrative, but telling short snapshots from every year from 1900 to 2000, mostly (though not all) with different protagonists. There are some odd choices - the second war is told in flashback by journalists reminising in the 1960s; the Holocaust is barely mentioned buring the war but intrudes on a Frankfurt wedding in 1964; reunification is recounted as experienced through election results. I think the reader is expected to be familiar with a lot of details of twentieth-century German history that a lot of people may not know so well.

But at the same time, if (against the author's expressed preference) you take the book as a sequence of 100 short stories with some internal links, rather than as a single novel, I think it works very well, with a lot of voices from various levels of society reminding us that a nation is made up of people,and so is its history. Some of the more memorable narrators are women - the actress early on, the Berlin survivor of 1946, the post-reunification Treuhand boss. It's not at the level of the other books by Grass that I have read, but I found it thought-provoking all the same. You can get it here.

Two Brothers was my top unread book acquired in 2014; next on that pile is The Arc of the Dream, by A.A. Attanasio. I mistakenly thought that My Century was non-fiction, and it came to the top of that pile; next there is Red Notice, by Bill Browder.