Too Far Afield

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Overview

From the Nobel laureate and author of The Tin Drum, a novel of broad historical dimensions set in Berlin during German reunification.

Two old men roam through Berlin observing life in the former German Democratic Republic after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The men are Theo Wuttke, a former East German cultural functionary, keen observer, and gifted speaker; and Ludwig Hoftaller, a mid-level spy who can serve the Prussian police, or the ...

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Overview

From the Nobel laureate and author of The Tin Drum, a novel of broad historical dimensions set in Berlin during German reunification.

Two old men roam through Berlin observing life in the former German Democratic Republic after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The men are Theo Wuttke, a former East German cultural functionary, keen observer, and gifted speaker; and Ludwig Hoftaller, a mid-level spy who can serve the Prussian police, or the Gestapo, or the East German Stasi with equal dedication.

Both men are employed by the Treuhand-the agency in charge of privatizing former East German state enterprises-which occupies the building in Berlin that was once the headquarters of Goering's Air Ministry. Wuttke, in his capacity as file courier, desperately tries to save the old-fashioned elevator, which has carried the famous and powerful up-and down again. And he comforts the disheartened head of the agency, who seeks relief from the burdens of office by roller skating around the corridors at night.

This novel will stand as perhaps the most complex and challenging exploration of what Germany's recent reunification will mean-for Germans, for Europeans, for the world. Grass writes with the wit, fantasy, literary erudition, and political acerbity for which he is celebrated. And in his inimitable fashion, he tells a deeply human story laced with pain and humor in equal measure.

About the Author:

Gunter Grass was born in 1927 in Danzig, Germany. A novelist, playwright, essayist, graphic artist, and poet, he is the author of numerous acclaimed books including Cat and Mouse and The Tin Drum. The Swedish Academy in its citation for the Nobel Prize stated, "In his excavation of the past Gunter Grass goes deeper than most and he unearths the intertwined roots of good and evil."

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Our Review
In Defense of More Complicated
With each passing year, history piles up unaccountably behind us, a morass of events and ideas, contingent or random, shifting, mounting, blowing about like sand on a windy shore. Historians do us the favor of ordering the morass, building a linked chain and bringing it to bear in some meaningful way on our present. Historical novelists perform a similar feat, selecting a narrative of consequence and through plot twists or seductive emotions making it meaningful, not to our present time so much as to our present state of mind. And then, there are those writers whose very subject is the weight and complexity of history -- writers like Günter Grass. His latest novel to be translated (beautifully translated) into English is Too Far Afield, which was published five years ago in Germany and is set more or less in 1989, the year of German reunification.

Twentieth-century German history, to put it very generally, is a tumult of contradictions, conflicts, and terrible failures. Grass, who's known as a social critic as well as Germany's greatest living writer, was praised for his searching and uncompromising portrayal of Nazi history in his 1959 novel, The Tin Drum. (Of his 23 subsequent publications, that debut was the one particularly cited by the Nobel Prize committee in 1999 when Grass won that award.) But it is for his outspoken criticism of current politics that Grass is considered a controversial writer in his own country. Too Far Afield is a scathingly ambivalent vision of German reunification, questioning "the idiotic pride in Deutschland that has always gone hand in hand with violence." And the novel is, in effect, quite a different way of looking at the triumphs of the Velvet Revolution.

Theo Wuttke is an elderly East German writer and historian whose work has become inextricable from his life -- history is so alive for Wuttke that he is seldom able to distinguish between past and present. He's particularly in the thrall of a 19th-century Prussian balladeer named Theodor Fontane, whose birthday he shares (100 years later), whose biography is spookily parallel to Wuttke's own, and who originally coined the now-proverbial German phrase "das ist ein zu weites Feld" ("that takes us too far afield"). Wuttke's identification with him is so notorious that he's popularly known as "Fonty," while he himself refers to Fontane as "The Immortal." And the way the two writers' lives conjoin and together span almost 200 years, they do seem nearly immortal. As a public intellectual, Wuttke has been under constant police surveillance in the form of Stasi spy Ludwig Hoftaller, his "Day and Night Shadow," who is the reincarnation of a 19th-century spy called Ludwig Tallhover. The names are interchangeable -- Hoftaller/Tallhover the spy is two-faced by nature. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the apparatus of Soviet rule in the East becomes obsolete, though the paradigms of both a united and divided Germany remain vital and vexed. Accordingly, Too Far Afield follows these two characters and their historical doppelgängers as their roles in the "new" Germany shift, reverse, and grow irrelevant. The collapse of past and present is emphasized by the novel's remarkable narrator, a group of Archivists, whose task it was under the former regime to collect and record information gathered by the secret police, and in the new regime, to attempt to make sense of history, much of which had been altered or destroyed.

But that's the simple version of the story. It is all in fact much more complicated. Too Far Afield is a formidable undertaking. Its complex of historical, literary, and political references, related in Grass's inimitable style, is easily as challenging a read as James Joyce's Ulysses. And as with Ulysses, an American reader might crave annotation, some kind of explanatory text to fill in the blanks. Though even in the absence of such guidance, Too Far Afield is well worth the commitment. History is a dense web, and Grass plunges right into his version of it; the first bewildering chunk is the hardest, but have faith. Substance doesn't always come easily, yet the endeavor pays off. For the rewards are absorbing, vivid, comic, tragic, and endlessly provocative.

Minna Proctor is a writer and translator. She lives in New York.

Times Literary Supplement
Grass has succeeded in setting down monuments to those dog days of division, with their linguistic shifts and iconography, rapidly changing cast of characters, uncertainty, and exhilaration.
Polityka
A broad and wonderful novel, full of surprising twists, grotesque jokes, and mocking reflections about Germany's fate over the last 150 years.
Economist
Grass's novel is a perfect instrument for tracing echoes and parallels across German writing and history...no other German novelist could have pulled off such a feat.
From The Critics
It is the work of a seasoned craftsman, certain of what he wants to do, completely in control of his gifts.
New York Times Book Review
It is the work of a seasoned craftsman, certain of what he wants to do, completely in control of his gifts.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Recent German unification is neatly, if protractedly, likened to the inner development of one of its bureaucrats in this novel of Berlin after reunification. The book is a worthy follow-up to My Century, which taught 100 years of history in human, understandable terms. Theo Wuttke, known as "Fonty" because he's obsessed with famous German novelist Theodor Fontane, is a former war correspondent now on his uppers as an elderly file courier in a government agency of the former German Democratic Republic. Blessed with an encyclopedic memory, Fonty often recites poems from different languages, to his co-workers' secret derision. Weary of life at the agency, he tries to escape--once to Scotland, another time to Great Britain--but a spy named Ludwig Hoftaller, himself an incarnation of a 19th-century figure and often called Fonty's "day-and-night-shadow," always finds him. Hoftaller's motivation is never made clear: perhaps fear that Fonty will leak German state secrets, perhaps loneliness, perhaps both. The past keeps impinging on the present; Hoftaller knows truths about marital infidelities in Fonty's past that keep Fonty from rebelling too forcefully. The two old men wander the streets of Berlin, each struggling with WWII guilt, as both of them had connections to Hitler's regime. Some overlong passages detailing German history will be lost on American readers, and Fonty's rambling monologues constantly threaten to bring the novel to a halt. However, the psychologically complex portrayal of a man's gradual relinquishing of his social position in order to keep his spirit intact is more than enough to maintain a reader's passion in the work. Fonty does manage to escape eventually, his victory that of a profoundly human figure who embodies both the bitterness and the sweetness of an era's passing. (Dec.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When this hefty novel was first published in Germany in 1995, many readers reacted antagonistically, finding it unmanageable and rudely outspoken. This, of course, hardly comes as a surprise. Grass has always unswervingly spoken his mind through memorable characters. His latest work is another sober commentary conveyed through the words and actions of two eccentric and weary but always vigilant 70-year-old protagonists who observe the logic, the aftermath, and the inevitable price of German reunification. Through a clutter of references to Germany's turbulent history, Grass blends the past with the present and almost convinces us that social history is politics, and yet politics remains the history of one. Like the legendary The Tin Drum, this is only superficially a work of magical realism. One of the key sentences, "I'm afraid the shame will live on," which actually alludes to the evasive ending of Kafka's The Trial, suggests that what lies beneath this multilayered, if a bit overambitious, story is a potent message that transcends even the actual characters and their humanity. One cannot help but wonder if the demanding form and content would be more decipherable if the novel had the accessible format of Grass's recently published My Century. Nevertheless, the recognizable honesty of Grass's literature still hovers in the background. This is why we continue to revere him. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/00.]--Mirela Roncevic, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
James J. Sheehan
This is a quieter, gentler book, its tone more ironic, its pace more measured, its structure more cohesive. It is, nonetheless, a rich and complex book . . . It is the work of a seasoned craftsman, certain of what he wants to do, completely in control of his gifts.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
On the heels of Grass's Nobel Prize comes this graceful English version of his most recent (1995) and most controversial fiction: a potent criticism of German reunification, cast in the semi-fabulistic form employed so memorably in mega-novels like The Tin Drum and The Flounder. The story's set mostly in and around Berlin shortly after the "fall," in 1989, of the Wall dividing East from West Germany. Its principal characters are two elderly men. One is former war correspondent and public East German intellectual Theo Wuttke, now employed as a superannuated office boy by the Truehand, the agency entrusted with steering the former East Germany's enterprises and properties into the "new" country's economic mainstream. The other is Ludwig Hoftaller, a vaguely sinister (though perfectly affable) figure whose history as a spy and informer extends (in magical-realist fashion) back to the 19th century, when Bismarck's "unification" of warring German states bred the self-glorifying energies that would erupt in world war. The consequent linking of Germany's past and present (a recurring theme in Grass's fiction) is underscored by Wuttke's fascination with classic German writer Theodor Fontane (coworkers mockingly nickname Wuttke "Fonty"), whose famous 1895 novel, Effi Briest, supplies the complacent repeated phrase—urging one to sticking to one's business and avoid trouble—that gives Grass's novel its deeply ironic title. Too Far Afield is reflective and intermittently discursive, perhaps as much a meditation on aging and facing death (and taking stock of how honorably one has lived) as it is a dramatization of the repetitive pomposity and folly of Germany then and now. Withoutsomeknowledge of recent German history, many readers may find much of it heavy going (though a helpful glossary does precede the text proper). Still, it's filled with vivid and provocative symbolic incident (such as Wuttke's efforts to "preserve" an antiquated elevator in the building that formerly housed the Nazi Air Ministry). A rich, troubling work that offers incontrovertible evidence of this great writer's undiminished artistry, integrity, and passion. Hill, David BUTTERFLY SUNDAY Delacorte (288 pp.) Nov. 14, 2000
From the Publisher
"Grass has succeeded in setting down monuments to those dog days of division, with their linguistic shifts and iconography, rapidly changing cast of characters, uncertainty, and exhilaration.-the Times Literary Supplement (london)
"A broad and wonderful novel, full of surprising twists, grotesque jokes, and mocking reflections about Germany's fate over the last 150 years."-Polityka (Poland)
"Grass's novel is a perfect instrument for tracing echoes and parallels across German writing and history...no other German novelist could have pulled off such a feat."-The Economist
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156014168
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1 HARVEST
  • Pages: 674
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.48 (d)

Meet the Author

GÜNTER GRASS was born in Danzig, Germany, in 1927. He is the widely acclaimed author of numerous books, including The Tin Drum, My Century, Crabwalk, and Peeling the Onion. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2000

    Grass' book continues his Nobel reputation!

    Gunter Grass¿ reputation as a world-class author was cemented when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was long time coming. Only the second Post-War German to win it, Grass has long examined, questioned, criticized, and sometimes applauded his country¿s often turbulent history; in turn, the author has also received harsh criticism (for ¿being too harsh¿!). In ¿Too Far Afield,¿ Grass features two elderly German men, Theo Wuttke and Ludwig Hoftaller, both in their seventies, and who now work for a company set up to privatize the former East Germany. The time is 1989 and the two offer critical, often comical, insights into the ¿world after the fall of the Wall.¿ At times surreal, as perhaps only Grass can be, as he did in ¿Cat and Mouse¿ and ¿The Tin Drum,¿ among others, ¿Too Far Afield¿ is a poignant reminder of what is, what was, and what is to come for Germany. The poignancy of the storyline carries the book, easily. More philosophical than action-packed (as Grass usually is!), this book is a perceptive insight into the German psyche, social structure, economic input, and all at the same time with two unforgettable characters presiding.

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