Günter Grass on his book The Flounder

In West Germany, where 300,000 of Günter Grass’s massive novel The Flounder have been sold in a year, many customers are returning for a second helping. The first copy was for their own library, an exuberant read (exuberant being a word strongly related to the matriarchal udder, and even more true of Grass’s imagination here than ever). It is a story full of stories from the Stone Age to 1970. The second copy they are buying for the kitchen, as a house book. It contains scores of perfectly workable recipes, some quite ancient, plus 40 or so poems as aids to digestion.

He can’t, he says, generate a novel without an epic idea. In modern times epic ideas are no longer chansons de geste nor heroes of vaulting ambition. They may be cities, as Dublin was for Joyce; or Berlin for Alfred Doblin in the twenties. In this sense in previous novels Grass has used the lost Free City of Danzig, where he was born in 1927 of Polish and German parents; Danzig figures again this time, but the central, the epic, idea was food – its history and cultural substance.

He planned this bonne bouche for himself as a 50th birthday present. Luckily his fame and fortune allowed him to give five years to it (writing is an old-fashioned profession, he says, which can’t be rationalised and hurried and computers can’t help) because the snag in research is the shortage of documents. And those few mostly relate what rich people ate. His interest lay in the provender of the poor and the unknown women who schemed and cooked it.

The planting of potatoes in Prussia, he believes, did more to change society over the long haul than the Seven Years’ War. If you come to this point you see history with different eyes. It must be said here that he has always seen history with different eyes, thinking chronology a fiction and the role of women falsified because they are only mentioned when they behave like men - Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, Indira Gandhi and so forth. And in neglecting food historians have omitted, he says, what has become the crucial question of our time.

Grass came to London this week to bestow the Schlegel Tieck translation prize at the Goethe Institute, to take lunch at the new German Embassy, to launch The Flounder and a collection of his poems called In the Egg, and attend the opening at the Patrick Searle Gallery in Belgravia of his etchings of creatures like flounders and snails which are his symbols of modern political progress, the coastal variety being, he says, a specially nippy sort of snail. Between these grand occasions he sat in my musty, dusty study and rolled his own cigarettes from the same awful shag he smoked when he was poor, and talked of critical moments in his own history.

With his open collar and snug paunch, the lugubrious moustache which belies his saturnine humour and his hooded eastern eyes he seems not so much like the great European writer as an afternoon pork butcher from Cable Street. All Grass is flesh ? Well, he hails from the north which is cattle country. Had he been, say, a Bavarian, he’d have been all noodles. The dichotomy in German cooking dates from the rise in price of Hungarian and Polish beef in 1525. His personal culinary background is the sweet and sour of Poland.

He loves to cook, yes, to devote two entire days to fixing a wedding spread for 80 people, and says he’s frightened of people who do not love themselves enough to cook when they’re on their own. But it was neither this nor research for The Flounder that rounded him out. It was his masterpiece and first novel The Tin Drum that changed his shape, literally and metaphorically. Not because it sold half a million copies in America, though it did, but because he’d been working in a damp room and when he applied for a health certificate to visit the USA tuberculones were diagnosed. His frantic publisher, thinking the new-born genius about to be snuffed out, had him drugged up. Up and up, to 15 stone.

Drastic, but sound. He was cured and went on, stoutly, to write Cat and Mouse, and The Dog Years, these three giving a purview of the tumult and anguish of the German people from the Weimar Republic to the collapse of the Third Reich, in a splendid mix of realism and and expressionist fantasy. The Dog Years, more fragmented and less perfect than The Tin Drum, he thinks better. It contains all the political lines of polemic on behalf of the Social Democrats, that he has followed since.

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