Grass’ unconventional picnic in The Flounder (1977) is among the worst. Not only does Grass mock the accepted idea of a picnic but in doing so turns Greek mythology topsy-turvy.
It’s an episode in which the key figure is Sybille, aka Billie, a name that is a variation of the Greek oracle/prophetess Sybil. According to Grass’ version, Sybille is raped by her friends, then raped again and murdered by men dressed in black leather, who are supposed to suggest modern-day Furies, creatures in Greek myth who get satisfaction by killing men. It’s a complex message exposing a rampant demonic urge in German civilization that the novel’s narrator refers to as “gruesome.”
The picnic takes place in May on Ascension Day. For Catholics, it is celebrated as the day Jesus ascended to heaven in the presence of the Apostles. For all Germans, it’s Father’s Day, a day when men have license to leave home to get drunk. Described by the narrator, it’s tumultuous: “From early morning, beer-tipsy hordes are on the move, crowding into subways, and elevated trains. Double-decker buses jam-packed with singing men. Swarms of teenagers on motorcycles: leather-jacketed, swathed in their noise.”
Into this seething mass of a hundred thousand men in the Grunewaldsee, four lesbians Sybille ,Maxie, Frankie and Siggie dressed in men’s clothing tempt their fate. Arrogantly they unpack picnic gear, food, cases of beer, an ice bucket. Grass means their food to be symbolically masculine, the kind of feast Homer describes—one-foot long inch-thick steaks and lamb kidneys that will be grilled with oil, thyme pepper and other spices. The women bicker about how women and men cook differently in the open. But Sybille, the cook, says that there is no difference and that cooking over any fire is primordial.
When the food is eaten and the beer consumed, the women snooze, but not for long. “The Hour of Pan” arrives, and they are awakened by lust. Maxie, Siggie, and Frankie are aroused and take turns raping Sybille. Wounded physically and psychologically, Sybille manages an escape, but stumbling through the woods, she is systematically tracked by a pack of “leather-boys,” men dressed in black leather riding motorcycles. Bored of food and drinking they are randy and believe to a man that “A day like this with no fucking is worthless.” Unable to evade them, Sybille is attacked, raped, and runover by their motorcycles. When Maxie, Frankie, and Siggie find her, she is “mangled, mashed, [and] no longer human.” Her beauty is utterly destroyed. Anonymously, they call the police and leave. Matter-of-factly, the narrator says, “After that life went on.”
Featured Image: No picnic here. Grass’ Self-portrait, published the same year as The Flounder.
See: Grass, Günter. The Flounder [Der Butt]. Translated by Ralph Mannheim. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.