Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Peeling the Onion

Oh my, this book. So exquisite to hold - fat and heavy in the hand, thick creamy paper, ochre onion sketches. One of the most pleasurable books I've read in a long time for its sheer physical beauty. My pictures don't do it justice.  And the writing - also. How to do justice to that?

These are words chosen with exquisite precision and care, the words of a fabulist, an exaggerator, a storyteller, placed on the page via an Olivetti typewriter, translated, printed onto creamy paper... The writing of Nobel Laureate and 'Germany's most celebrated writer', Gunter Grass, author of a seminal novel about Nazi Germany, the disturbing, astonishing The Tin Drum.

Peeling the Onion (2006) is a memoir which covers Grass' life from birth in 1927 until the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959. In it is the revelation that shocked Germany: that Grass - only 17 and one day to become 'the conscience of the nation'  - was a member of the Waffen SS, in a tank division fighting a rearguard action in the last months of the war.

Here is one reaction when the memoir was published in 2006:

Germany - Der Tagesspiegel. Gregor Dotzauer expressed shock: "Whoever hears this, whether disbelieving or stunned, may think it is a bad joke even after seeing it in convincing black and white, both in the literary recollection and in the interview. Günter Grass, Germany's most celebrated living writer, the Nobel Prize winner, the conscience of the nation, the writer of legends, was a member of the Waffen-SS... A cheap joke of history? Or a truth whose bitterness cannot yet be fully measured? The categories flounder, because it gives rise to so many tones of meaning: for the work of Günter Grass, for his role as bearer of left-wing precepts, for the entire intellectual balance of the country, which his inner struggle and questions on foreign policy still fought out, against the backdrop of 12 long years under Hitler."

I can imagine the profound shock to the German reader. Grass knew what that would be, knew it was time to tell the truth before others told it for him, and he writes with inordinate care, skilfully revealing and obscuring at the same time - winding in and out of the onion metaphor which evokes the tricky layers of memory, shifting from first to third person, telling anecdotes as if they are stories to be told or fairytales, even, and therefore an author's enlargement of the truth. It is hard to know what exactly to trust - Grass rightly asks himself the same question.

No doubt his method of writing the memoir infuritated the German readership, but it cannot be disputed that this is memoir-writing of the most literary and astonishing of its kind, and even - paradoxically - the most honest, and that the reader is witnessing something marvellous. For who knows for sure anything of the past, of that other person - the youthful self? Does the reader want it? Need it? Or perhaps Grass is dissembling? Covering his tracks? I don't know quite honestly, and I prefer to think not.

There are stories in this beautiful book that I have repeated over and over to my family and friends - the one on the pages at left, for example, which talks of the closing months of the war and the young Grass in SS uniform with half a dozen other soldiers hiding out from the Russians in a cellar. They can hear shots outside, The cellar is full of bikes, the Sergeant tells them all to grab a bike and on his command to ride. Grass can't ride, his mother couldn't afford to buy him a bike. He gets to stay and 'cover them' with a machine gun. He can't use one but he doesn't say so. He stays. The others are mown down by machine gun-fire. Then see the picture below of Grass riding a two-seater bike with his second wife Ute. After years of not being able to ride, she gets him on the saddle, but only - safely - on the back.

 There is another wonderful 'fairytale' of a story on the pages to the right - running now, on his own, as the Russians advance. Grass is in a wood, it's dark, he can hear twigs breaking, someone's there. German or Russian? He starts to sing the first line of a German lullaby his mother sang him. Over and over he sings it, until at last a German voice answers him with the second line. It is the Lance Corporal whose name he never knows, but who - it is clear -  saves Grass' life.

It is also clear that this way of 'storytelling' his life is the way for Grass to live with what happened during the war. Who's to say there isn't more than a nugget of truth in there? Grass comes back over and over again to his unforgiveable silence, his self-centredness, and the guilt he has had to live with.

The latter part of the book unravels a little - less focused, more the winding of spools of threads - and Grass' ego starts to bother me. He asserts a nothingness at core - someone who struggles to be something - but still we are regaled with the success that seems to come at him from all directions once he's on his feet: this man can dance beautifully, play music beautifully, cook beautifully, sculpt beautifully, write beautifully. The early vulnerability of the boy at home and fighting in fairytale forests and finding his feet is more compelling, easier to bear.

However, it is in the final chapters that I liked reading about the emergence of the writer - the way words hammering Grass' brain finally pushed their way out through his skin, became poems, a novel, more novels ... The Olivetti Lettera typewriter he uses standing up, the need to leave a work rough-hewn like sculpture-in-progress so the writer doesn't mistakenly think it's finished, how he chews up the fodder of his life and makes it into fiction, a memoir.

There is a Book 2 called The Box which begins in 1960. I would like to read that too. I wonder if it is as beautiful to hold.


Melissa Green said...

Mary, thank you for your intense and comprehensive--well, review isn't the right word--perhaps evaluation would say it better, though that doesn't do justice to your thoughtful insights and wonderful prose. It does what all good writing about books does--makes you want to run out and read the book immediately!! xo

Mary McCallum said...

Melissa - that was quick! I'd barely posted when I saw your comment. Thank you for this. If you were around the corner, I'd pop over with the book and a couple of apricots! We might even have a cup of tea and talk more about memoir.

I meant to write just a few lines on Peeling the Onion, but I couldn't - the book demanded more. What a reading experience it's been. One of the best. Oh well, I will go out into the sun now, might even swim in the sea.

Penelope said...

The overall impression that this book gave me was of an incredibly arrogant man. (I see you also found to be the case to some extent.) I remember how dismissive Grass seemed to be of his wife's artistic practice (dancing), as if that was obviously less important than his writing.

I can't say I found this book beautiful at all; just extremely annoying.

Mary McCallum said...

Interesting Penelope - I didn't read the Anna parts as closely as the earlier parts of the book - but I felt he and his first wife were a partnership - he writing, her dancing - and they loved to dance together. One could make a case for Grass being arrogant but I'm not sure the evidence points to that conclusion - egotistical, self-absorbed perhaps. I have to say for me the worst time was when his mother was dying of cancer and he didn't go and visit her. He seems to see that now? Regret his self-absorption? But the writing itself, the lovely book - both fabulous.

Bill M said...

Thank you for the very interesting post an review of the book. You have stirred my interest in another book that I must read this year.