Although much has been made of the 'revelation' that Gunter Grass served briefly in the Waffen SS (and more has been made of the disappointment many feel at the hypocrisy of his concealment of that fact during a lifetime of serious political and moral writing, satirizing the hypocrisy of others while concealing his own), I would argue that a large part of the point of Peeling the Onion is that there are far more serious and damnable crimes than either the trivial "service" or the self-serving concealment of it.
Grass is ferociously critical (and contemptuous) of his younger self; time and again he shows his behavior as essentially selfish, self-centered, egotistical, and especially blind to both the love and sacrifices of others on his behalf; his portrayal of his efforts to "free" himself from his family background is not unfamiliar in portraits of young artists, but he shows himself both blind to the needs and feelings of his parents and sister, as well as unable to recognize or acknowledge their efforts to help him. We might conclude that he is constructing a portrait of the kind of artist who is so enclosed in the world of his creative consciousness that he cannot allow time for "normal" human feelings or relationships. Again, that is a familiar characterization, but his narration of his mother's death, in particular, portrays his own behavior as almost inhumanly remote and unfeeling. And yet, at the same time, we have constant signals that the feelings are there, beneath the surface, later to emerge in his art--and the suggestion that the art is, after all, more important.
The memoir, then, is simply not about his putative guilt or hypocrisy, nor is it really about his self-centered behavior; it is about the creative act and the ways in which the artist uses the matter of his or her life to create the art that justifies her or his existence. Grass is not really focused on how other people might "judge" his human relationships--his responsibility or lack of it, his parental or grandparental love and generosity, or the lack of it; whether his behavior fits our notions of how good people ought to behave is really not interesting to him, nor really should it be to his readers. No doubt a world full of Dr. Phils and Judge Judys will render their fatuous views in the latest psychobabble, but Grass (and his admirers) will be impervious to all that And those who read the book attentively (especially if they are familiar with his novels) will see that the constant references to the ways memory may trick us into taking a "story" for "reality" are really the point--not that there is no reality, but that our access to it is always framed by the stories we tell about it. Those who carp about his prizes or his literary eminence (and who suggest that the latter is compromised, the former subject to return) have not read, have certainly not understood, the artistic experience Grass has offered in this very fine addition to his great oeuvre.
on June 26, 2007
This biography chronicles the author's life, beginning with his awareness of himself, the intangible tie with which he is connected to Germany, to the collective awareness of guilt through the war, to his search of truth, and freedom. It is also an epic detailing what art, and writing meant to Gunter Grass, in a life of evolving insight. Echoing writers such as Claude Simon, his writing is like a tango between the past and the present; it sways between counciousness of abstract and realism. Through the streams of his thoughts, and words, it is as if the author is slowly peeling away the protective layers built against pride and pain. Despite the sting, Gunter Grass both reveals and savors the tenderness, and frailty of human nature- the creative and procreative genius.
Peeling the Onion is required reading for anyone who wants to have a deeper insight into Mr. Grass's remarkable books; desires to learn how a young Nazi turned into someone who wrote objectively through fiction about the Nazi era; is thrilled by eclectic influences to explore a progression from enjoying art cards and sketching into writing poetry and making sculptures into becoming the author of The Tin Drum; and is intrigued by the tricks that memory plays on us as we get older. Many will find themselves surprised by Mr. Grass's revelations about his youthful enthusiasm for the Nazis and volunteering for service that led to becoming a member of the Waffen SS. The book's writing style once again reveals a man whose incisive perspective allows him to stand among us while standing apart. The book's title and ongoing imagery relate to the way that exploring and reexploring memory help us come closer to the truth about ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately, there's no more onion left to peel. The imagery is illustrated by pencil drawings of peeled onions that are presumably by Mr. Grass's hand.
Rarely does an author reveal the sources of his characters, situations, images, and locales in as much detail as Mr. Grass does in this autobiography that concludes with the publication of The Tin Drum. I feel a need to reread all of the works to inject these perspectives.
Most writers will tell you that they use all of their life experiences as resources. Having seen how true that is of Mr. Grass, I realized for the first time that for writers to have truly original voices they need to have experiences that are far different than what most people do. Mr. Grass's war-disrupted youth certainly makes that clear.
For those who find realistic accounts of wartime interesting, Mr. Grass spends more time on his brief period under fire than on any other subject. You'll get an impressive eye-witness account of the collapsing German military just before Hitler's suicide.
Ultimately, I came away astonished most by the way that Mr. Grass is able to look at even his own actions and life as an external viewer might. That's a remarkable talent that obviously contributes to his ability to sculpt complex word pictures into stories that defy memory loss.
If you read only one autobiography of a writer, I suggest this one.
on July 30, 2007
"Peeling the Onion" is not a great book, but it is not a bad one either. One wishes for a more straightforward, clear narrative, still, there are powerful and moving passages within this muddled book.
Grass joined the SS and kept it from public knowledge for decades. Now he has made it public and has apologized. His life and most of his political positions and activism since the end of World War II, have made up for his youthful membership in the SS.
The great work is behind him: "The Tin Drum," "The Flounder," "From The Diary of a Snail" and other good if lesser novels. With "The Rat" clear evidence of his literary decadence appeared, yet "The Call of the Toad" was refreshingly good.
For anyone seriously interested in post World War II literature, "Peeling the Onion" is a must, if flawed, read. Better yet,go back and read "The Tin Drum," which is undeniably a masterpiece.
on September 7, 2007
At a play in NYC a few years ago when one character describes to another German children burned alive with napalm in the allied bombings, a playgoer behind me said, "good".
In the shop today I was restoring a Nuernberg Trial document containing a photo (among others) of a German soldier executing a terrified nine-year-old.
And here is Grass's autobiographical account of a kid in Nazi Germany and a youth in its aftermath. Everybody should read this book.
In Plato's CRITO Socrates said we are divided into two types, those who believe that it is right to return harm for harm and those who believe in doing no harm at all. These two types will always be fighting, Socrates says, because they really have nothing in common. Everybody should read that book, too.
on August 29, 2007
This beautiful, almost unbearably moving, profoundly honest, wonderfully complex and poetic work will surely come to be known not only as one of Grass' very best, but also as one of the truest books on the Hitler period. With extraordinary care, Grass, as he peels the onion, explores the nature of memory, creativity, and truth itself. His homage to his mother is one of the most beautiful ever written. This is as good as memoir gets. I highly recommend it to all serious readers, thinkers, and seekers of Truth.
Grass is one of the great German writers of the 20th century, who won the Nobel Prize for literature. Although this memoir does not diminish my opinion of Grass' works, it is a disappointment. Grass obviously does not want to let the reader into his most personal space. Therefore he spends a lot of time with self conscious writing about what he remembers and does not remember and does not write a very convincing and detailed narrative about his progress toward becoming a writer after World War II. We learn a lot about his typewriter and about where he came up with certain characters, but not much about why he writes and how he feels about writing. Nor do we get a gripping and coherent narrative of Grass' life after the War.
Grass beats two metaphors into the ground: the notion of memory as peeling the onion and the preservation of certain memories like an insect in amber. He returns to the metaphor so many times that the reader is guaranteed to become sick of the device by the time he or she finishes the first third of the book.
Ironically enough, what redeems the work is what Grass has been most criticized for: his service in the Waffen SS at the end of the War and his decision to block that out of his biography for 60 years. This part of the book is written with feeling and is utterly authentic. Grass is eloquent in describing the Nazi world in which he grew up. Dissenters and eccentrics disappear suddenly, and everyone knows they are in a concentration camp but no one talks about it. Grass describes his lack of curiousity as child like -- repeating his metaphor from the "Tin Drum" of the German people of the Third Reich as in a child-like state of arrested development. Grass describes his complete, child-like, and irrational faith in the "ultimate victory" of the Nazi state and in Hitler's infallibility, even as he witnesses the complete collapse of the Eastern Front in early 1945.
Grass views himself as taking advantage of his own childhood to escape responsibility for what occurred around him. He feels guilt about not applying his natural rebelliousness to anything meaningful, such as the oppression that he witnessed first hand. He tells an extraordinary story of one draftee who refused to hold a gun -- "We don't do that", he said simply. This draftee was in all respects the very picture of Aryan competence and strength. But he was a conscientious objector who was ultimately carted off to some concentration camp after the drill instructors and the troops were unable to "convince" the objector of the error of his ways.
Grass contends that he knew nothing of the Holocaust until the Americans showed him the gruesome pictures during his captivity as a POW. Even then, Grass' initial reaction was one of disbelief. Yet, Grass knew that concentration camps existed and he knew the Jews were populating them. Grass' rendition of events is believable when one considers Grass' point that his childlike gullibility and faith caused him not to inquire further. This was a state of willful indifference -- of refusing to see the true nature of the regime. Thus, it is believable that many Germans simply did not know of the holocaust on the one hand, but were guilty of willful and criminal indifference on the other.
Grass' description of his comically ineffective service in the Waffen SS is credible. The Waffen SS had no involvement in the Holocaust and was used as troops in the field. Grass ia assigned to a woefully untrained unit and never fires a shot. Given the nature of those units at the time and Grass' brief service, I believe that Grass had no role in atrocities. Despite all this, Grass accepts his guilt for being part of and a supporter of the Third Reich. This part of the book is extremely well done and Grass' voice is sincere and moving.
The tale of his youth and brief war service makes this memoir worthwhile, despite the disappointment that will come with reading the rest of the book.
Whether true or imagined or somewhere in between, Grass has managed to write a story of his life that is compelling, haunting, thoughtful, reflective, impressionistic, and cinematic in breadth and scope. This is bravura memoirs, whether every detail is true or not, with passages of great descriptive power.
It is a shame that his revelation about the SS overshadowed the release of this book, as it is chock full of fabulous images and scenes of Germany pre-war, war, and immediately post-war. His tale of escape in wartime due to his inability to bicycle, or how he met up with a fellow soldier in the dead of night in the woods by singing a German nursery rhyme, are brilliantly rendered and unforgettable.
Grass enables us not just to see, but to feel, smell, touch, and breath life in Danzig in a cramped two-room flat, to dreams of glory in Hitler's army, to war, to capture, to incarceration at a POW camp, to life post-war amid the ruins of Germany. Has any writer written so lovingly, so powerfully, about food and smells as Grass? I'm still looking for a bottle of Dopplekorn. His description of his hunger at the POW camp, and how he learned of cooking while in the camp from a master chef, are some of the most powerful passages on food I have ever read.
Whether you love or detest Grass, you will find this book immensely satisfying.
on August 30, 2007
I had heard the controversy this book stirred up, and I was curious as to how much sidestepping there would be. Let me tell you, Grass is brutally honest here and he holds nothing back. Do not think for one minute that he hid anything in his life -- it's all there in his books for you to see, and he tells you point blank where to look for the clues.
A definite must read for anyone interested in Germany history.
on November 19, 2014
Peeling the onion is meant to imply turning back the pages of memory with the intention of facing the pluses and minuses of your past. For Grass that covers the period of the Third Reich and the early postwar years and therefore includes the tearful memories of his country as well. While that was quite common among Germans who lived through that catastrophic period – I grew up there myself at that time – I am not sure most readers were aware of much probing or reassessing of past events or actions, be it positive or negative. Instead you follow the story of his early youth in a German/Kashubian family in Danzig, of the war, his brief military service and after that his struggle to make a living in his devastated and impoverished country, until he hit the jackpot publishing The Tin Drum in 1959. In as much as his numerous books since then have revolved around the same subject, you wonder about the purpose of publishing another book like that in 2006. While his acclaimed gift of storytelling was at times enjoyable – I loved his marvelous account of the abstract cooking course attended by starving POWs given by a Bessarabian chef – it often blended into a chatty, non-structured rendering of trivia. There were pointless passages such as how he became a smoker, lacking interest and stretching the reader’s patience paragraph after paragraph. Once again, as he did half a century before, he tortured his readers with half-page sentences that are difficult to parse or even plunged into ungrammatical word salads of similar lengths. His brief service in a Waffen-SS unit casts no blame on him in my opinion or at least does so less than his self-centered disregard for his suffering parents after the national collapse.
For those of us who lived then, this book reawakens old and often painful memories. For post-war generations and certainly Americans it is a historical lesson taught by a disheartened and cynical eyewitness. In either case, I don’t think it stirs up much dust any more.