Saturday, July 07, 2007

Peeling the onion

Michael Hofman at the Guardian on Gunter Grass's autobiography:

Peeling the Onion covers the years from 1939 to 1959, when The Tin Drum was published; it is an autobiography of Grass's youth. I didn't read it during the kerfuffle of 2006, but coming to it now, in both the inadequate original and in Michael Henry Heim's always spirited English translation, things seem, if anything, even worse. There is a kind of plain-spoken and rueful candour that is apparently entirely outside Grass's gift; perhaps it can only be done by Anglo-Saxon writers. One thinks of the noble line of Edmund Gosse, JR Ackerley or Laurie Lee; or more recent accounts such as Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life. This is the thing that Grass, by equipment either a rococo fabulist or else a polemicist, cannot do: stand at the end of a life, or a part of life, and - however crooked - tell it straight. There are important categories such as "the poetry of fact", even "the truth of fact", that are simply inimical to him (they are no good to a polemicist or a fabulist). The oddest, most dismaying thing about Peeling the Onion is that Grass should ever have attempted anything of the sort, so unwinning, unresonant, unstylish and unconvincing is the result. (And that too makes one think this is not a voluntary exercise.)

The revelation of the SS membership comes too late in the book. Not unnaturally, one turns the pages, impatient for it to come; and then, when it is gone, one feels too winded - too punched - to carry on through the rest of it. (I actually put it down for two weeks, unwilling to continue.) It is both too heavily trailed and too much put off, too perfunctory and too dilatory, too defensive and too aggressive. They are two pages of failed writing that should be put in a textbook, and quarried for their multiple instances of bad faith.

The whole episode is announced by a break in style, with an end to Grassian gabbiness and a new, manly brusqueness. Then the Waffen SS makes its first appearance, not as a principal, in the nominative, but in the genitive, "a drill ground of the Waffen SS", just as "I" does not appear as "I" but as "the recruit with my name" (a habitual and awful periphrastic tic throughout the book). There is callous, hardbitten military jargon ("a pocket like Demyansk forced open") followed by a dismaying, and dismayingly rare, statement of fact: "I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent." There is a disquisition on Georg von Frundsberg, a 16th-century mercenary who gave Grass's unit its name: "Someone who stood for freedom, liberation." There is a bizarre note on the international composition of the Waffen SS that makes it sound like the League of Nations: "It included separate volunteer divisions of French and Walloon, Dutch and Flemish, and even many Norwegian and Danish soldiers." And then the conclusion, sounding rather more self-justificatory than it needed to: "So there were plenty of excuses." And the last, pat sentence: "I will have to live with it for the rest of my life" - though one should note that here, of all places, the German uses an impersonal construction!

Updated: John Irving has an extraordinary and I think quite unsuccessful piece of advocacy for Grass in this weekend's Times Book Review. In particular there's a point where he uses Grass's first name--I see the effect he's aiming for, but it seems to me pretty much un-pull-offable without a greater level of candor and moral difficulty than Irving seems able to achieve.

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