A year after the end of the Second World War, a young man steps off a bus in what remains of Germany. It’s winter, one of the coldest in anyone’s memory, and the long journey homeward, from Hanover, to Cologne, and finally through the Lower Rhineland, has kept him shivering. A deeper fear also penetrates. He has misgivings about what has happened to his family, who have they become, who will he meet. He doesn’t announce the visit, he wants to keep it a surprise, but when he steps off the bus, he walks straight into them. They are standing in the cold, waiting for a bus themselves, his mother, father, and sister. He has not set eyes on them in over two years, and instead of joy, his first reaction is horror.
When Günter Grass’ memoir Peeling the Onion was released in Germany, it was met with a different kind of horror. In it, after decades of silence, Grass acknowledged that he had willingly served as a tank gunner in the Waffen-SS, the elite and much-feared paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. For a man who spent his adult life excoriating hypocrisies in others, especially in former Nazis, the revelation was rich fodder for his critics. Much of the reaction to the memoir focused on Grass’s confession, and battle lines were rapidly drawn. Some called for his Nobel Prize to be revoked, and others applauded his bravery in finally setting the record straight.
No one sees clearly in war, certainly not in one on the scale of World War Two, and to blindly lay the crimes of a sixteen year-old at the old man’s feet requires a willful ignorance of what memory is, what trauma is, and in this case, what the transformations of spirit and self that a young man who wants to be an artist needs to put himself through.
The firestorm died down, Grass did not lose his Nobel medal; instead he left for us, in the ashes of that firepit, a riveting account of the apprenticeship of a writer. And more than that, perhaps the best guide to how write a novel ever published.
The young man who greeted his own family with horror at the Fliesstetten bus station in 1946 would not remain home long. His father wanted him to become a “paper pusher” at the local coal mine, a very good job at the time, but one the young artist wannabe thought ridiculous. His mother looked careworn, beaten down, and the four of them slept in a single crowded room and spent the evenings huddled together for warmth. Grass fled as soon as he could, carrying a stack of poems and sketches, for Düsseldorf and the art school there. It was closed due to lack of coal. A chance meeting led him to apprentice as a stonemason. But already, as he writes, he was gripped by an insatiable desire “to conquer all with images.”
He had passed through the war with two hungers. The first was for food, the second for sex. At an American POW camp, he took lessons from a fellow prisoner, a chef who, lacking actual ingredients, described the recipes, the dishes, the processes, and all with such loving detail that everyone who listened groaned with excruciating desire. Later, on buses to and from the stone cutters, he would find himself squeezed against young working women who more often than not, in that era of deprivation, seemed happy to oblige some mildly carnal pleasure for the duration of the short bus journey.
His third hunger was for art.
The journey he makes, from drawing and poems, to sculpture, and finally to those unwieldy, fantastical novels, the prose he never believed he would write, is rendered in a hopscotch of memory and forgetting, of mislaid chronologies and chance encounters. “One never knows what will make a book,” Grass writes. “The transformation of lived life, life in the raw, into a text undergoing constant revision and coming to rest only between covers, can come from a tombstone belonging to an unsightly pile of tombstones shunted off to their side, their time having passed.” It is these transformations that Grass chronicles here, brief snatches, small flames that illuminate a whole forest.
Grass uses everything. His old friends are transformed, sometimes again and again. Korneff, a senior journeyman in real life, is given his own workshop in The Tin Drum, just so he can show the novel’s anti-hero how to turn a slab of stone into a monument. A youthful tour of cemeteries returns decades later in The Call of the Toad. His teachers, his friends, his lovers, all make their entrances and exits.
Discovering (inventing? meeting?) Oskar Matzerath, the midget anti-hero of The Tin Drum, in the rubble of postwar Germany was a revelation. Grass found himself reduced to being little more than a “writing implement” chronicling Oskar’s entrances. Oskar “determined who was to die, who was granted miraculous survival.” The midget fiend Oskar compelled Grass to “haunt his early years.” Furthermore, he “gave me leave to put everything which had claim to truth between question marks.” It was Oskar, writes Grass, who turned his gentle pacifist professor, Pankok, into Professor Kuchen, “a volcano whose explosions blackened any sheet of paper with brute expressive power.”
This archaeologist Grass, this merciless excavator of his own past, is the man who would become the novelist, and it is only through such relentless exploitation of the self that he manages to remake the world on the page. What makes Grass’s memoir such a compelling and unusual master class in the art of fiction is not that he tells the reader how to write, but he shows, through glimpses, how he himself did it, and specifically, how he wrote his own life into his novels.
Not much is left after the decades. “People required by their professions to exploit themselves learn over the years to value fragments,” Grass writes. There is an overlooked ID card he never used. Little else. So much has been commandeered into the service of art, that now, Grass writes, “I find it difficult to sound out my past for demonstrable facts.”
Italo Calvino said he regretted writing his first, autobiographical novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. He claimed it stole his memories of his youth, and whatever recollections he retained were forever infected by the fictional version. Grass harbors no similar regrets. Memory, for him, is by its nature unstable. It reforms, configures, transfigures, jumbles, erases, invents, it builds, ultimately, a likeness of ourselves in our own image, much as a novel does. And like the novelist who raids his own past, it is supremely selfish, hoarding for itself what it needs, carelessly jettisoning the unnecessary.
The young man Grass, who was horrified at the transformation of his family by the war, does his best to shun them. He misses his mother’s death and funeral. Only after, through many roundabout conversations with his sister, does he learn the cause of her careworn face. She was raped repeatedly by Russian conscripts, and offered herself willingly in exchange for the guarantee that her daughter would not be touched. Whether Grass uses this he does not say. But the ugly shadow of the knowledge, and the long years it was hidden from him, like the shadow of the eager Waffen-SS recruit he tried desperately to forget, writes itself across all his work with power, anger, and tragedy.