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.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter’s translation of the year award, I’m going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I’ve read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I’ve read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It’s an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady’s father, and I’m sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel’s path from the epic to what we would recognize today as “normal” realist fiction, it’s a thoroughly engrossing tale that’s plain fun to read. Fielding’s flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I’ve already convinced roughly 20 people (that I’m aware of) to read this book. It’s rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges’s best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled – with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don’t know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don’t understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He’s easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan’s theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It’s too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that’s partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway’s career. He’s also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it’s the best unreliable narrator novel I’ve ever read. Parade’s End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn’t count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann’s book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno’s thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I’m quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I’d read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya’s English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier’s descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome – they actually make me feel like I’m back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I’ll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you’ve been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass has revealed in an interview with a German newspaper that he was in the Waffen-SS in the twilight of World War II. The SS was the Nazi secret service and played a major role in the Holocaust. He has a new book coming out in Germany in September that is a memoir of his wartime years. From the Reuters story:The author, best known for his first novel The Tin Drum and an active supporter of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), said his wartime secret had been weighing on his mind and was one of the reasons he wrote a book of recollections which details his war service. The book is out in September.”My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book,” the paper quoted Grass as saying in a preview of its Saturday edition. “It had to come out finally.”From later in the article: “‘It was like that for many of my generation,’ he added. ‘We were doing army service and then suddenly, one year later, the draft order was on the table. And then I realized, probably not until I was in Dresden, that it was the Waffen-SS.'”