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Peer Review: Onion Skins and Grass Cuttings

By (August 1, 2007) No Comment

In this regular feature we review the reviewers who review new books.

As John Irving asks in the New York Times Book Review: What is it with the onions? Most of the British and American reviewers of Gunter Grass’s 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion assume that their readers are going to need little help with the author’s central metaphor. Grass’s former British publisher Tom Rosenthal, writing in the Independent, is one of several to quote directly from the opening chapter:

When pestered with questions, memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is unambiguous [sic] and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.

Tim Gardam in the UK Observer quotes the same section and correctly (“It is seldom unambiguous”) and notes that “Grass controls his story through metaphor,” however, it can be tough to untangle those tortured double negatives and passive constructions. Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books offers a more elegant evocation of “fragile skins of recollection which peel off to reveal indistinct, sometimes misleading scribbles of memory.” If that’s still too metaphorical, turn to Richard Eder in the Boston Globe, who solemnly intones: “Fully stripped down, an onion is a pile of scattered layers; it has no center.” Is there no more to Grass’s favorite symbolic vegetable than a pile of peel?

Surprisingly only John Irving, in an emphatic and personal defense of his mentor, refers to the scene in The Tin Drum set in the “Onion Cellar” nightclub, where guests who desire the catharsis of tears but lack the requisite emotional honesty have to peel onions to make themselves cry. Irving also notes that Grass has described the pervasive smell of onions in postwar Germany as the only thing that could cover up the stench of corpses. These layered meanings are important because Peeling the Onion is a work aimed at generating emotion as much as at uncovering the stories of the past. Since the metaphor for memory also stands for ersatz tears, don’t readers have to be a little skeptical about the truth of what’s being remembered? If the title of his memoir refers directly to a scene in his first and most famous novel, shouldn’t reviewers be paying attention to the memoir as a work of what publishers now call “creative non-fiction” rather than witness testimony?

Grass’s phrase about what is “laid bare letter by letter” when memory is peeled back is perhaps accidentally apt. The most important element of this memoir to its reviewers is the laying bare of two letters: SS. Throughout a writing life dedicated to excoriating the postwar cover-ups, whitewashings, and unspoken shames of West Germany, Grass had never before revealed that he served in the Waffen-SS as a teenager, and this belated confession caused a controversy in his native country that has severely taxed the metaphoric skills of its English-language reviewers. Eder tells us that it “stirred up a storm;” Rosenthal and Barbara Probst Solomon (in Slate) call it a “furor(e),” and to Timothy Garton Ash in the New York Review of Books, it “was the literary-political equivalent of a nuclear explosion.” Tim Gardam goes for the perhaps unfortunate military metaphors, “a hailstorm of disdain” and a “barrage of attacks,” and for Ian Buruma in the New Yorker, taking his cue from Grass’s novel The Crab Walk, it’s literally a shitstorm. Despite writing the most outraged and uncompromising of all the reviews, Michael Hofmann in the Guardian rather sweetly refers to the “kerfuffle” of 2006 – it’s not a hullabaloo? A rumpus? A brouhaha? Don’t let the cute terminology mask the gravity of the offence, though, since after the “revelation,” Hofmann “put [the book] down for two weeks, unwilling to continue.” Although he knew exactly what he was getting – “it was all over the papers and airwaves in Germany for weeks” – he laments that it takes so long to get to the juicy part, and then that the climax doesn’t live up to the foreplay, being “both too heavily trailed and too much put off, too perfunctory and too dilatory, too defensive and too aggressive.” You’re damned if you do…

What Grass is really damned for is that he didn’t. Tell, that is. All of the reviewers explain that it’s not the crime but the cover-up that matters; it’s concealing the truth that is the (so to speak) impeachable offense. The most egregious instance of bad faith, singled out by Garton Ash, Buruma, Solomon and James Ledbetter in the Village Voice, is Grass’s public criticism in 1985 of Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl for visiting Bitburg Cemetery on the 40th anniversary of VE day, because as Buruma puts it:

among the thousands of graves were the remains of forty-nine Waffen SS soldiers. Thirty-two of the soldiers were less than twenty-five years old when they died. Grass, as his critics have now had occasion to point out, never even hinted that he could easily have been one of them.

In the memoir, Grass does not deny his guilt over this silence. Several reviewers quote some or all of his acknowledgement that:

the claim of ignorance cannot, I consider, veil involvement in a system which planned, organized and carried out the extermination of millions of humans beings. Even if I can talk myself out of the charge of active joint guilt, there remains a residue which to this day has not been lifted, something all too fluently called shared responsibility. That I must live with that for the rest of my years is certain.

Michael Hofmann observes that this moment of confession is marked by a break in style, written in “a new, manly brusqueness,” strikingly different from Grass’s particular talents as either a “rococo fabulist” or a “polemicist,” neither of which writing personae lends itself to the confessional memoir. Extraordinarily (from an Anglo-German writer and translator), Hofmann suggests that telling the truth – or rather “telling it straight” – is for masculine native English speakers, not fey continentals: “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.” Yet when Grass tries to be straightforward, Hofmann denounces the conclusion as “pat,” the tone as impersonal, and the whole as “so bad as to be easily counter-productive.”

If Grass is finally honest, Hofmann believes, it’s not because, at age 79, the guilt finally became too much to live with. No, he suggests that Grass confessed because the recent opening of his Stasi file would have revealed the awkward SS detail. Garton Ash makes the same point, although he’s more skeptical as to whether this would really have made a difference:

(It turns out that the Stasi did not actually have this well-buried detail, but he could not have known that they did not.) In any case, he must realistically have reckoned that one day some thorough German academic would turn up his prisoner-of-war record, with the poisonous three letters W-SS.

Neither reviewer really takes into account the difference between a 480-page memoir and the kind of damage-limiting newspaper article that we might expect from someone threatened with exposure. Whatever the place of the revelation in the memoir, it seems highly unlikely that the memoir was written solely to make the revelation. Neal Ascherson is alone in making the further, though rather obvious point that Grass had good reason to fear his hand being forced all along. You can’t be in SS anonymously. His family knew, as did at least one of his wives, perhaps some friends, and:

More curiously, hundreds of young men must have known him in those months, during training or in action; if they survived, they surely recognized their old comrade in the famous West German writer and knew what unit he had served in. They said nothing. And journalists and literary researchers in recent years could have dug up the facts, which were lying around in openly available documents; Grass had registered as an ex-Waffen SS soldier when he was released by the Americans.

That nobody exposed him rather proves the point: in Germany, individual postwar failures of conscience were and are still enabled by the wider national conspiracy of silence that Grass has spent his life working to expose. It’s the belief that there’s no good to come of raking up the past: a stolidly pragmatic defense that has helped millions of sinners to live with themselves, and helped the reunited country become a stable and prosperous anchor of the modern European Union. Nevertheless, it’s a belief for which Grass has eviscerated hundreds of prominent figures over the years; the onions can’t cover up the smell of schadenfreude in all of this.

If you believe, however, that the crime and not just the cover-up matters, you’re faced with a heap of onion leaves. Did he jump, or was he drafted? It seems that Grass had volunteered for service on a submarine, and by some twist of military fate ended up being called up into the Waffen-SS. This is not quite enlisting, and not quite conscription, although reviewers use both terms. Nevertheless, he liked the glamour of the double lightning-bolts. It was an elite corps, or at least, it had been – the only action Grass saw was in the scrambling retreat in the face of the Red Army. Solomon says confidently that “he never fired a shot in his limited time in the Waffen-SS;” and Ascherson is more cagey – “he claims never to have fired a shot.” How, at this distance in time, can he – or we – possibly know for sure?

What is accepted and what is doubted in these reviews shows the range of possible responses to the genre of memoir, none of which is particularly attentive to the level of literary creativity that such writing involves. Grass loved Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as Irving and Ascherson tell us. Yet this didn’t stop his enthusiastic youthful embrace of Nazi ideology. As Ascherson writes,

When he got hold of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (banned and burned by the Nazis, though Grass did not know that), he read it avidly. Today, he cannot imagine how he lost himself in Remarque and yet somehow missed the whole point of his great warning against war.

It’s equally hard to imagine how reviewers can miss the whole point of this fictionalized autobiography being offered as a model for Grass’s own life story. Another great account of a German defeat and the absurd, abject, anarchic life that war offers to schoolboys, All Quiet teeters on a tightrope between fiction and memoir; writing his story ten years after the end of the First World War, Remarque deliberately killed off his characters so he didn’t have to imagine their drifting, along with thousands of rootless veterans of the trenches, into paramilitary gangs of the nascent extremist parties. Without survival, there’s no guilt.

As if to prove that the “kerfuffle” is a separate but equal (and equally marketable) story in itself, Grass’s German publisher has issued a collection of relevant writings titled Ein Buch, Ein Bekenntnis (A Book, A Confession). Since the majority of reviews are vague on the details of the German attacks on Grass, it’s useful to see Timothy Garton Ash reviewing the memoir along with the documentary record and a collection of poetry Grass wrote last year during the Dummer August (“Stupid August”) of the outcry. By separating the pieces of the story in this way, and in the measured tones of an archaeologist laying out fragments and assessing their value, Garton Ash is able to provide a thorough assessment of the memoir as a work of literature and, pointedly, as “a perfect pendant to his great ‘Danzig trilogy’ of novels, starting with The Tin Drum. ” He follows up this review with a dispassionate account of what long-term damage the revelations will do to Grass’s reputation (not much) and speculation as to why he waited so long to tell the truth (the meaning of the facts snowballed; he wanted to tell it his way, as any writer would). However welcome this calm and thorough account, there is something a little disappointing and dry about the review; if Hofmann is intemperate to the point of absurdity, he at least makes the book sound like an event. Garton Ash’s praise for “passages of great descriptive power,” earthiness, and language “celebrating hearty German sausage” are anemic evocations of stock German clichés – what, no tankards raised in rowdy song at the beer-hall? Grass is a rowdy, sensuous, immodest and immoderate writer who deserves a little more meat on the bones of his defense.

Whether his memoir is a “genuine masterpiece,” as Rosenthal puts it, or just a “long and miserably bad book” (guess who), Grass has nevertheless created a handful of vividly unforgettable scenes, all of which appear in at least two reviews, and which hover between truth and fiction with teasing, tantalizing uncertainty. Ascherson and Rosenthal point to Grass shivering under a groundsheet in an American POW camp with another teenage Nazi named Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Grass says he can’t be sure of the boy’s identity. But why should that get in the way of a good story? Running through Grass’s fiction, his political writing, and now his memoir is the larger claim that taking responsibility for the past is a painful lifelong obligation, and that confession doesn’t grant absolution. How better to make that point than with a sideswipe at the Pope? It’s in the same teasing vein that he tells the story, gleefully recounted by Tim Gardam and James Ledbetter, of pissing in his superior officers’ coffee every morning. Really? How strong do you think they brewed coffee on the Eastern Front in 1945? The story appeals because it gives us a portrait of the artist as a Hollywood rebel and suggests that SS officers are boorish, tasteless, and easily outwitted with a little scatological pluck. So who cares what actually happened? The problem is that reviewers want it both ways – they want the good stories, but they want to pretend that the boundary between imagination and memory is a concrete wall rather than a line in the sand. Barbara Probst Solomon complains about Grass treating his “mere fictional conceit,” The Tin Drum’s Oskar, as though he is somehow real, and the master of memories: “Oskar knows all and tells all” she quotes. Irving and Garton Ash realize that this is the point – Oskar is part of Grass’s past, self, and identity as much as that teenage soldier who answers to “Gunter Grass.” It’s as much Oskar as Gunter who pisses in the coffee.

Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.

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