Peeling the Onion
I just finished Gunter Grass's autobiography, Peeling the Onion. I've preferred Grass the polemicist to Grass the novelist, though I'm not sure I can give a good reason for that. Based only, really, on a long-ago reading of The Tin Drum and of this autobiography and some of his essays he's literary in a way that I feel uneasy with, entirely owing to my own education in the novel, which is strongly biased in favor of -- well, whatever you call it that unites Austen, Kleist, Trollope, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Faulkner, Pushkin, and Chekhov. I grew up into a mistrust of allegorical modes of writing, for one thing. So I always had this reservation, though I've tried to resist it.
After reading Peeling the Onion, I read rather quickly through this Timothy Garton Ash review in the New York Review of Books. He mentions that before the book came out, the media broke the story that Grass, a Nobel Prize winner, had been a member of the Waffen-SS as a young man. Garton Ash also describes some of the controversy that followed this disclosure. It’s interesting, I still found that my sympathies lay with Grass in the whole affair.
For one thing, the venality of the press’s handling of the disclosure was so very apparent. And there’s something more than venality in it. Among other things, the conflict between Grass and the press was a conflict over who has the right to tell the story. This is an issue not just for Grass, but for everybody. I mean, we are all getting so used to the idea all of a sudden that people shouldn’t speak for themselves where they can be heard by anybody else -- that doing so exposes you as “uncivil.” Civil people keep quiet and let other people do their thinking for them: “We tried to Teach You How to Think but we – er, you – failed.” And it has always been true that the person who tries to defend himself against the media starts out with a huge disadvantage. So, again: who tells Grass’s story? Does journalism tell it or does literature tell it?
It just happened that I read the book first, without having paid much attention to all the fuss. I paid just enough attention to know that I wanted to read the book first.
I think my feeling about Grass's approach to literature began to change not because of him but because of another German writer, W.G. Sebald. Somehow while I was in St. Kitts I managed to get hold of his novels and devoured them. If novels is the right word for them. What I liked was their discursiveness, a quality frowned on this side of the water. Sebald's books are literary in a high and subtle way; they are "artificial" in the sense in which, say, Andrew Marvell would have understood the term, that is, deliberately crafted to seem completely natural. They wander through a series of subjects that are connected by tenous and seemingly accidental connections, and when you get to the end you have a feeling -- but you really have that feeling, it has been so carefully defined and set off from its surroundings for you. And that feeling will be a new feeling: you will know something you didn't know before and that knowledge will be fraught with the feeling. He has brought you there, and his narrator is so strangely unassuming and solitary, and so accepting of his condition. He makes what connections he can among disparate things with a sort of scrupulous thoughtfulness, as if his life depended on it. I recognize in his work his need to see life in a literary way, his sense that insights only come from this state of immersion and concentration that is a lot like being in love.
Sebald's novels are as if The Sorrows of Young Werther were readable and interesting. But instead of some ditzy romance at the back of Sebald's novels are feelings of guilt and loss. His own personal feelings? I don't know and am less interested in that question than in how it is that his reader comes to experience those feelings by following the meandering track of the narrator’s musings. The point is to experience a very specific feeling through this level of patient, detailed reflection. The feeling is the casual byproduct of the end of these musings, when the narrator comes to a moment of self-discovery that links together all these various themes and bits of narrative. The narrator, you realize, has been seeking his place among all these things – his place in history. And he can’t assume he knows what history is; he has to figure that out too. In Auschwitz the narrator is looking for continuity, and at the end you learn that you can’t have continuity without the acknowledgment of that catastrophe. The narrator has been exploring a few of the catastrophe’s implications and consequences. He’s examining the fading marks that those events have left behind, he’s looking at absences. Auschwitz is a novel addressing history – it is a novel about ideas. Not about ideology, but the use of conceptualization, i.e., various ways of making connections and seeing relations among things, to imagine, and by imagining, perceive.
(One of the ways that you can distinguish between what Harold Rosenberg called "mass-culture" writing and the real thing is that the former takes you through a very narrow range of feelings and those feelings are always predictable.)
Anyway when I discovered Sebald I ate up his books because he was trying to use ideas to write about feelings and thereby get at something bigger than both. I became much more interested in the idea of lyrical prose if it could open up other subjects, other experiences and other feelings for the writer. This interest is not about style at all, if I haven’t made that clear. It’s about finding a way to sustain and complete a thought and give it form. It is really interested in getting from point A to point B.
Grass, too, had to work with ideas in his fiction in order to reconnect with history. His metaphor is peeling the onion, peeling away layers of tricky memory to find the young man who joined the Waffen-SS near the end of the war. Peeling the Onion tells the story of who that young man was: it ends at the beginning of the career of the writer of The Tin Drum. He spent (it's unclear just how many) months in the SS; he didn’t have much choice about which division of the armed services he was sent to, though he makes no plea for himself with respect to that. At the time that he joined, everybody had to join. The army was in retreat from the Eastern front, and was falling apart. His first mission after he completes training is to Dresden, which has already been bombed. Later, he describes finding German soldiers hanging in the woods, killed by their own side for having deserted, though in many cases their units had simply fallen apart or been killed to nearly the last man or had wandered off. Meanwhile the Russians and Americans were advancing. Grass, like a lot of these late recruits, spent most of his short war running and hiding. When he finally surrendered and was placed in an American-run POW camp, he and the others that he finds there seem relieved more than anything. The Americans allow them to set up classes and anybody who has a skill can teach it to others. The whole place turns into an adult-ed classroom; it is extraordinary. Grass took a cooking class from a chef, a class conducted entirely without food. When he was finally released he had to make his way in the world just like any other young chap starting out in life – except he had no education, the world he was setting out into had been bombed to rubble, and over it all was the shadow of this terrible, terrible national guilt and defeat. There was no money, only a black market; and everybody, everybody, was poor and uncertain of the future. He never appeals to your sympathy for this situation. He does tell you that his idea of heroism was romantico-medieval, that, is, fascist; it was what made him a patriot during the war. When he joined the army he hoped to live up to this ideal. It was youthful thoughtlessness, ignorance, and the combination of propaganda and censorship. By the time he had finished his training soldiers were fleeing back into Germany and people were still unclear about the fact that the war was lost. He describes these confusions as experience, not as an excuse. His most forceful comment on his own ignorance and thoughtlessness is his account of the young dissenter in the Labor Corps whom he calls “Wedontdothat,” a conscript, like himself, who simply refuses to handle a weapon. Grass confesses to his own stupidity in joining the others in bullying this dissenter, in not thinking much about what happened to him when he was suddenly taken away. And there he is putting his finger again on the guilt and responsibility. The guilt is negative: it’s the failure to understand, which implies that there is a duty to understand, to judge rightly in order to act rightly. In this failure, he confesses himself part of the grander failure.
You can’t come through a catastrophe like this, as a novelist, and expect to just pick up writing little entertainments as if nothing has happened. History here forces on the writer the necessity of examining those values and ideas and assumptions through which we live, because those are the ones that bit by bit brought him and everybody to that catastrophe. It forces him to write about ideas.
To understand what had happened, to understand its personal meaning, must be for a writer the work of a lifetime, if he decides to take it on. Grass had already been doing that work for more than 50 years when he wrote this autobiography. I suppose he ought to have told this particular detail earlier on. But the number of people who were adults during the war and the years immediately afterwards is dwindling. Grass is 80 years old. He is an expert on the self-justifications, excuses, and self-deceits that large numbers of Germans indulged in after the war. He made it his life’s work to pursue and put a stake through each one of these evasions, using literature and reclaiming literature in the process. He’s been waging a battle for literature, for literature’s way of telling, that demands an examination of values through experience. Unfortunately, literature has no power to alter the drives and imperatives of journalism. It never has. This would seem to have been a blind spot. Literature works on history but only through the imagination, slowly.
His battle has carried Grass straight through history into the realm of Greek tragedy. Oedipus, another shrewd leader and battler, was exposed too. In Oedipus at Colonus, though, Sophocles revisits the story and has the blind, poor, exiled Oedipus, near death, come out swinging. What a mouth the old outcast has on him! It’s all he’s got and nobody can get near him.
But this at least I know
Wittingly thou aspersest her and me;
But I unwitting wed, unwilling speak.
Nay neither in this marriage or this deed
Which thou art ever casting in my teeth--
A murdered sire--shall I be held to blame.
Come, answer me one question, if thou canst:
If one should presently attempt thy life,
Would'st thou, O man of justice, first inquire
If the assassin was perchance thy sire,
Or turn upon him? As thou lov'st thy life,
On thy aggressor thou would'st turn, no stay
Debating, if the law would bear thee out.
Such was my case, and such the pass whereto
The gods reduced me…
I find that I can forgive Grass for not telling. When he sees his guilt – however you want to measure it – being exploited, he’s right to fight against that exploitation. I can’t forgive him on behalf of anybody else, though, just for me.
Update: A few little clarifications. It's a mess, I know, but I'll come back to this maybe after I take a swing through more of Grass's novels.