Beim Häuten der Zwiebel
Ein Buch, Ein Bekenntnis: Die Debatte um Günter Grass’ “Beim Häuten der Zwiebel”
Granted: he was a member of the Waffen-SS. But suppose that revelation had not overshadowed last year’s publication of Günter Grass’s memoir, like a mushroom cloud. What should we have made of Peeling the Onion? We should, I believe, have said that this is a wonderful book, a return to classic Grass territory and style, after long years of disappointing, wooden, and sometimes insufferably hectoring works from his tireless pen, and a perfect pendant to his great “Danzig trilogy” of novels, starting with The Tin Drum. That is what we should still say, first and last.
An account of his life from the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, when as an eleven-year-old war-enthusiast he collected fragments of shrapnel from the first fighting in his native Danzig, to the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959, Peeling the Onion repeatedly surprises, delights, and moves with passages of great descriptive power. He enables us not merely to see but to hear, touch, and smell life in the tiny, two-room apartment in Danzig where he grew up, with a shared lavatory on the staircase—“a stink-cell, the walls of which fingers had smeared.”1 From this suffocating narrowness the teenager longed to escape into what he saw as the romantic, heroic world of service in the Führer’s armed forces. So at the age of fifteen he volunteered to fight on a U-boat, but his offer was not accepted.
No writer is better at evoking smell—that literary Cinderella among the senses. Few novelists have written more lovingly about food, celebrating hearty German sausage and coldwater fish. Everything of the earth earthy, of the flesh fleshly, belongs naturally to Grassland. His characteristic, deeply realistic mixing of the public and private is both touching and funny. For the adolescent him, he recalls, the flow and, increasingly, ebb of the German armies on the eastern front, though worrying, was of far less pressing concern than the unpredictable ebb and flow of his own penis. This he detailed, at length, to his father-confessor.
When he is drafted into the armed forces at the age of sixteen, in the fall of 1944, and finds himself in a unit of the Waffen-SS, his reaction to the hardships of training is to stop in a quiet corner of the woods through which he has been ordered to carry a daily pot of coffee to his company’s Unterscharführer and Hauptscharführer—and to piss into their coffee. He does this repeatedly, “my regular morning act of revenge,” and speculates that it helped him to keep going, to survive even the most sadistic treatment “with an inner grin,” unlike the poor fellow in a neighboring company who hangs himself on the strap of his gas mask.
The account of his tank unit’s desperate action in April 1945, almost surrounded by advancing Russian troops, is one of the most vivid descriptions of the experience of war that I have read: Tolstoy crossed with Vonnegut. He hides under a tank from the rockets of one of the Red Army’s so-called “Stalin organs” and wets his pants from fear. In the silence after the rockets stop, he distinctly hears beside him a loud, sustained chattering of teeth. The chattering teeth, he discovers when he crawls out from under the tank, belong to a senior officer of the Waffen-SS. The young enthusiast’s image of the Teutonic hero begins to crumble. On the ground around them, “body parts were to be found.”
He gets lost behind Russian lines. Wandering in the woods, exhausted, hungry, and afraid, he hears someone nearby. Friend or foe? Nervously he intones the beginning of a German folk song about little Hans wandering out “into the wide world” alone, “Hänschen klein ging allein….” To his immeasurable relief the hidden stranger responds with the rest of the line, “…in die weite Welt hinein.” Had the other man been a Russian, we would probably have no Tin Drum. Instead, he’s an avuncular German corporal, who advises the now seventeen-year-old Grass to take off his Waffen-SS jacket. If he is captured, the Russians won’t take kindly to those double runes.
There’s a beautifully evoked moment of calm, as they wolf down potato soup from a field canteen in the spring sunshine. Through his descriptive powers, you can smell that soup, hear the sudden silence, feel the warmth of the sun on his face. Then all hell breaks loose again. The corporal has his legs shredded by shrapnel. In the ambulance, he asks Grass to feel down the top of his trousers and check that his cock and balls are still there. They are; but his legs will soon be amputated. Here is the human reality of war, whether at Austerlitz, Kursk, or in Baghdad today. (Grass still has a shrapnel splinter in his left shoulder from that attack.)
There are other unforgettable passages. The portrait of his loving, aspirational mother, and her death of cancer, several years after the war, in a shabby, windowless hospital backroom: “Lenchen…mein Lenchen,” stammers the desolated husband. How his mother and sister refused to talk about what the Russian soldiers did to them at the moment of “liberation,” but how he finally gathers, from one remark his sister makes, that the mother had offered herself in the daughter’s place—as the object, we understand, of serial rape. The evocation of his solitary wanderings through the ruined cities of postwar Germany, including a spell working in the coal mines where, over lunch down the shaft, old communists and old Nazis still argued furiously.
Fear and hunger are the twin sensations that permeate these pages. His chapter about seeing action with the Waffen-SS is entitled “How I Learned Fear.” His hunger is threefold. First, hunger for food, especially in American prisoner-of-war camps. Second, hunger for sex, described in a kind of lingering, amused physical detail that reminds me of the work of the English poet Craig Raine, whose poem “The Onion, Memory” anticipates Grass’s book-long metaphor.
Food and sex are united in a key Grass word, Fleisch, which in German means both meat, as in beef or pork, and the flesh, as in “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Describing a wildly drunken four-in-the-bed wedding night, during his time as a coal miner, he writes that no onion skin of memory will bring back “what happened between so much Fleisch.” “Ach ja, das Fleisch,” says Father Fulgentius, one of the monks with whom the still notionally Catholic young man finds postwar board and lodging, and folds his hands defensively into the arms of his habit. In Grass, the flesh is made word.
The object of Grass’s final hunger, after food and sex, is art. He calls his chapter about becoming an artist “The Third Hunger.” Battling his way, alone, with a strong will and professed egoism, up the physical and social rubble mountains of postwar Germany, he becomes first a stonemason and part-time sculptor, then a graphic artist, then a poet, and only at the end, in his late twenties, a writer of prose, inspired by Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Joyce’s Ulysses, both discovered and devoured in the library of the well-heeled, cultivated Swiss parents of his first wife, Anna. “Anna’s dowry,” he calls it. The memoir ends with his finding, in Paris, what would become one of the most famous first lines of any novel—“Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital.” And the rest is literature.
Like much of Grass’s work, Peeling the Onion is too wordy. It could have done with the attentions of a red pencil wielded by a more fearless editor. He labors and labors yet again the metaphor of peeling the onion, until we wish that this tiresome vegetable—exhaustively illustrated, in various stages of dismantlement, in Grass’s own drawings at the opening of each chapter—had long since been thrown into the garbage can. And he uses twice, in fairly trivial contexts, his own most famous syntactic trope, “Granted:….” Wiser, surely, to keep that for something more important: something like, for example, the matter of a great German writer, one of whose main subjects is the entanglement of ordinary Germans in the Nazi past, himself keeping silent for more than sixty years about having been a member of the Waffen-SS. Yet this memoir still stands, and will stand when much else is forgotten, as a fine, mature work, the closing of a circle, a nonfiction companion to the incomparable Tin Drum.2
What of the revelation? On August 11, 2006, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on its Web site that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Grass had revealed this himself in his then-forthcoming memoir, and had confirmed it in an interview with the FAZ published in full the following day. This was the literary-political equivalent of a nuclear explosion. I can vividly remember my own sense of almost physical shock. The negative response in Germany was sustained and often savage, as can be seen in a documentation produced by Grass’s publisher, Ein Buch, Ein Bekenntnis (A Book, A Confession). A critic said Grass would never have won the Nobel Prize for Literature had this been known, and a politician called on him to give it back. Joachim Fest, the well-known historian of Nazism, commented, “I wouldn’t even buy a used car from this man now.” Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “I would have wished that we had been fully informed about his biography from the outset.” Columnists accused him of making the revelation to get publicity for his new book. Henryk M. Broder, an acerbic commentator, wrote that Grass had clambered his way up from membership in an “elite troop”—a satirical reference to Grass’s own description of how he probably viewed the Waffen-SS as a sixteen-year-old—to being a Herrenmensch of the cultural industry.
Grass’s reaction to all this has been a curious mixture of surprise, bemusement, and taking offense. As I watch the television interviews he has given on the subject, the author, still vigorous and physically imposing despite his nearly eighty years, reminds me of nothing so much as a tired old bear. Cornered, he lashes out. He denounces the “kangaroo court” of press and television, led by the arts pages of the conservative FAZ, and the “degeneration” of German journalism. This spring, he produced a volume of poems and drawings called Dummer August (Stupid August), evoking his pain, melancholy, and anger during last summer’s explosion. In a poem called “Was Bleibt” (What Remains) he describes how he spent three years writing his memoir: “Then, however, a person skilled in the craft of malice cut one sentence from the extensive construction and placed it on a rostrum made of lies.”
“Was Bleibt” is a title made famous by the East German novelist Christa Wolf, herself the object of an earlier attack by the FAZ on account of her brief collaboration with the Stasi as a young communist writer. Now Grass dedicates Dummer August to Wolf because, as he explained in an interview at the Leipzig book fair, she too has been the object of attempted literary assassination by those horrible conservative hacks in Frankfurt.3 There is something almost painfully symmetrical in this embattled solidarity of the outstanding German novelists of their generation, the West German tarred with the Nazi brush, the East German with the Stasi.4 In that interview, Grass also explained how writing these poems kept him going psychologically through that harrowing summer: “If I had been struck dumb, that would have been worse.” Six decades later, his handsomely produced volume of poems and drawings is thus the old trooper’s artistic equivalent of pissing in the Hauptscharführer‘s coffee pot. It tastes only a little better.
Translations are generally my own, and, for the purposes of this essay, stay as close as possible to the German original. On a rapid perusal, Michael Henry Heim's translation seems to me a characteristically skillful attempt to render the unrenderable.↩
Grass has a powerful imagination, but in his best fiction he draws from life. Take, for example, the fantastical performing dwarfs that appear in The Tin Drum. You might think they must have been invented. But in Peeling the Onion, Grass recalls how, on his way to join the Waffen-SS, he saw a group of dwarfs performing in the bomb shelter of a Berlin railway station. Volker Schlöndorff, director of the wonderful film version of The Tin Drum, says he concluded, while working on the film, that "nothing in these novels is invented."↩
Translations are generally my own, and, for the purposes of this essay, stay as close as possible to the German original. On a rapid perusal, Michael Henry Heim’s translation seems to me a characteristically skillful attempt to render the unrenderable.↩
Grass has a powerful imagination, but in his best fiction he draws from life. Take, for example, the fantastical performing dwarfs that appear in The Tin Drum. You might think they must have been invented. But in Peeling the Onion, Grass recalls how, on his way to join the Waffen-SS, he saw a group of dwarfs performing in the bomb shelter of a Berlin railway station. Volker Schlöndorff, director of the wonderful film version of The Tin Drum, says he concluded, while working on the film, that “nothing in these novels is invented.”↩