Book Review: Peeling The Onion

Peeling The Onion, by Günter Grass

In reading this book, I found a lot of similarities with the memoir of Vladimir Nabokov that I had read some time ago [1].  There are a lot of similarities between the two men.  Both were immensely successful and even prize-winning authors, and while Nabokov’s work has been more enduring in the West, both of them had to deal with charges of obscenity related to their most famous writings.  Nabokov is a much better writer to be sure, but this was a worthwhile memoir even if it was somewhat of a slog to get through, not least because the author is as unreliable a narrator as the characters in his magical realism novels, at least the writings of his I have read or read about so far.  Admittedly, there are reasons for the author to be somewhat unreliable, not least because he volunteered for various Nazi-related organizations in his youth and was not a particularly brave soldier in defense of the Fatherland.  That he seems to have fallen in love with a young Jewess who he describes in a fairly stereotypical way that makes allusions to other postwar German literature and that he had leftist politics is something that he seems to think speaks in his favor, but alas, it doesn’t.

This book is, aside from the author’s unreliability, a roughly 400 page memoir that looks at the period from the author’s youth to his success as a writer in postwar Germany.  He certainly was a late bloomer as an author and he certainly lived an interesting life, as a young man in Danzig with a complicated part-Slavic heritage that he seemed to deny to emphasize his German heritage during the time of Hitler’s regime.  There are lots of funny anecdotes here that include his experiences as a miner and as a carver of gravestones, and the author’s repeated attempts to encourage someone to write a screenplay about the time he met a future pope in an American prison camp are at least somewhat endearing.  Even if I do not consider myself a particular fan of the author’s writings, nor likely to revisit them in the future, there was much to enjoy here.  The unreliability of the author in some ways makes this more enjoyable to read even if it my lack of sympathy with any aspect of the author’s political or religious worldview makes me less than a fan of his.

Who should read this book?  If you are a fan of the author’s writings, this is a worthwhile book to read because the author mentions in great detail how he got some of the qualities of the characters of his novels and plays and poems.  The author’s stories of his personal life are generally interesting and if he delves a bit too much into matters of degradation and self-flagellation for my own personal tastes, that does appear to be a common element in memoirs.  As is the case so often in writing, one’s enjoyment of the book depends on one’s degree of sympathy with the author’s perspective and interests, and the more you find the author and his situation sympathetic the more you will appreciate this book.  The author even discusses the peer pressure that led him to smoke after surviving the war without a smoker and even using cigarettes as barter items quite effectively.  Overall, this is a book where the inherent unreliability of people in writing objectively about themselves becomes an explicit aspect of the author’s searching self-examination, and the more you enjoy that sort of examination the more you will find something in here worthy of your time.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/04/21/speak-memory/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/03/30/book-review-speak-memory/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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