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Peeling the Onion Paperback – 5 Jun 2008
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"An exquisitely constructed narrative... Peeling the Onion is a genuine masterpiece" (Independent on Sunday)
"A memoir of rare literary beauty" (New Yorker)
"As a writer, his influence still looms large, and Peeling the Onion is a reminder why. It has that same imaginative accuracy that made The Tin Drum a bestseller" (The Times)
"An ingenious but treacherous text that glides constantly between past and present, first and third person, memory and imagination" (Evening Standard)
"This subtle and expertly written book is really a memoir about forgetting" (Sebastian Faulks Sunday Times)
The memoir of Germany's most celebrated contemporary writer.See all Product description
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As a record of a boy and young man growing up in 1930s Germany it is a fascinating historical record, particularly the sections on Grass's war service in the Waffen SS, and his later internment as a prisoner of war.
We read the little picture here, the daily struggle for survival, the domestic arrangements for eating and sleeping, the thoughts of a late teenage boy co-erced into the military and dealing with the everyday pettiness and frustration of army life. I wondered at this account, how typical it seemed of a boy soldier, while also seeming to be strangely devoid of references to the propaganda and culture which surely permeated Nazi army life? Although Grass was a member of the Hitler Youth, and describes its boy scout-like aspects, somehow we do not read hear of the anti-Jewish indoctrination which must have featured so strongly? Maybe Grass feels that this is old-ground and does not need to be repeated, almost a courtesy to present-day Jews in not mentioning it?
The book provides a large amount of background to Grass's fictional work. He frequently tells us how places he found himself in, and events that happened to him provided sources for his short stories and novels. From The Tin Drum, to Crabwalk, this book fills in the gaps and answers questions that arise in reading the novels.
This is a wonderfully readable book, rich with narrative pace, but also with meditative and reflective passages which give us insight into the mind of the author. I particularly liked the section on the prisoner of war camp, where to alleviate the tedium of camp life, the prisoners arranged educational classes for themselves. Grass, although seemingly continually and painfully hungry, joins a cookery class where the demonstrations are wholly imaginary but still hugely satisfying. Grass provides us with wonderfully descriptive word portraits of the preparation of great dishes, from the slaughter and butchery of a pig, through to the processing of its every part, including the manufacture of blood sausage, a favourite of Grass to this day.
After the war years we read of Grass's work as a miner, and later, as an apprentice stone-mason. However, his great desire it to study art, and the post-war section of the book focuses on his overwhelming desire to be totally dedicated to art, whether sculpture, drawing, poetry or writing. He seemed to have a tremendous drive to fulfil this ambition, and everything seems to revolve around his third "lust" for creativity (the first and second lusts being food and women!).
We gain many insights into the author and his way of life. I enjoyed reading of the rich life of his imagination (so essential in a novelist), such as when he "invites to dinner" a range of historical characters and converses with them on themes old and new. So often we see clues as to why his books are as they are when we read these small interludes in the dramatic pace of the war years. I will not attempt to describe within the limitations of this review the rest of this substantial book. It succeeds totally in giving us a self-portrait of the author, so that by the end, he almost seems like an old friend - particularly to those who have read his rich collection of novels and reflections.
Rarely does an author reveal the sources of his characters, situations, images, and locales in as much detail as Mr. Grass does in this autobiography that concludes with the publication of The Tin Drum. I feel a need to reread all of the works to inject these perspectives.
Most writers will tell you that they use all of their life experiences as resources. Having seen how true that is of Mr. Grass, I realized for the first time that for writers to have truly original voices they need to have experiences that are far different than what most people do. Mr. Grass's war-disrupted youth certainly makes that clear.
For those who find realistic accounts of wartime interesting, Mr. Grass spends more time on his brief period under fire than on any other subject. You'll get an impressive eye-witness account of the collapsing German military just before Hitler's suicide.
Ultimately, I came away astonished most by the way that Mr. Grass is able to look at even his own actions and life as an external viewer might. That's a remarkable talent that obviously contributes to his ability to sculpt complex word pictures into stories that defy memory loss.
If you read only one autobiography of a writer, I suggest this one.
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