The following essay is included in John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist and reproduced here, in its entirety, in honor of the late Günter Grass, who died in the German city of Lübeck on April 13, 2015.
Günter Grass is Germany’s most famous living writer. A playwright, poet, and visual artist, he was born in 1927 in the city of Danzig—in what was then Poland—where his parents owned a grocery store. As a teenager, he volunteered for submarine service, and in 1944, not long after his seventeenth birthday, was conscripted into the Waffen-SS, an experience he finally wrote about in his memoir Peeling the Onion, published in 2006, which is when I interviewed him. The revelation that Grass was involved in the Waffen-SS was explosive in Germany, where he has been a celebrated novelist since he published his beguiling and beloved first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), the tale of a man in a mental institution remembering his decision never to grow up. The novel is the first part of Grass’s Danzig Trilogy, about the war and interwar period in his native city. His books are full of satirical broadsides at the abuse of power and the pieties of righteous thinking, such as Local Anaesthetic (1969). The Flounder (1977), an allegorical novel that points to the German fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife,” is one of the first Grass tales to veer away from World War II. Other novels include The Rat (1986); Too Far Afield (1995), an enormous epic about unification; and My Century (1999), published the year he won the Nobel Prize. In 2009, he released his third, much less controversial volume of memoirs, From Germany to Germany.
In half a century of writing fiction, Günter Grass has shown a predilection for unusually compelling characters. His masterpiece debut, The Tin Drum, is narrated by a three-year-old genius; The Rat is populated by more rodents than the New York City subway in July. But of all his heroes, human and otherwise, the protagonist who gave Grass the most trouble is the man at the center of Peeling the Onion—himself.
“Looking back from my age at a boy of fourteen, fifteen, that is a long way—it’s like looking at a strange person,” says Grass, nearly eighty, sucking on a pipe in a New York hotel suite.
Indeed, it is odd. The Grass we meet in Peeling the Onion feels a distant relative to the “conscience of a nation” whose Danzig Trilogy of novels has inspired writers from W. G. Sebald to John Irving. This Grass was—as a boy and late teenager—an ardent believer in Nazism. He signed up for the Jungfolk at ten and, at seventeen, was drafted into the Waffen-SS, a notoriously brutal elite corps.
Grass served several weeks on the front, never fired a shot, and was captured and held prisoner in American POW camps. When he began to talk of this experience in interviews in the summer of 2006, the German press erupted in outrage at the nation’s conscience admitting he, too, was part of its dark past. “I’m deeply disappointed,” said Grass’s biographer Michael Jürgs at the time. “If he had come clean earlier and said he was in the SS at seventeen, no one would have cared, but now it puts in doubt, from a moral point of view, anything he has ever told us.”
Grass says he did in fact speak of being in the Waffen-SS in the sixties and “no one paid it any heed,” and that “gradually, as I learned more about the crimes that were committed, I spoke less and less of it out of shame.”
Now Grass calls the furor of the summer of 2006 “a campaign,” lamenting the way it obscured more complex discussions about Germany’s past sparked by Peeling the Onion.
“There is always the reaction of the critic,” Grass says, betraying no obvious irritation, “but the readers are different—this book got so many letters from my generation, old people, and also young people—people saying to me, ‘I was finally at last able to say I can talk to my children about my time during the war.’”
Grass thinks that’s because Peeling the Onion revolves less around his service in the Waffen-SS than it does around the private domestic silences that have plagued him since 1945 and that—even after writing the book—he cannot understand.
In Peeling the Onion, Grass says he never asked what happened to an uncle who was shot down as a pilot and summarily executed by the Nazis. He did not ask after a teacher who vanished. He did not inquire as to the fate of a fellow soldier who would not carry his rifle.
“I actually got a letter from a woman with a picture,” he says now, “and she said, ‘I knew that man in a concentration camp.’ It was indeed him and he had survived until the eighties.”
Grass says he wrote Peeling the Onion to try to understand these boyhood silences, to ask his younger self why he didn’t have the courage to ask these questions. In the end, he says, he found that memory would betray him.
“From my youth time I was a liar,” he says. “My mother, she liked this kind of storytelling, my promises of where I would take her and what I would do—this was the basis for my writing, for telling stories. So you have to mistrust your memory. Because memory likes to make things look nice, it likes to make complicated things simplified—and I wanted to write down this mistrust. It’s one of the reasons why I tell stories which begin this way and then I make a correction, a variation.”
Of all Grass’s books, Peeling the Onion is the loosest in form. It winds toward a story, investigates it, and in some cases imagines what could have happened—acknowledging that the truth may in fact not be retrievable.
Critics troubled by Grass’s service will probably find in this forgetfulness a damning self-protection. At the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, the Viennese-born writer Amos Elon spent most of an onstage interview grilling Grass. “Why did you wait sixty years?” he asked, to loud applause. Grass’s answer to this question—that he had written them into his books, and that he had never hidden this experience but rather written through it—also earned applause.
At eighty, sitting in a hotel suite, Grass wears the burden of such scrutiny philosophically. Throughout the interview he sucks on his pipe and squints into the smoke as if the answers to his questions about his younger self, his younger “stupidity,” as he calls it, will be just as ethereal.
“I wrote this book to come nearer to this young boy,” Grass says wearily, “to come into discussion with him—but he was defending himself, with lies sometimes, as I did when I was a boy. This book, it is like two strangers are coming nearer and nearer, and sometimes they meet.”
John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist and an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and The Wall Street Journal. He won the 2007 James Patterson Pageturner Award for his work as the president of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in New York City.