Uncovering the Layers of a Life
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Last August, Günter Grass aroused emotions across the literary world when he revealed in his memoir, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion), that he had been a member of the Waffen SS as a teenager. Reaction to the news was swift, with many calling for him to hand back the Nobel Prize he received in 1999. Others were more supportive of Grass, pointing out that he had already paid the price of his youthful actions by living all these years with his guilt over having served in the SS.
The controversy surrounding Grass last year dramatically rouses us from our reading slumbers and forces us to ask ourselves about the way we read Grass. In his novels and nonfiction, he has been the prickly conscience of post-war Germany for over forty years. His highly acclaimed The Tin Drum probed the guilt of a country coming back from a devastating war and questioned whether the country could ever grow out of its childish petulance and find its voice. In the novel, Oskar Matzerath decides to stop growing when he is three, and communicates only with a shrill voice and by beating on his tin drum. As everyone who has journeyed through this brilliant novel recalls, the first page draws us into the tortured mind of little Oskar who is himself in an asylum and never lets us out. If we never knew about Grass’s involvement in the SS and we didn’t until the past two days would our experience of reading the novel be diminished? Is our reading of the novel now diminished? Does this news mean that the next time we read Grass that we’ll read him differently, searching for all the signs of youthful zeal, patriotism and perhaps anti-Semitism?
Michael Henry Heim’s elegant translation of Grass’s memoir now allows us to see what all the fuss was about and to decide for ourselves whether we go on reading Grass or turn our backs on his work. Reading Peeling the Onion: A Memoir (Harcourt; $26) shows the controversy over Grass’s involvement with the Waffen SS to have been so much media puffery. Yes, Grass admits that as a teenager he became a part of this military operation, and he offers a quite stark portrait of life in the young Nazis. Yet, he also admits honestly and poignantly that he never fired a shot and that “the guilt and the shame that it [his involvement] engendered can be said to gnaw, gnaw ceaselessly. Hunger I suffered only for a time, but shame . . .”
However, Grass moves on. Peeling the Onion does not stop with his youthful military involvement, and we shouldn’t either. Grass recalls the tortures of his youthful life: his flirtations with religion, his lustful hunger for various young women, his consuming desire for art, and his earliest forays into the writing life. Grass carries us from his birth up until the publication in 1959 of The Tin Drum.
Grass tells us that “hunger was my first teacher.” Literally, after the war, he could not get enough to eat. Another hunger, the lustful desire of a young man for a young woman, soon began to compete with his physical hunger. The hunger that most motivated his life, though, was his hunger for art. As a young boy, he had collected coupons from cigarette boxes that reproduced classic works of art. He also read voraciously. “Books have always been his gap in the fence, his entry into other worlds.” In the late 1940s, he apprenticed himself to a tombstone maker in order to become a sculptor. During those years he began writing poetry and discovered the way that words could satisfy this new hunger. Eventually, Grass marries his first wife, Anna; they move to Paris where he becomes a part of a group of writers, including Paul Celan, and rattles away at his Olivetti typewriter on the pages that soon grow into The Tin Drum. “And from then on I lived page to page and between book and book, my inner world still rich in characters.”
Peeling the Onion offers us a glimpse of the torturous, frustrating, consuming and ultimately rewarding nature of the reading and writing life. It gives us more reasons to admire Grass and to return to his books for their beauty and their deep moral lessons.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at