A writer's life, layer by layer
<b>A writer's life, layer by layer</b> Although this book is too chronologically ordered to be called stream-of-consciousness, German author Gunter Grass does ping-pong freely along the linear time scale as one remembered image, sound or smell incites another. His is less a conventional biography than a series of glimpses into the thought processes of an evolving artist. Translated into English by Michael Henry Heim, <b>Peeling the Onion</b> covers Grass' life from his pre-World War II childhood in Danzig to his move to Paris in 1956, where he began writing <i>The Tin Drum</i>.
Grass explains his limitations (and displays his generally droll style) thusly: Having grown up in a family that was expelled from house and home, in contrast to writers of my generation who grew up in one place . . . and are therefore in full possession of their school records and juvenilia, and having ipso facto no concrete evidence of my early years, I can call only the most questionable of witnesses to the stand: Lady Memory, a capricious creature prone to migraines and reputed to smile at the highest bidder. The son of a small-time grocer, Grass recalls that even as a child, he felt a genteel contempt for his family's petit bourgeois ways; however, he earned his spending money by collecting overdue bills for his father. His mercantile canniness would later serve him well at an American prisoner of war camp and as he searched to find his own place in Germany's postwar economy.
In recounting his life, Grass shifts fluidly (and sometimes maddeningly) between first and third person. And he can be a bit coy: My new marching orders made it clear where the recruit with my name was to undergo basic training: on a drill ground of the Waffen SS, as a Panzer gunner, somewhere far off in the Bohemian Woods. Inducted near the end of the war, he saw relatively little combat but quite enough to disabuse him of any lingering romantic or nationalistic notions. (And enough to lead to considerable discussion of his previous silence on the subject when the book was published in Germany last summer.)Threaded through Grass' narrative are visceral accounts of his coming to terms with his three great appetites food, sex and art. He also repeatedly cites specific situations and characters that later found their way into his fiction (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1999). For most of this book, Grass is simply another wartime survivor searching for an identity. But as his artistic vision takes form and draws him into the company of kindred seekers, one can sense the excitement of a new generation on the move.
<i>Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.</i>