I’m conscious that my big readers these past few weeks have been from Russian servers – although I’m not sure if they are from heartland Russia or, perhaps, from places like Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan where I lived for 7 years – ie friends who happen to have Russian servers…….
So far they don’t seem to have been turned off by my recent posts on German subjects – so let me pursue the thoughts aroused by the latest book I have been reading these last few days…….
Gunther Grass - writer, artist (not least gastronomic) and political activist – was a larger than life German who died last April at the age of 87. I was never a fan of his novels (I preferred Heinrich Boll) - although I did appreciate his social activism (so typical of the post-war German generation).
I found a lovely English first edition of his autobiography – “Peeling the Onion” – in Sofia’s great second-hand bookshop (The Elephant) a few months ago and was bowled over when I eventually got round to reading it. It’s not just that it charts so powerfully the trajectory of an intelligent youngster (from an area which is now in Poland) facing the monstrosities of the times – but the sheer poetry……….
It apparently caused a sensation in Germany a decade ago when it revealed that he had been in a youth SS group for the last year of the war – something which he had carefully hidden until the last phase of his life……
But Timothy Garten Ash, the indefatigable chronicler of the 1980s central European spirit of revolution, was able to rise above that furore in the NYRB review ( the year of its English translation) entitled The Road from Danzig
this is a wonderful book, a return to classic Grass territory and style, after long years of disappointing, wooden, and sometimes insufferably hectoring works from his tireless pen, and a perfect pendant to his great “Danzig trilogy” of novels, starting with The Tin Drum.
An account of his life from the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, when as an eleven-year-old war-enthusiast he collected fragments of shrapnel from the first fighting in his native Danzig, to the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959, “Peeling the Onion” repeatedly surprises, delights, and moves with passages of great descriptive power.
He enables us not merely to see but to hear, touch, and smell life in the tiny, two-room apartment in Danzig where he grew up, with a shared lavatory on the staircase—“a stink-cell, the walls of which fingers had smeared.”1 From this suffocating narrowness the teenager longed to escape into what he saw as the romantic, heroic world of service in the Führer’s armed forces. So at the age of fifteen he volunteered to fight on a U-boat, but his offer was not accepted (although he was called up a year later to a SS brigade).
One of my favourite British blogs - That’s How the Light Gets In - picked up the story in a recent post-
What follows after this last admission (which stunned the world) is a brilliant evocation of scenes that the teenager witnessed when his unit was taken to the collapsing front in Lower Silesia, passing through a burning Dresden:
Soldiers young and old, in Wermacht uniforms. Hanging from trees still bare along the road, from linden trees in the marketplaces. With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. […]Off to the side I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong. One has a cow hitched to his plough, Crows following the plough.Then I see more refugees, filling the streets in long processions: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; i see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs hoping to survive the war.
His first encounter with the enemy comes with a ‘Stalin Organ’ rocket attack that leaves bodies strewn everywhere. Soon he is stranded behind enemy lines, in woods with Russians close by. Twigs crack underfoot – someone is nearby; a figure approaches and, terrified, the young Grass sings a German melody which is answered in kind.
Grass the memoirist can now only identify the man who appeared, the man who became his guardian angel, who led him out of the woods, over the fields and across the Russian front line, as ‘the lance corporal’. He had fought with the Polish campaign, in France and Greece, and as far afield as the Crimea. The lance corporal is his saviour, but then, in a Soviet tank attack, the lance corporal’s legs are ripped to bits. The last sight young Gunter has of him is of him being wheeled past from a battlefield operating room, his eyes wide open, amazed and unbelieving – a legless torso.
Soon the Fuhrer is no more and Grass, having been transferred to a military hospital in Marienbad finds himself, a seventeen-year-old priapic youth, under the care of Finnish nurses. Hungry for sex, he is even more hungry for nourishment. Finally freed from the American POW camp at Bad Aibling, a displaced person in the British Occupied Zone, Grass found his first officially-registered residence as a free man in Cologne,
‘a pile of debris with an occasional miraculously-surviving street sign stuck to what was left of a façade, or hung on a pole sticking out of the rubble, which was also sprouting lush patches of dandelions about to blossom.’
He scavenges ‘like a stray dog for food, a place to sleep, and – driven by that other hunger – skin on skin contact’. An encounter in the station waiting-room leads him to Hanover and his first job of work after the war is over: an encounter with ‘the eternal lance-corporal in his dyed Wermacht uniform’, his wooden leg stretched out in front of him, smoking a pipe filled with ‘an indefinable substance only distantly related to tobacco’.He looked as if he had survived not only the most recent war but also the Thirty Years’ War and Seven Years’ War: he was timeless. The veteran suggests Hanover where there is work underground in the potash mines.
There, Gunter finds work as a coupler boy, hooking up dumper wagons laden with potash to form underground trains. It is there in the mine that, for the first time by his own account, he entered the world of politics, albeit still only as a teenage observer. During breaks in the intensive work routine caused by regular power cuts, the older men would sit and argue politics – the Communists, the Nazi nostalgists, and the Social-Democrats:
Even though I had trouble making sense of the issues that infuriated them so, I realized, coupler boy and idiot on the fringe, that when push came to shove the Communists inevitably teamed up with the Nazis to shout down the Social Democrat remainder.
One Sunday morning Gunter’s locomotive driver took him into Hanover to hear the head of the Social Democratic Party, Kurt Schumacher, speak to an open-air audience of several thousand (mull over that number for a minute). No he didn’t speak, he screamed, the way all politicians … screamed. And yet the future Social Democrat and unflinching supporter of “ontheonehandandontheother” took to heart some of the words that the frail figure with the empty, fluttering sleeve thundered down to his ten thousand adherents in the blazing sun.
Later, of course, Grass would be a supporter and speech-writer for Willy Brandt and his ‘policy of small steps’, and in “The Diary of a Snail” would prescribe ‘crawling shoes for the ills of progress. The snail’s track, not the fast track. A long road paved with cobblestones of doubt.’
And, finally, to the NYRB review -
Fear and hunger are the twin sensations that permeate these pages. His chapter about seeing action with the Waffen-SS is entitled “How I Learned Fear.”
His hunger is threefold. First, hunger for food, especially in American prisoner-of-war camps. Second, hunger for sex, described in a kind of lingering, amused physical detail that reminds me of the work of the English poet Craig Raine, whose poem “The Onion, Memory” anticipates Grass’s book-long metaphor.
The object of Grass’s final hunger, after food and sex, is art. He calls his chapter about becoming an artist “The Third Hunger.” Battling his way, alone, with a strong will and professed egoism, up the physical and social rubble mountains of postwar Germany, he becomes first a stonemason and part-time sculptor, then a graphic artist, then a poet, and only at the end, in his late twenties, a writer of prose, inspired by Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Joyce’s Ulysses, both discovered and devoured in the library of the well-heeled, cultivated Swiss parents of his first wife, Anna. “Anna’s dowry,” he calls it.
The memoir ends with his finding, in Paris, what would become one of the most famous first lines of any novel—“Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital.” And the rest is literature.