Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Gunter Grass's too controversial, much-heralded memoir, Peeling the Onion, is disappointing overall. It's not a great Grass book in the way that Palimpsest is a great Vidal book. It's too long, contains too many unsatisfying digressions and shameless plugs for Grass's other books, is too redundant (an age-old Grassian vice: what in Thomas Mann was a musical repetition of motifs becomes in Grass an exercise in mechanical redundancy), and finally doesn't tell us enough about some of the most interesting questions it raises. (e.g., What did Grass and Paul Celan talk about in Paris all those years ago while The Tin Drum was struggling to be born?) One interesting/provocative/troubling aspect of this self-described 'memoir,' this explicit confession, this story presumed to be true, is that Grass repeatedly--indeed, obsessively--provokes our disbelief and even explicitly demands our skepticism. It's as though he wants us to read the story of his life with a greater disbelief than even his most experimental novels provoke. As I read I found myself wondering if this was merely a self-protective device, a way of distancing himself from his own memories (especially those of his time in the Waffen SS), or if it was, rather, Herr Professor Grass's final lesson to us: all propositions should be initially treated as doubtful, especially those presented as self-evidently true. Is Grass constructing for himself in this 'memoir' a new role, that of author-without-authority?

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