quivering with Veteranenstolz


These two volumes of Günter Grass’s autobiography come in the wake of the controversy set off by the interview he gave to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2006, on the launch of the first volume in the trilogy, Peeling the Onion (Beim Hauten der Zwiebel), in which he admitted that he had served as a teenage member of the Waffen SS in the closing months of the war. It was an item that had failed to appear in the official biography published four years earlier. As a lifelong moral arbiter who had never been shy of pointing the finger at prominent figures with pasts to hide, the revelation made Grass into a kind of sitting duck. He made little attempt to defend himself, other than to say that he thought that his whole life as a writer had been an attempt to redress the indoctrination he had suffered during the Nazi era. His writing, as Michael Hamburger has pointed out, has always been characterized, in a cultural landscape with deep ideological divides, by its “prodigious equipoise”: Grass was ingenious at keeping his politics out of his imaginative life and defending his right to produce work that is “wrong and beautiful”. But there is something either extremely naive or perversely blind about not having come clean earlier, and some critics even accused him of timing his confession to generate interest in the autobiography. Grass may simply be a better writer than a moralist in that what counts for him is less the events than the business of interpreting them, and he has made plain his impatience with conventional autobiography. But autobiography has to pay tribute to document and fact – otherwise it is not what it claims to be.

more from Iain Bamforth at the TLS here.