The 1999 Nobel Prize–winner tells the story of his childhood, youth and early artistic career in a riveting memoir that has quickly attracted international controversy and not a little righteous anger.
For, the world now knows, the brilliant expressionist author—a painter and sculptor in words as in the visual and plastic arts he has likewise mastered—long known as a fierce critic of German xenophobia and in particular his country’s 20th-century history of aggression and genocide, kept silent for decades about his own experiences as a soldier of the Third Reich. In an essentially chronological narrative that frequently looks forward to Grass’s later years (he’s now in his 80s), we learn of his youth as the dreamy, artistically inclined son of a “bourgeois” shopkeeper’s family, as well as the apolitical “faith in the Führer” that inspired him to don a smart-looking uniform that might attract girls and to join Heinrich Himmler’s Waffen-S.S. (after attempting to enter the submarine service). We also receive information about his combat misadventures and borderline-arduous detainment in POW camps. Employing both first- and third-person narration, Grass pictures himself as an idealistic naïf who slowly developed a mature political conscience, as he emerged from the war unharmed, worked in a potash mine, then apprenticed to first a stone-cutter then a sculptor, traveled and absorbed culture (e.g., participating in a jam session joined by a visiting Louis Armstrong), married and fathered four children and earned fame with the publication of his first novel, The Tin Drum, in 1959. The command of incident and detail is superlative, and the book is immensely readable. But some will feel that Grass’s apologia, if it is such, amounts to too little too late. “I practiced the art of evasion,” he concedes, “[but] the massive weight of the German past and hence my own …. stood in my way …. No path led round it.”
The reader must decide whether this eloquent self-portrait does express regret, even atonement; represents yet another “evasion”; or, how much, in the final analysis, the difference actually matters.