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Peeling the Onion [Paperback]

Gunter Grass , Michael Henry Heim
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 15 2008
In this extraordinary memoir, Nobel Prize–winning author Gunter Grass remembers his early life, from his boyhood in a cramped two-room apartment in Danzig through the late 1950s, when The Tin Drum was published.

During the Second World War, Grass volunteered for the submarine corps at the age of fifteen but was rejected; two years later, in 1944, he was instead drafted into the Waffen-SS. Taken prisoner by American forces as he was recovering from shrapnel wounds, he spent the final weeks of the war in an American POW camp. After the war, Grass resolved to become an artist and moved with his first wife to Paris, where he began to write the novel that would make him famous.

Full of the bravado of youth, the rubble of postwar Germany, the thrill of wild love affairs, and the exhilaration of Paris in the early fifties, Peeling the Onion—which caused great controversy when it was published in Germany—reveals Grass at his most intimate.


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From Publishers Weekly

The German edition of this memoir by Nobel Prize–winning novelist Grass caused a stir with its revelations about the author's youthful service in the Waffen SS combat unit during the last months of WWII. According to his deliberately disjointed, impressionistic account of the war, Grass never fired a shot and spent his time fleeing both the Russians and German military police hunting for deserters, but he dutifully shoulders a joint responsibility for Nazi war crimes and a guilt and shame that gnaw, gnaw, ceaselessly. With less to repudiate in his postwar life as a budding sculptor and poet up to his 1959 breakthrough with The Tin Drum, he grows more engaged in his story as he recounts love affairs, bohemian idylls (he once played in an impromptu jazz quartet with Louis Armstrong) and his attempts to sift emotional wreckage from the past. Along the way, Grass notes people and events that he reworked into fictional characters and plots, and does quirky profiles of influential figures, including his penis and typewriter. In this otherwise very novelistic memoir, there's not much of a narrative arc, beyond the satisfaction of the author's perpetual hungers for food, sex and art, but Grass's powerfully evocative memories are spellbinding. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Illustrious German writer Grass' memoir was first published in his native country in 2006, amid an international storm of controversy. The problem wasn't so much his admission of being a member of the Waffen-SS—he was drafted as a teenager toward the end of the war, never fired a shot, and never saw a camp—but rather the 60 years of semi-hypocritical silence that followed. Grass suggests that as a young man his biggest failure was a relentless lack of firm beliefs: Egomaniac that he was, he saw and felt only himself. I would not have wanted to meet him, but had I met him, we would have fought. It is interesting nonetheless that even here Grass shies away from chronicling his political progression from an unquestioning Hitler Youth to the fervently moralistic novelist and outspoken social democrat that he would become. Rather, he simply plots his early life's turning points—most of which revolved around his three overriding hungers for food, sex, and art—while recollecting the accompanying details and imagery that would eventually be folded into his fantastical and Nobel-winning fiction. The memoir ends quietly with the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959 and perhaps functions best as a companion to be read alongside his oeuvre rather than as a portrait of the mind of a master at work, siphoning tumultuous times into modern masterpieces. Chipman, Ian
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Peeling the Onion is required reading for anyone who wants to have a deeper insight into Mr. Grass's remarkable books; desires to learn how a young Nazi turned into someone who wrote objectively through fiction about the Nazi era; is thrilled by eclectic influences to explore a progression from enjoying art cards and sketching into writing poetry and making sculptures into becoming the author of The Tin Drum; and is intrigued by the tricks that memory plays on us as we get older. Many will find themselves surprised by Mr. Grass's revelations about his youthful enthusiasm for the Nazis and volunteering for service that led to becoming a member of the Waffen SS. The book's writing style once again reveals a man whose incisive perspective allows him to stand among us while standing apart. The book's title and ongoing imagery relate to the way that exploring and reexploring memory help us come closer to the truth about ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately, there's no more onion left to peel. The imagery is illustrated by pencil drawings of peeled onions that are presumably by Mr. Grass's hand.

Rarely does an author reveal the sources of his characters, situations, images, and locales in as much detail as Mr. Grass does in this autobiography that concludes with the publication of The Tin Drum. I feel a need to reread all of the works to inject these perspectives.

Most writers will tell you that they use all of their life experiences as resources. Having seen how true that is of Mr. Grass, I realized for the first time that for writers to have truly original voices they need to have experiences that are far different than what most people do. Mr. Grass's war-disrupted youth certainly makes that clear.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not about the SS June 30 2007
By Thomas F. Dillingham - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Although much has been made of the 'revelation' that Gunter Grass served briefly in the Waffen SS (and more has been made of the disappointment many feel at the hypocrisy of his concealment of that fact during a lifetime of serious political and moral writing, satirizing the hypocrisy of others while concealing his own), I would argue that a large part of the point of Peeling the Onion is that there are far more serious and damnable crimes than either the trivial "service" or the self-serving concealment of it.

Grass is ferociously critical (and contemptuous) of his younger self; time and again he shows his behavior as essentially selfish, self-centered, egotistical, and especially blind to both the love and sacrifices of others on his behalf; his portrayal of his efforts to "free" himself from his family background is not unfamiliar in portraits of young artists, but he shows himself both blind to the needs and feelings of his parents and sister, as well as unable to recognize or acknowledge their efforts to help him. We might conclude that he is constructing a portrait of the kind of artist who is so enclosed in the world of his creative consciousness that he cannot allow time for "normal" human feelings or relationships. Again, that is a familiar characterization, but his narration of his mother's death, in particular, portrays his own behavior as almost inhumanly remote and unfeeling. And yet, at the same time, we have constant signals that the feelings are there, beneath the surface, later to emerge in his art--and the suggestion that the art is, after all, more important.

The memoir, then, is simply not about his putative guilt or hypocrisy, nor is it really about his self-centered behavior; it is about the creative act and the ways in which the artist uses the matter of his or her life to create the art that justifies her or his existence. Grass is not really focused on how other people might "judge" his human relationships--his responsibility or lack of it, his parental or grandparental love and generosity, or the lack of it; whether his behavior fits our notions of how good people ought to behave is really not interesting to him, nor really should it be to his readers. No doubt a world full of Dr. Phils and Judge Judys will render their fatuous views in the latest psychobabble, but Grass (and his admirers) will be impervious to all that And those who read the book attentively (especially if they are familiar with his novels) will see that the constant references to the ways memory may trick us into taking a "story" for "reality" are really the point--not that there is no reality, but that our access to it is always framed by the stories we tell about it. Those who carp about his prizes or his literary eminence (and who suggest that the latter is compromised, the former subject to return) have not read, have certainly not understood, the artistic experience Grass has offered in this very fine addition to his great oeuvre.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every word worthy of a prize. June 26 2007
By laroja - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This biography chronicles the author's life, beginning with his awareness of himself, the intangible tie with which he is connected to Germany, to the collective awareness of guilt through the war, to his search of truth, and freedom. It is also an epic detailing what art, and writing meant to Gunter Grass, in a life of evolving insight. Echoing writers such as Claude Simon, his writing is like a tango between the past and the present; it sways between counciousness of abstract and realism. Through the streams of his thoughts, and words, it is as if the author is slowly peeling away the protective layers built against pride and pain. Despite the sting, Gunter Grass both reveals and savors the tenderness, and frailty of human nature- the creative and procreative genius.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life As a Work in Progress . . . As the Past Fades in Memory June 29 2007
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Peeling the Onion is required reading for anyone who wants to have a deeper insight into Mr. Grass's remarkable books; desires to learn how a young Nazi turned into someone who wrote objectively through fiction about the Nazi era; is thrilled by eclectic influences to explore a progression from enjoying art cards and sketching into writing poetry and making sculptures into becoming the author of The Tin Drum; and is intrigued by the tricks that memory plays on us as we get older. Many will find themselves surprised by Mr. Grass's revelations about his youthful enthusiasm for the Nazis and volunteering for service that led to becoming a member of the Waffen SS. The book's writing style once again reveals a man whose incisive perspective allows him to stand among us while standing apart. The book's title and ongoing imagery relate to the way that exploring and reexploring memory help us come closer to the truth about ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately, there's no more onion left to peel. The imagery is illustrated by pencil drawings of peeled onions that are presumably by Mr. Grass's hand.

Rarely does an author reveal the sources of his characters, situations, images, and locales in as much detail as Mr. Grass does in this autobiography that concludes with the publication of The Tin Drum. I feel a need to reread all of the works to inject these perspectives.

Most writers will tell you that they use all of their life experiences as resources. Having seen how true that is of Mr. Grass, I realized for the first time that for writers to have truly original voices they need to have experiences that are far different than what most people do. Mr. Grass's war-disrupted youth certainly makes that clear.

For those who find realistic accounts of wartime interesting, Mr. Grass spends more time on his brief period under fire than on any other subject. You'll get an impressive eye-witness account of the collapsing German military just before Hitler's suicide.

Ultimately, I came away astonished most by the way that Mr. Grass is able to look at even his own actions and life as an external viewer might. That's a remarkable talent that obviously contributes to his ability to sculpt complex word pictures into stories that defy memory loss.

If you read only one autobiography of a writer, I suggest this one.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The great work is behind him July 30 2007
By Alejandro Anreus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Peeling the Onion" is not a great book, but it is not a bad one either. One wishes for a more straightforward, clear narrative, still, there are powerful and moving passages within this muddled book.
Grass joined the SS and kept it from public knowledge for decades. Now he has made it public and has apologized. His life and most of his political positions and activism since the end of World War II, have made up for his youthful membership in the SS.
The great work is behind him: "The Tin Drum," "The Flounder," "From The Diary of a Snail" and other good if lesser novels. With "The Rat" clear evidence of his literary decadence appeared, yet "The Call of the Toad" was refreshingly good.
For anyone seriously interested in post World War II literature, "Peeling the Onion" is a must, if flawed, read. Better yet,go back and read "The Tin Drum," which is undeniably a masterpiece.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ethical problems Sept. 7 2007
By J. A. Haverstick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
At a play in NYC a few years ago when one character describes to another German children burned alive with napalm in the allied bombings, a playgoer behind me said, "good".

In the shop today I was restoring a Nuernberg Trial document containing a photo (among others) of a German soldier executing a terrified nine-year-old.

And here is Grass's autobiographical account of a kid in Nazi Germany and a youth in its aftermath. Everybody should read this book.

In Plato's CRITO Socrates said we are divided into two types, those who believe that it is right to return harm for harm and those who believe in doing no harm at all. These two types will always be fighting, Socrates says, because they really have nothing in common. Everybody should read that book, too.
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