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the complete review - autobiographical
Peeling the Onion
[an overview of the reviews and critical reactions]
general information | review summaries | review and reception notes | links | about the author
- German title: Beim Häuten der Zwiebel
- Translated by Michael Henry Heim
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Why we haven't reviewed it yet:
Haven't gotten hold of a copy yet -- but it hasn't been a high priority
Chances that we will review it:
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Many very impressed, but the shadow of Grass' admission that he was a member of the Waffen-SS looms large over the book -- and some can't see past it
From the Reviews:
- "But Peeling the Onion should not only be received as a cause celebre, nor as merely a controversial memoir by a left-wing icon who people want to knock off the perch. It is also a resonant singing-up by an older man of his younger self, in this case a diminutive, high-spirited lad making his way through the crumbling later years of the Third Reich." - Gregory Day, The Age
- "He intersperses his chapters here with drawings of an onion progressively peeled. Perhaps his sharpest comment on this reluctant memoir is the last drawing. Fully stripped down, an onion is a pile of scattered layers; it has no center." - Richard Eder, Boston Globe
- "Grass highlights three hungers -- for food, sex, and art -- as his driving motivators. His robust appetites in all three realms have led to an unusually stuffed life. Peeling the Onion is well worth delving into, beyond the sensationally moldy patches on its surface." - Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor
- "Mr Grass may have satisfied his three hungers, but he has left a corner of doubt: why should his recollection of those few combatant months appear so weak ?" - The Economist
- "Schuld, Scham und Schweigen werden in diesem Buch kurz abgehandelt, wie tief auch immer sie sich eingeprägt haben mögen. Viel breiteren Raum nehmen zwei andere Urerfahrungen ein: Angst und Hunger" - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Peeling the Onion is a good book, but probably not a great one. Three-and-a-half stars out of five, as the movie reviewers say. (...) Still, Grass's memoir is absorbing, unpretentious and full of fascinating clues to the emergence of The Tin Drum, his first great "headbirth," as he calls such creations. As he unpeels the leaves of the onion and fumbles over unaccountable blanks in the onion-skin paper, he doesn't waste time fussing over his fumbles, but usually comes up with a telling insight into the process of memory." - Stan Persky, The Globe & Mail
- "I didn't read it during the kerfuffle of 2006, but coming to it now, in both the inadequate original and in Michael Henry Heim's always spirited English translation, things seem, if anything, even worse. There is a kind of plain-spoken and rueful candour that is apparently entirely outside Grass's gift; perhaps it can only be done by Anglo-Saxon writers. (...) The revelation of the SS membership comes too late in the book. Not unnaturally, one turns the pages, impatient for it to come; and then, when it is gone, one feels too winded -- too punched -- to carry on through the rest of it. (I actually put it down for two weeks, unwilling to continue.) It is both too heavily trailed and too much put off, too perfunctory and too dilatory, too defensive and too aggressive. They are two pages of failed writing that should be put in a textbook, and quarried for their multiple instances of bad faith." - Michael Hofmann, The Guardian
- "Some novelists' memoirs are proof that all of their books are only skilfully worked autobiographies; some reveal that their books are pure works of imagination. Grass is neither -- or both. (...) Above all, this is a wholly diverting book which plays fair with the reader while performing highly elaborate tricks with the nature of memory, as well as having multiple layers, like onions, which can both feed us and make us cry. (...) Peeling the Onion is a genuine masterpiece." - Tom Rosenthal, Independent on Sunday
- "Grass's selectivity is fobbed off as memory failure, but it is systematic enough so what is left is not much more than mild self-criticism, reminiscence, and the brilliant descriptive language that would be expected of him.The insignificance of the detail he does offer up, in combination with the continuing memory outages, works as a leitmotif so masterful that you have the impression that Grass focused all his art at creating this subterfuge. (…) There are so many brilliant details that do not go to the point" - John Vinocur, International Herald Tribune
- "In the delicate but halting detail of a septuagenarian who is summoning the fragments of memory, this memoir chronicles the author's circuitous path via wartime Europe to becoming a writer. (...) Grass tries to coax his earlier self out of his past, and with this book, he is forging a memorial to that younger man. He is exposing him, expressing his shame and delivering his stories, in onion skins or amber nuggets." - Natasha Randall, The Los Angeles Times
- "This book is a rich and wonderful memoir of his life before he became a public figure (in 1959, with the appearance of The Tin Drum), plaited with a series of complex, sometimes devious reflections on recollection and memory which make it a little clearer why he hesitated for so long. (…) The first part of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel now gives way to a rich chronicle of a young man struggling towards a new identity as an artist. (…) The second half of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is the best account I know of surviving and growing up in chaotic, pauperised West Germany, in the years before the Economic Miracle took hold." - Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books
- "As a representative of German literature, Günter Grass has always been the onion to Thomas Mann's artichoke -- down-to-earth, exuberantly realistic, picaresque rather than sophisticated or Olympian. Peeling the Onion fulfills such expectations and more. (...) Critics who chide Grass for couching his Nazi past in literary metaphors, for questioning the reliability of his own memories, for admitting forgetfulness and for hiding behind some of the same complex narrative techniques we know from his novels may score political points, but they betray a simplistic understanding of the genre." - Andreas Huyssen, The Nation
- "Günter Grass bedient sich eines verbergend- enthüllenden Stils, der behutsam das Kind von damals in Schutz nimmt vor dem Erzähler von heute. Der Stahlhelm, der dem Kriegsfreiwilligen ein bisschen zu oft vom Kopf rutscht, als dass es nicht aufdringlich verharmlosend wirkt. Der häufige Gebrauch von entpersönlichten Infinitiv- und Adverbialformen, die an den Stossseufzer des alten Goethe erinnern, man werde sich doch langsam selbst historisch. Eine Sprache, die tänzelt und nicht tanzt, die zwischen Benennen und Umschreiben schwankt, hier ein ‘wassonstnoch’ und da ein ‘weissnichtmehrwas’ und andere Manierismen zur Auflockerung braucht." - Beatrix Langner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "It is the techniques with which the Nobel Prize-winning German writer Günter Grass peels away at time -- not simply memory -- that make Peeling the Onion such a compelling memoir. (...) The yearning to retrieve what has been lost endows a mood of powerful yet unsentimental nostalgia." - Anita Sethi, New Statesman
- "We should, I believe, have said that 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. That is what we should still say, first and last." - Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books
- "(I)t is a fascinating book -- much more readable than most of Mr. Grass's fiction, whose earthy relentlessness can so easily pall. (…) The second half of the book, in fact, is a kind of picaresque, as Mr. Grass voraciously satisfies what he calls his three hungers -- for food, sex, and art. Each of these subjects occupies a great deal of space in Peeling the Onion, and Mr. Grass emerges from its pages as an endlessly appetitive monstre sacré, in the tradition of Wagner or Picasso. (…) The most valuable thing about Peeling the Onion, however, is that (…) it offers an unusual perspective on life under dictatorship. (…) A more careful and modest writer than Mr. Grass might have produced a more valuable memoir of the Nazi era than Peeling the Onion. But at least Mr. Grass has written a book that makes abundantly clear, for good and ill, what kind of writer he is." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
- "Peeling the Onion is a verbally dazzling but often infuriating piece of work, bristling with harsh self-criticism, murky evasions and coy revisions of a past that, Mr. Grass steadfastly insists, presents itself to his novelist’s imagination as a parade of images and stories asking to be manipulated." - William Grimes, The New York Times
- "The to and fro, between concealment and revelation, makes Peeling the Onion both fascinating and searing." - John Irving, The New York Times Book Review
- "Somewhat lost in the scandal is the fact that Grass has written a memoir of rare literary beauty. Beginning with his childhood in Danzig and ending with the publication, in 1959, of his first and most famous novel, The Tin Drum, the book is not just an autobiography but also a meditation on memory -- on the tricks it plays and the way it feeds the imagination of a born storyteller." - Ian Buruma, The New Yorker
- "This is a book torn between the desire to confess and the need to obscure. (...) It demands far more thoughtful attention as a book than the barrage of attacks on Grass the man have allowed. (...) The compulsion of Grass's story comes from the way he deliberately flaunts its unreliability. (...) Peeling the Onion may be an unsatisfactory defence from a public intellectual of his unacknowledged past, but, as a demonstration of a literary will, the novelist's last testament, it is in many ways a masterpiece." - Tim Gardam, The Observer
- "Given this tumultuous advance publicity, it was a great satisfaction to discover that Peeling the Onion is a delightful and quintessentially Günter Grass book, full of spice and vinegar, replete with all the qualities that have drawn generations of readers to him and his work. In a way, it is a pity that the controversy surrounding his service in the Waffen-S.S. will inevitably draw attention away from so much else to be found in his probing, revelatory autobiography (.....) English-speaking readers of Peeling the Onion can rest assured that they are reading an exceptionally accomplished translation of some stunning German prose." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Peeling the Onion is not the conscientious confession of a man soon to meet his maker, but the conceit of a garrulous raconteur." - Daniel Johnson, The Scotsman
- "Selten hat man sich von einer Zwiebel so genervt gefühlt. Denn sie muss ständig einstehen für den besonderen Wert des Grass’schen Erinnerungsprogramms. (…) Das hat etwas Eitles, Selbstbezogenes, weil Grass mit der Schwere der Anklage zugleich seine moralische Statur ausstaffiert - denn es handelt sich ja um eine Selbstanklage. Grass inszeniert zwei Selbst-Bilder: Sein empirisches und sein künstlerisches Ich. Das eine sucht nach Ausflüchten, Ausreden, hat Erinnerungslücken und verschweigt manches. Das andere aber, das dichterische Ich, erwischt das empirische immer wieder bei seiner Verdrängungsarbeit, klopft ihm auf die Finger und reibt ihm die Zwiebel unter die Nase." - Ijoma Mangold, Südeutsche Zeitung
- "For the greater part, however, this subtle and expertly written book is really a memoir about forgetting. Its best passages have the immediacy and compellingly specific detail of a nightmare, but at other times the author seems like the apprentice stonemason he became, unable to build the memorial because he has apparently run out of material. He shrugs his shoulders. He just can’t remember." - Sebastian Faulks, Sunday Times
- "(F)or Grass enthusiasts there are countless details that identify the genesis of his novels, particularly of The Tin Drum -- where this odd memoir stops short -- and any amount of literary-artistic gossip. It may be ungenerous but I couldn't banish the suspicion that most of this book is window-dressing. As Grass peels away layer after layer of the onion of the past, one note, like a Wagnerian leitmotiv, is constantly sounded: he can't remember things, memory is so treacherous. All that makes a bad pun irresistible: people who live in grass houses ..." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald
- "It has taken Grass a long time to peel his onion -- and the result is a book that, like the vegetable, induces tears of irritation rather than emotion. Devotees will relish picking over the picaresque narrative, with its characteristically lugubrious and lubricious tone, besides the retrospective commentary on his previous works, revealing the origins of characters and scenes in his novels. As a moral reckoning with the Nazi past, however, Peeling the Onion is a failure -- and not even an honourable one. (…) (T)his entire book is one long excuse for a life that, we can now see, was hopelessly compromised by hypocrisy." - Daniel Johnson, The Telegraph
- "This magnificent and profoundly human book caused a considerable stir on its publication in Germany last year, due to its exact statement of the part the young Grass played in the Second World War, and its attempt to establish the responsibility he bore afterwards. (…) The mesmerising quality of this wonderful book, however, lies in Grass's undiminished ability to conjure up a scene of novelistic strangeness. (…) These wonderfully strange vignettes lend Grass's profound and moving memoir an unforgettable power, and it is not just the significance of his experiences, but the virtuosity of his writing which elevates Peeling the Onion over any memoir published in recent years." - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph
- "As a moral arbitrator on political issues, Grass might well have lost his appeal for ever. But as a writer, his influence still looms large, and Peeling the Onion is a reminder why. It has that same imaginative accuracy that made The Tin Drum a bestseller" - Philip Oltermann, The Times
- "Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is one of Grass's most accessible and engaging works. (…) Grass seems often to be concerned less with events themselves than with the difficulties involved in recalling and recounting them. Not the least of those difficulties, in Grass's case, is that so many of these events have been recalled and recounted by him before. Key episodes here will be known already to anyone who has read almost any of Grass's work. (…) The narrative, not least in the account of the teenager's war service and experience of combat, is full of imprecisions. The writing, often so exuberant, is on occasion oddly tentative and constrained. Words fail. Memory falters." - Ian Brunskill, Times Literary Supplement
- "(A) frustrating work. It's useful for Grass aficionados that he weaves into his chronology a guided tour through his early novels (.....) But the questions that burn in the reader's mind are barely addressed." - James Ledbetter, The Village Voice
- "Grass himself is acutely aware of this problem, and addresses it with a series of metaphors so labored that one is embarrassed by the discomfort they betray. (...) He remembers clearly that he never fired a shot -- one can't help being reminded of the man who didn't inhale -- but he does not recall the pride, the arrogance, the cruelty that his creed bred in those who embraced it. Something unsaid haunts these pages. Not for a moment in reading Grass's account does one get an intimate sense of what it was like to be the passionate Nazi that he admits to have been. (...) More and more, the remembered life of Günter Grass comes to resemble a fiction by Günter Grass -- an effect that he cunningly orchestrates with a two-way flow between the memoir and his novels, and by asserting the rights of the imagination in shaping his story." - Joel Agee, The Washington Post
- "I wish I could read Peeling the Onion while separating all this out. But why should I ? Grass is a hectoring and sanctimonious anti-American, with dubious commitment to liberal democracy." - Jeffrey Gedmin, Weekly Standard
- "Und was hat der Leser davon ? Wird er dem Erzähler gern bei seinen Häutungen folgen ? Schwer wird es ihm jedenfalls nicht gemacht. Sperrig ist die Lektüre auf keiner Seite. Das eingeschränkte Weltbild eines Menschen allerdings, dem alles Höhere, Edle, Vornehme nur ‘Tricks’ sind, wie er einmal in typischer Borniertheit über die katholische Kirche sagt, ‘Tricks’, die er in klassischem Größenwahn ‘aufzuklären’ sich anheischig macht -- dieses Weltbild wird nicht jedermanns Sache sein. Für die Epoche ist es freilich typisch." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt
- "Was hier vorliegt, ist ein gar seltsames, hochgemut trauriges Buch, Legende vom Erfolg durch Versagen, widerborstig-garstig, schockierend und (dadurch) zutiefst berührend. Keine Besonnte Vergangenheit, keine Jugenderinnerungen eines alten Mannes. Ein Kontobuch (…..) Mit einer Rigorosität, wie ich sie sonst nur von Jorge Semprúns schonungslosem Abrechnungsbuch über seinen Irrweg zum fanatischen Kommunisten kenne, gibt sich hier einer kein Pardon (.….) Nun geschieht aber etwas Wundersames, das Beim Häuten der Zwiebel zu einem wichtigen, einem glücklich gelungenen Buch macht. Ihm, dem meisterlichen Erzähler, gelingt, was man -- wenn ich nicht irre -- in der Naturwissenschaft eine ‘Doppelhelix’ nennt: In immer neuen Kurven, Ausbuchtungen, Schleifen führt er vor die schwärende Wunde, Schande." - Fritz J. Raddatz, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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Notes about the Reviews
and the Book's Reception:
Peeling the Onion was the most discussed book of the year in Germany in 2006, as Grass dropped what was considered a bombshell in an interview shortly before publication: that he had been in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II -- a time that he describes at greater length in the memoir.
There was much interest in and discussion of this admission, and the book was even brought to market early because of the intense demand.
(There was also much criticism of Grass, and calls for him to return the Nobel Prize, etc. etc.)
Some critics couldn't get beyond the fact Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS and apparently not owned up to that all these years, but even those who tried to look at the book as a whole were generally puzzled by Grass' description and evasiveness -- noting also that Grass emphasises the unreliability of memory and recollection in his memoir.
Quite a few found it to be a very good book, too.
Peeling the Onion is also the rare foreign title that got significant English-language review coverage before it came out in translation.
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Peeling the Onion:
Other books by Günter Grass under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
German author Günter Grass was born in 1927.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.
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© 2007-2012 the complete review
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