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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction / autobiography


The Box

Günter Grass

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To purchase The Box

Title: The Box
Author: Günter Grass
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 194 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Box - US
The Box - UK
The Box - Canada
The Box - India
L'Agfa Box - France
Die Box - Deutschland
Camera oscura - Italia
La caja de los deseos - España
  • Tales from the Darkroom
  • German title Die Box
  • Translated by Krishna Winston

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing fiction, but disappoints as (auto)biography

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
America . 11/2010 Peter Heinegg
FASz . 24/8/2008 Volker Weidermann
FAZ . 25/8/2008 Andreas Platthaus
The Guardian . 27/11/2010 James Buchan
The Independent . 3/12/2010 Ian Thomson
Literary Review . 11/2010 Michael Hulse
The LA Times . 26/12/2010 Thomas McGonigle
The National . 4/11/2010 Sam Munson
NZZ . 4/9/2008 Roman Bucheli
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/11/2010 Tim Mohr
San Francisco Chronicle . 3/12/2010 Gregory Leon Miller
The Scotsman . 23/10/2010 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 6/11/2010 Paul Bailey
The Telegraph . 9/11/2010 Miranda Seymour
TLS . 17/11/2010 Iain Bamforth
Die Welt . 24/8/2010 Eckhard Fuhr
Die Zeit . 28/8/2008 Andreas Maier

  Review Consensus:

  Quite puzzled as to Grass' approach; disappointed that there's not more to it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Call it a golden glow of patriarchal egoism. There are all sorts of mostly cheerful anecdotes (.....) It’s a lively show, down-to-earth, unpretentious -- and ably translated by Krishna Watson -- except that in the end it doesn’t reveal very much." - Peter Heinegg, America

  • "Und es beginnt ein schönes, sonderbares, eigenwilliges, ein für Günter Grass ungewöhnlich leichtes Buch. Denn Die Box ist ein Buch ohne Mission, ein Buch ohne Auftrag, ein Buch, das nicht als Transportmittel einer Botschaft missbraucht wird. Und in dem auch kein verschämtes Bekenntnis so lange mit Adjektiven und Partizipialkonstruktionen umstellt wird, bis der Autor hoffen kann, dass es nicht weiter auffallen wird. (...) Das Rührendste an diesem Buch, das Schönste, Traurigste und Ehrlichste daran ist aber ohnehin etwas anderes. Es ist das Ringen des Vaters um die Liebe seiner Kinder. Es ist das Wissen um all das Unausgesprochene in einer Familie, und um wie viel mehr in einer so zerstückelten Familie wie seiner. All die stummen Vorwürfe wünscht sich der Dichter endlich ausgesprochen" - Volker Weidermann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Jedes Kapitel wird auch von ihm beschlossen -- natürlich gehört dem das letzte Wort, der sich dies alles einfallen ließ, Grass kann eben nicht aus seiner Haut. (...) So wie hier lässt Grass ein ums andere Mal die eigenen Kinder als Marionetten zu Entlastungszwecken antreten." - Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "British readers will wonder how an autobiography that all but dispenses with the first person singular can be so egoistic." - James Buchan, The Guardian

  • "The book is replete with tender memories and the dark secrets held in Marie's darkroom. The Hitler period is not dilated on much here. The book is piquant enough without talk of the Waffen SS." - Ian Thomson, The Independent

  • "In fact, The Box tells us very little at all about Grass. Dressed in rags of whimsy (.....) Grass evidently decided to leave the public domain to the critics and biographers, but it is a great pity that he ducked this important opportunity to give his own account of significant work." - Michael Hulse, Literary Review

  • "The Box is a problematic work -- Grass' consideration of his own complicated career through the safety of fiction" - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Thus the narrative advances, through fleeting and inconsequential-seeming events (.....) But what, really, is the point of this slender book ? Not merely, one hopes, to offer up a second instalment of autobiography, albeit one with an unconventional structure. If this is not the case, however, it is hard to know what Grass intended." - Sam Munson, The National

  • "Ärgerlich und peinvoll genug ist die Selbstentblössung, die hier den Sprechblasen produzierenden Kindern aufgenötigt wird; als Zumutung in jeder Hinsicht empfindet man jedoch die alberne Sprache, die sich krampfhaft um Anbiederung an die Alltagssprache bemüht und die Kinder reden lässt, als wären sie alle ein wenig verblödet." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "There are opportunities in The Box for literary trainspotters to glimpse fleeting references to the Grass canon, but those references are not the point here. In fact, The Box ultimately seems to raise questions about the fundamental significance of his writings: it may not be a memoir, but it is an exercise in soul-searching." - Tim Mohr, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Box should serve as no one's introduction to Grass; its charm and poignancy hinge on prior knowledge of the author's books. As a self-standing work of art, it's repetitive, thin and elliptical in ways not always rewarding. And while Grass expertly places readers amid the affectionate, at times contentious and frequently chaotic family chatter, none of the author's children emerge as especially distinguishable. Meanwhile, for those already familiar with Grass, The Box certainly sustains interest in this curious late-period experiment until the arrival of the next and perhaps final installment." - Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It is a fascinating book and, despite its contrivances, not really self-indulgent after all. The appearance of self-indulgence is another of the masks the novelist wears." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "This is a mellow and elegiac work that has the cheek, or courage, to begin with the words ‘Once upon a time . . .’ It shows that Grass’s time isn’t over yet and that his narrative energy remains inventive and undiminished." - Paul Bailey, The Spectator

  • "The Box is not a wholly successful work. Capricious Mariechen often proves irritatingly whimsical; the Grass children, their voices lapping in and out in a format that comes straight from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, lack individuality." - Miranda Seymour, The Telegraph

  • "The childish exchanges seem beside the point, because the book’s central perspective is so firmly established" - Iain Bamforth, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Er nutzt den behaupteten Rollenwechsel vom Erzähler zum Zuhörer dazu, Dichtung und Wahrheit wieder einmal ordentlich zu verzwirbeln und also in das aus seiner Sicht rechte Verhältnis zueinander zu bringen. (...) Die Box ist ein technischer Oskar Matzerath, ein Medium, das die Grenzen von Raum und Zeit sprengt. Hinter seine Geheimnisse kommen die erzählenden Kinder letztlich nicht. (...) Man muss mit dem Werk und der Familiengeschichte von Günter Grass halbwegs vertraut sein, wenn die Lektüre ertragreich werden soll." - Eckhard Fuhr, Die Welt

  • "Auf der Oberfläche ist Grass’ Buch nicht schlicht, sondern will ein spielerisch-intelligentes, formal gewagtes Unternehmen und vergleichsweise kompliziert sein. Der Stil des Buches ist ebenfalls nicht schlicht. Er ist zwar auch nicht schwierig, aber er will zumindest nicht in einfacher Weise erzählen. Er will verkomplizieren. (...) Ich denke, es wird klar, inwiefern all dem ein monoperspektivischer Text zugrunde liegt." - Andreas Maier, 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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The complete review's Review:

       The Box is a sequel of sorts to Grass' autobiographical Peeling the Onion, but takes on completely different forms. Covering most of his writing career, well into the 1990s, it says very little about the books written in this span, or their creation; it also isn't a personal account -- at least not directly in Grass' own voice. Instead this is a family-centered (and dictated) memoir, the many children of the pater familias (identifiable as Grass -- by the titles of his novels, along with much else --, even as the kids' names have been changed) the ones providing most of the material, in (what are meant to be) their own voices.
       Dad writes himself a father-homage: yes, this is an unusual exercise. In nine 'tales' or episodes different groupings of his now-grown offspring get together and talk about the good old days, and about Dad -- with repeated mentions of the microphones set up on the tables reminding both readers and the children that the Author-figure will take possession of the words and edit/doctor/present them for his purposes. Dad remains mostly a shadowy narrative figure, not imposing himself very forcefully but certainly also commenting on what unfolds and clearly shaping the narrative.
       Moms -- there were several, covering the large brood -- are largely ignored, but there is a significant (and constant) female figure, Marie or Mariechen (and, indeed, the book is dedicated to a Maria Rama). As one child remembers Dad saying:

Of all the women I've loved, or still love, Mariechen is the only one who doesn't demand even a smidgen of me, but gives everything.
       Marie is like the court-photographer, accompanying Grass' entire life-journey with her trusted box, a cheap Agfa camera (the popular German equivalent of the Brownie) and snapping pictures all the while. But her Agfa -- or her developing skills -- have special qualities:
Whenever Marie snapped a picture of something with the Agfa box, it came out of her darkroom looking totally different.
       As she herself puts it:
My box is like the good Lord: it sees all that was, that is, and that will be. You can't pull the wool over its eyes. It sees through everything.
       This magical box and its transformative abilities sound suspiciously like what Grass sees himself as, able to take raw and often ugly material and breathe a different sort of life into it. Grass' spin on 'I am camera' here is different than most -- his version is not one of faithful reproduction but rather of great creative freedom. Hence also no need for a technical marvel with complex lenses: a box will do, and like a magician, he (or she, as the case is here) can make anything come out of it. It's a clever idea, and nicely presented in the instances the kids come up with.
       The father/writer-figure is of a slightly different order, his abilities not probed and demonstrated in quite the same way. There are mentions of the writing of a few of the books, but there's very little about his creative process -- though eventually the kids do wonder:
     It's possible even we, sitting here and talking, are just figments of his imagination -- what do you think ?

     That is what he is allowed to do, what he does best: dream up things, imagine things, until they become real and cast a shadow.
       It's typical that the question -- what do you think ? -- goes unanswered; it's meant for the reader more than the kids (though as the writer's progeny they must wonder ...). (The lack of subtlety -- that Grass even has to put this notion that they-might-just-be-figments-of-his-imagination so explicitly out there -- is also typical for the book, as Grass doesn't show near enough confidence in his artful tricks.) Here he also goes far in explaining this books failure: what he does best is dream up things and imagine things, but he's trying to handle what's already real, and he can't quite get a handle on it. Marie's box and photography allows him to dreams things up, but, unfortunately, he doesn't allow his book to truly become 'The Box', trying too much else along with it.
       As pure fiction The Box is quite good, but it's impossible to read as pure fiction: there's too much memoir here, too many reminiscences (by voices that Grass keeps far too childlike for supposed adults) to ignore -- and, given that, the reader feels shortchanged, because there's also entirely too little. The Box reveals almost nothing about Grass' life and fiction, offering little more than annotations and footnotes to what is already known (by those familiar with his life and work, that is; American readers who haven't followed his career so closely won't have a clue). The odd mix doesn't work very well; too bad: "what he does best: dream up things, imagine things" he can do very well; would that he had done more of that here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 November 2010

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The Box: Reviews: Günter Grass: 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 in literature in 1999.

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© 2010-2012 the complete review

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