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In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives. Memories contradictory, critical, loving, accusatory—they piece together an intimate picture of this most public of men. To say nothing of Marie, a photographer and family friend of many years, whose snapshots taken with an old-fashioned Agfa box camera provide the author...
In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives. Memories contradictory, critical, loving, accusatory—they piece together an intimate picture of this most public of men. To say nothing of Marie, a photographer and family friend of many years, whose snapshots taken with an old-fashioned Agfa box camera provide the author with ideas for his work. Her images offer reveal a truth beyond the ordinary detail of life, depict the future, tell what might have been, grant the wishes of those photographed. An inspired and daring work of fiction from the always-provocative Grass.
A family documentary in the form of a novel, leaving the reader to decide where the line blurs between fact and fiction.
This book by the Nobel Prize–winning German author(Peeling the Onion,2007, etc.) ostensibly allows his eight offspring to come to terms with their father, their different mothers (four in all) and their divergent memories. Yet the novelist reinforces the spirit of fiction, if not fairy tale, from the opening "Once upon a time..." He explains that not only do all the characters in this fictional memoir have pseudonyms, but that they are "all products of their father's whimsy, using words he has put in their mouths." Different groupings gather in different places at different times, with the novelist functioning as director, recording the proceedings. Monologue and dialogue dominate, though there are no quotation marks or any attribution to specific speakers. The results are more like a collective memoir, though memories diverge, as "the brothers and sister wend their way into the confused tangle of their childhood." Further complicating both narrative and memory are images they conjure from the camera of their father's late assistant, a widow named Marie, ten years his senior, perhaps his lover, whose photography allowed him to conjure the past in precise detail. Yet her photography had a magical quality, for "with her box Mariechen could not only look into the past but also see the future." And it could divine the wishes of all whose pictures she took and make those wishes come true, at least in photographs. For Marie, the box of the title is "sacred...like the good Lord: it sees all that was, that is, and that will be." As the reader wonders whether the author has recast memoir as fiction, the story of Marie and her camera suggests fantasy rendered as truth.
A short, engaging and puzzling novel: "He simply dreams us up!" says a daughter, as the reader wonders what to make of these dreams.
There's a famous, and famously long, word in German for "coming to terms with the past." Vergangenheitsbewältigung has long been associated, at least where literature is concerned, with authors like Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, and the latter's newest book is no exception. But the past that Grass seeks to work through in The Box: Tales from the Darkroom is less Germany's than that of his own family, or at least a fictional facsimile thereof. Told largely through the voices of his eight children as they recall their lives at the margins of their father's creativity, The Box picks up where Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion abruptly left off -- with his life as a writer and a father.
The conceit that structures The Box -- and it is a conceit -- is that of an Agfa Special box camera that the children believe has magical properties. Throughout their respective upbringings, across multiple houses under the eyes of multiple mothers, their father's friend and faithful assistant Marie -- Mariechen in the German diminutive -- would carry the camera, documenting not only every turn in their childhoods but also their innermost desires and imaginings. The Box inhabits a fluid space between fiction and memoir (not least, the children's names are fictionalized and the narrator-cum-patriach goes unnamed altogether). The conversations between the children were, we're told, recorded over the course of several dinners, but it's impossible to know where Grass's memory ends and fantasy begins. Perhaps they're one and the same. Whether capturing something as unlikely as a dog's solitary journeys throughout the Berlin metro system or, no less implausibly, a "proper family" together at an amusement park, the camera gives them what their father never could: "Only Mariechen has the ability to suspend and reverse the natural course of time. Suspicions captured in snapshots. Longings pursued and pounced on by a box that had some screws loose but could reveal hidden states of affairs."
Grass's works tend to be governed by a central organizing metaphor: the box camera in The Box, the onion in Peeling the Onion, the tin drum in… you get the idea. These metaphors have their uses -- they lend a kind of mysticism to the ordinary -- but Grass's repetitions can resemble the incessant pattering of Oskar Matzerath in their tirelessness. By the end of The Box, one never wants to hear about this magical camera again, so overbearing does the image of Marie in her darkroom become. In fact, the most revealing moments in The Box are those that step outside the entrapment of metaphor into simple, unadorned memory, uncorroborated by the snap of an ever-present shutter.
The Box reads, on its surface, as a gesture of penitence. Each chapter of dialogue between the children is framed by Grass himself, setting the scene and signaling the extent to which, even in giving them a voice, his children remain at the mercy of his writerly project. "Now the inadequate father hopes the children will feel some compassion. For they cannot sweep aside his life, nor he theirs, pretending that none of it ever happened," he writes. Yet as much as he tries to hold himself to account, what really interests Grass is Grass. Marie and her camera are meant to give us a window into his creative process, into how he converts the ready world into traceable motifs. As one of the children observes, "[H]e shows up in all his own books, sometimes as the main characters, sometimes in a minor role, in one costume or another, as if the book was always about him."
Once upon a time there was a father, who, having grown old in years, called together his sons and daughters — four, five, six, eight in all. For a long time they resisted, but in the end they granted his wish. Now they are seated around a table and all begin to talk at once, all products of their father’s whimsy, using words he has put in their mouths, yet obstinate, too, determined not to spare his feelings despite their love for him. They are still batting around the question: Who’s going to start?
The first to come along were two-egged twins. For the purposes of this story they will be called Patrick and Georg, nicknamed Pat and Jorsch, though their real names are different. Then a girl arrived to gladden her parents’ hearts; she will answer to Lara. These three children enriched our overpopulated world at a time when the Pill was not yet available, before contraception became the norm and families were planned. Not surprisingly, another child arrived to join the others, unbidden, a gift of capricious chance. The name given him is Thaddeus, but all those seated around the table call him Taddel: Quit your clowning, Taddel! Don’t trip on your shoelaces, Taddel! Come on, Taddel, let’s hear you do your Clueless Rudi number again!
Although grown-up now, with jobs and families of their own, the daughters and sons speak as if bent on regressing, as if they could capture and hold fast the shadowy outlines of the past, as if time could stand still, as if childhood never ended.
From the table, distracted glances can be cast out the window at the rolling landscape to either side of the Elbe-Trave Canal, lined with poplars, trees that are condemned to be cut down in the near future, having been officially categorized as a nonnative species.
In a large pot a hearty stew is steaming, lentils with lamb chops, which the father has set on a low flame to simmer invitingly and seasoned with marjoram. That is how it has always been: father loves to cook for a crowd. Being the provider is what he calls this tendency toward epic generosity. Wielding his ladle equitably, he fills bowl after bowl, each time murmuring one of his sayings, such as Don’t forget that the biblical Esau sold his birthright for a mess of lentils. After the meal he will withdraw to his studio, there to plunge back in time, or he may sit on the garden bench with his wife.
Outdoors, spring has come. Indoors, the heat is still on. Once they have spooned up their lentils, the siblings can choose between bottled beer and unfiltered cider. Lara has brought along photos, which she is trying to organize. Something is still missing: Georg, who answers to Jorsch and has professional training in such matters, hooks up the table microphones, because the father insists on having everything recorded. Jorsch asks the others to test the mikes, and finally declares himself satisfied. From now on, the children have the floor.