Peeling the Onion

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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 was drafted into the Waffen-SS at the age of seventeen. Wounded by shrapnel, he was taken prisoner by American forces and 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, ...

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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 was drafted into the Waffen-SS at the age of seventeen. Wounded by shrapnel, he was taken prisoner by American forces and 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 reveals Grass at his most intimate.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Memoirs by Nobel Prize-winning authors possess intrinsic allure, but Günter Grass's Peeling the Onion grasps our attention in an entirely new way. Even before its original German-language release, the book gained front-page notice when Grass revealed that it exposed a grave secret he concealed for six decades: as a teenager during World War II, he had served in Hitler's Waffen-SS. This revelation, which contradicted his previous assertions, sparked volleys of attack and defense. At long last, English-language readers will be able to place that controversy within the context of Grass's own account of his life, from his childhood to the publication of The Tin Drum, which brought him worldwide fame.
William Grimes
"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. Nothing is what it seems, especially to the author, who in this chronicle of his first 32 years, from his childhood in Danzig to the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959, often describes himself in the third person and treats himself as a fictional character in a story subject to memory’s endless editing."
— The New York Times
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 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Nobel laureate Grass, Germany's greatest living author and moralist, shocked just about everyone last year when he revealed that he once was a member of Hitler's elite Waffen-SS. The real surprise, however, was not that he served in the infamous Nazi unit but that he concealed his service for decades while harshly criticizing his countrypeople for failing to deal adequately with their Nazi past. In this English translation of his latest autobiographical memoir, Grass tries to explain why his story is more complicated than it sounds and discloses how he was finally driven by guilt to reveal this shameful episode in his past. He sketches his life since early childhood in Danzig (now Gda ´nsk, Poland) and through the late 1950s, deliberately mixing his real life and the characters from his fictions in a process that, not unlike the peeling of an onion, uncovers layers and produces tears. The memoir's beauty and poetic tone should not be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding its author's mea culpa. In any case, as critics acknowledge, his legacy will be his rescue of the national language from linguistic abuse by the Nazis. Highly recommended for all large collections.
—Ali Houissa

Kirkus Reviews
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 Fuhrer" 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 naif 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 thatGrass'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.
From the Publisher
"The command of incident and detail is superlative…. [An] eloquent self-portrait." —-Kirkus Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616881993
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/2/2008
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

GÜNTER GRASS was born in Danzig, Germany, in 1927. He is the widely acclaimed author of numerous books, including The Tin Drum, My Century, Crabwalk, and Peeling the Onion. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

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Read an Excerpt

Peeling the Onion

By Grass, Gunter


Copyright © 2007 Grass, Gunter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780151014774

Skins Beneath the Skin
Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great: He was going on twelve, though he still loved sitting in his mother’s lap, when such and such began and ended. But can something that had a beginning and an end be pinpointed with such precision? In my case it can.
           My childhood came to an end when, in the city where I grew up, the war broke out in several places at once. It began with an unmistakeable bang—the broadsiding of a ship and the approach of dive bombers over the Neufahrwasser dock area, which lay opposite the Polish military base at Westerplatte, and, farther off, the carefully aimed shots of two armored reconnaissance cars during the battle for the Polish Post Office in the Old Town of Danzig—and was heralded closer to home by our radio—a Volksempfänger, “people’s receiver”—which stood on the sideboard in the living room. Thus the end of my childhood was proclaimed with words of iron in a ground-floor flat of a three-story building on Labesweg, in Langfuhr.
           Even the time of day sticks in my mind. From then on, the airport of the Free State near the Baltic Chocolate factory handled more than just civilian planes. From the skylight in the roof of our building wecould see smoke mounting duskily over the Free Port each time there was a new attack and a light wind from the northwest.
           But the moment I try to remember that distant artillery fire from the Schleswig-Holstein, which had been retired from active duty after the Battle of Jutland and could no longer be used as anything but a training ship for cadets, and the layered sounds of the Stukas or Stutzkampfflugzeug, “dive-bombers”—so called because high above the combat zone they would tip to one side, then lunge down on their target, releasing their bombs at the last moment—I am faced with a question: Why go back to my childhood and its clear and immutable end date, when everything that happened to me between milk teeth and permanent ones—my first day at school, scraped knees, marbles, the earliest secrets of the confessional and later agonies of faith—all merged in the jumble of jottings that has since been associated with a person who, no sooner had he been put down on paper, refused to grow and shattered all manner of glass with his song, kept two wooden sticks at the ready, and thanks to a tin drum made a name for himself that thereafter existed in quotable form between book covers and claims immortality in heaven knows how many languages?
           Because this as well as that deserves to be part of the record. Because something flagrantly significant could be missing. Because certain things at certain times fell into the well before the lid went on: the holes I left uncovered until later, growth I could not halt, the linguistic give-and-take I had with lost objects. And let this, too, be said: because I want to have the last word.
Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.
           When pestered with questions, memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.
           Beneath its dry and crackly outer skin we find another, more moist layer, that once detached, reveals a third, beneath which a fourth and fifth wait whispering. And each skin sweats words too long muffled, and curlicue signs, as if a mystery-monger from an early age, while the onion was still germinating, had decided to encode himself.                      Then ambition raises its head: this scrawl must be deciphered, that code cracked. What currently insists on truth is disproved, because Lie or her younger sister, Deception, often hands over only the most acceptable part of a memory, the part that sounds plausible on paper, and vaunts details to be as precise as a photograph: The tarpaper roof of the shed behind our building shimmered in the July heat and in the still air smelled of malt lozenges . . .
           The washable collar of my primary school teacher, Fräulein Spollenhauer, was made of celluloid and was so tight it put creases in her neck . . .
           The propeller-shaped bows in the hair of the girls on the Zoppot Promenade when the police band played its snappy melodies . . .
           My first Boletus edulis . . .
           When we were excused from school because of the heat . . .
           When my tonsils flared up again . . .
           When I swallowed my questions . . .
           The onion has many skins. A multitude of skins. Peeled, it renews itself; chopped, it brings tears; only during peeling does it speak the truth. What happened before and after the end of my childhood knocks at the door with facts and went worse than wished for and demands to be told now this way, now that, and leads to tall tales.
When war broke out to a spell of glorious late-summer weather in Danzig and environs, and the Westerplatte’s Polish defenders capitulated after seven days of resistance, I, that is, the boy I apparently was, gathered up a handful of bomb- and shell-splinters near the Neufahrwasser dock, which was easily accessible by tram via Saspe and Brösen, and traded them, at a time when the war seemed to exist only in radio bulletins, for stamps, colored picture cards from cigarette packets, books both dog-eared and hot off the press—including Sven Hedin’s Voyage Through the Gobi Desert—and heaven knows what else.
            An imprecise memory sometimes comes a matchstick’s length closer to the truth, albeit along crooked paths.
           It is mostly objects that my memory rubs against, my knees bump into, or that leave a repellent aftertaste: the tile stove . . . the frame used for beating carpets behind the house . . . the toilet on the half-landing . . . the suitcase in the attic . . . a piece of amber the size of a dove’s egg . . .
           If you can still feel your mother’s barrettes or your father’s handkerchief knotted at four corners in the summer heat or recall the exchange value of various jagged grenade- and bomb splinters, you will know stories—if only as entertainment—that are closer to reality than life itself.
The picture cards I so eagerly collected in my boyhood and youth were obtained with coupons that came in the packs out of which my mother tapped her cigarettes after closing the shop. “Ciggies,” she called the accessories to her modest vice, and celebrated the nightly ritual with a glass of Cointreau. If the mood was upon her, she could make smoke rings hover.
           The pictures I lusted after were color reproductions of European masterpieces. From them I learned early on to mispronounce the names of Giorgione, Mantegna, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Caravaggio. The naked back of a reclining woman gazing into a mirror held up by a winged boy has been inextricably coupled in my mind since childhood with the name of Velázquez. What left the deepest imprint on me in Jan van Eyck’s Singing Angels was the profile of the hindmost angel: what I would have given to have curly hair like him or like Albrecht Dürer. Of the Dürer self-portrait hanging in the Prado in Madrid one might ask: Why did the master paint himself wearing gloves? Why are the strange cap and right lower sleeve so conspicuously striped? What makes him so self-assured? And why did he write his age—he was all of twenty-six—under the window ledge?
           Today I know that a cigarette-picture service in Hamburg-Bahrenfeld supplied these magnificent reproductions for the coupons as well as square albums, which had to be ordered separately. Now that I have reclaimed all three albums, thanks to my Lübeck gallery that maintains a second-hand bookshop on Königstrasse, I can confirm that the number of copies of the Renaissance volume, published in 1938, ran to at least 450,000.
           Turning page after page, I see myself at the living-room table, pasting in the pictures. This time it is the late Gothic as represented by the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch: the saint in a group of very human-looking beasts. It is almost a ritual, the glue squirting out of the yellow Uhu tube . . .
           Many collectors, hopelessly gone on art, probably took to smoking immoderately. I, however, took advantage of all the smokers who had no use for their coupons. I accumulated, traded, and pasted in more and more pictures, relating to them initially as a child would, but later with increasing sensitivity: Parmigianino’s lanky Madonna, whose head budding on a long neck towers above the pillars that soared heavenward in the background, aroused the twelve-year-old to rub himself ardently, angel-like, against her right knee.
© Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2006
English translation © 2007 by Harcourt, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


Excerpted from Peeling the Onion by Grass, Gunter Copyright © 2007 by Grass, Gunter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Skins Beneath the Skin     1
Encapsulations     28
His Name Was Wedontdothat     64
How I Learned Fear     105
Guests at Table     160
At and Below the Surface     202
The Third Hunger     248
How I Became a Smoker     292
Berlin Air     344
While Cancer, Soundless     367
The Wedding Gifts I Received     395
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  • Posted May 29, 2010

    Gunter Grass, Nobel Prize Winner for Literature

    "Peeling the Onion" is Günter Grass' autobiography, translated from the German ("Beim Haüten der Zwiebel"), and published in English, the Summer, 2007. As a general auto-/biography, this will be an interesting read for anyone. For those who have studied Günter Grass and his works, this will help them have a deeper insight into his writings.

    During World War II, Grass joined the SS and kept that from public knowledge for decades. Here he made it public and apologized, and that revelation overshadowed much of the exceptional literary artistry of this memoir.

    "It weighed on me," he said. "My silence through all those years is one of the reasons I wrote this book. It had to get out, at last."

    Grass was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. After Grass' admission of his wartime service, there were many calls for him to return his Prize. Critics considered him the worst hypocrite because the Germans' difficulties in facing their WWII truth had been a constant theme of his literary and political life.

    In this memoir, Grass explores the nature of memory, creativity, and truth itself as he "peels the onion".

    There are those who think Grass is brutally honest here and holds nothing back, and those who think he doesn't quite seem to "tell all". In any case, Grass does reveal the real-life basis for many of the characters and locations in his novels.

    "The Tin Drum" ("Die Blechtrommel"), his 1959 novel, is his undeniable masterpiece. (Not until 20 years later was a film adaptation made.)

    Among the reasons given for awarding Günter Grass the Nobel Prize was that his "frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history".

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    Posted July 19, 2009

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    Posted December 23, 2008

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