Last month I reviewed Summertime, J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir or autobiographical fiction (it was described as fiction by its publishers).
The Box—Tales from A Dark Room, will fall in the same category. It is the second autobiographical work of Germany’s most celebrated writer, Gunter Grass. It follows his 2006 Peeling the Onion, in which Grass, whose political views have always been left of the centre—he is a long-time supporter of the Social Democratic Party—, revealed, for the first time, that in his teenage years he was a member of Waffen-SS. The revelation dented Grass’s moral authority as a conscientious opponent of the relics of National Socialism. Critics wondered (with some justification) why Grass waited until he entered the eighth decade of his life to announce his ‘guilty past’. Accusations of hypocrisy were levelled.
The Box (marked in the US as a novel, and in Europe as a memoir, although Daily Telegraph described it as a novel in its review) does not have any revelations that match the sensationalism of those in Peeling the Onion. (It alludes to his membership of Waffen-Ss in passing, but does not dwell on it.) It covers the three decades in Grass’s life from the 1960s to the 1990s.
The premise of the book is as follows: Grass’s children—six of his own plus two from his second wife’s earlier relationship—gather and discuss their childhoods and their parents, in particular their father. Grass makes it clear in the first few pages that he has changed the names of all the children.
At the centre of the book is the eponymous box, which is an Agfa camera, number 54, a German analogue of Eastman Kodak’s Brownie, that belongs to a family friend named Mariechen (based upon a close family friend Maria Rama to whom the book is dedicated). Mariechen’s camera is no ordinary camera. It captures images and events from the past, and also conjures up future. At one stage one of the children describes it as a wish box. It is suggested that Mariechen’s camera was the inspiration behind many of Grass’s novels. The photographs also showed the children how things would turn out for them. Mariechen, witchlike (she remarks at one stage that in the medieval times she would have been burned at the stake) yet a wish-fulfiller, is devoted to Grass. He may or may not have had an affair with her (he tells one of his children that it was a love that did not involve physical relationship), but she was most probably his muse. Alternatively, the Agfa camera might symbolize Grass’s fervid imagination that transcends epochs, geography (and species). The book is replete with fantastical stories of what Mariechen’s camera captures; it does tend to get a tad repetitive (and irritating) after a while. Grass tops it off by making one of his sons describe Mariechen’s death as ascension into heaven!
The children, all adult with children of his own, take turns in hosting meals—either in their houses or in restaurants in the cities they live in—and reminisce about their childhoods, and, by extension, their famous father. We learn that the four eldest children are from Grass’s first marriage. He then fathers two daughters from two different relationships. One of the daughters, called Nana in the book, seems to have been the outcome of a clandestine liaison and other children were not aware of her existence until she reached adolescence. Finally there are two boys—not Grass’s own, but the children of his second wife with whom he—all the children agree—finally settled. The children, while talking about their childhoods, also talk about the novels—starting with Cat and Mouse and ending with Headbirths—that Grass published during these years.
The children, supposedly adult, seem frozen in time; they talk like young children who believe in magic. One of the daughters—Lena, I think; or it could be Lara?; or Nana?—describes the break-up of Grass’s relationship with her mother thusly: ‘Their love suffered more and more, so one day my papa took off, with his unfinished manuscript, and never found his way back.’ Make of it what you will.
Reading The Box is a curious experience. Unless you are a Gunter Grass fan and have read all his novels after Tin Drum, you’d find it near impossible to figure out what the hell he is on about when he describes the process of their creation cloaked in magic realism. The family life of the Grass household does not really come alive and none of the children stays in your mind after you finish reading the book. It might be argued that children merely serve the purpose of revealing for the reader Gunter Grass; but Grass, too, remains a distant, hazy, mostly enigmatic (and occasionally creepy) figure. You don’t really get to learn a lot about him (other than that he is a serial monogamer who fathered lots of children, and, at one stage in his life, lived—Kingsley Amis style— in the house of his first wife and her new (younger) lover whom, the reader is informed, Grass smuggled out of then East Germany). The children are very forgiving even though Grass was at best a distant and at worst an absent father when they grew up. In fact they don’t appear that bothered that their father did not visit them for weeks, and, when living in the same house, locked himself for hours writing his books in his office. We shall never know whether the book reflects the views of the real-life Grass children; as one of his daughters remarks at one stage they (the children) sitting round the table and talking about him could be figment of Grass’s imagination. Neither are the children particularly admiring (or even curious) of Grass’s novels, all of which are dismissed in banal, trivial terms. Thus Peeling the Onion is about the ‘Nazi stuff’; The Flounder is about ‘talking fish’; Cat and Mouse is ‘the short book that followed the long one [Tin Drum]’. But they are also proud—or Grass makes them proud—of his works all of which were bestsellers despite unfavourable reviews of some or more of them. (The Nobel Laureate has taken a dig at his critics who, he obviously believes, unfairly compared his works to the seminal Tin Drum.)
The Box, despite its brevity, is not an easy book to read not least because at any given time at least four children are talking across each other about their experiences. Reading The Box at times is like listening to snippets of conversation from a party on the nearby table in a restaurant. By the time I was about one third of the way into the book I gave up trying to figure out whether a particular comment was made by Jorsch or Pat or Lara or one of the remaining 5 children.
The Box does not really captivate you—it offers little to no insight into Grass the writer, or Grass the (imperfect) family man. For the best part of the book he remains an enigmatic figure, like a slightly-out-of-focus, blurred image of someone at the periphery of a group photograph. Only occasionally does he say something that touches your heart, as when he talks about his early period of extraordinary creativity (‘In those days all he had to do was whistle and the words came rushing . . .’)
It seems to me that there comes a time in the lives of renowned authors of weighty novels when they begin to wonder what the world might think of them. In Summertime J.M. Coetzee fantasized that he was dead; in The Box Grass is fantasizing an image of his through the eyes of his children. And, while The Box is nowhere as self-lacerating as Summertime, the picture of Grass that emerges from its pages is not flattering.
The Box, upon its publication in 2008, in Germany, was not well received critically. One can understand why. The supposedly autobiographical work hides more than it tells.
The Box is a curious little book, charming in parts, the charm hinging almost totally on the reader having read Grass’s earlier works of fiction. Is it a novel or a memoir? I am going to call it a novel. If you are familiar with Grass’s literary oeuvre, you will enjoy it. If you haven’t, I’d suggest give The Box a miss; it is not a great introduction to this great writer. There is no better introduction to Grass than Tin Drum, Grass’s colossal debut novel, to which most of his subsequent novels were unfavourably and unfairly compared), and which influenced writers like Salman Rushdie and John Irving.