Friday 25 May 2018

Review: The Box by Gunter Grass

Harvill Secker, €19.99, Hardback

With The Tin Drum, Nobel-winning German writer Gunter Grass produced, in my opinion, the great novel of the 20th Century.

I described it in review as a book that "most completely defines the era in all its glories and catastrophes -- the moods, atmospheres, manias, streams, currents, histories and under-histories . . . exquisitely and lucidly capturing the dazed, eerie strangeness of our misfortunate times . . . The Tin Drum is not about the 20th Century; it is the 20th Century."

Clearly a man of rare talents, to have written such a magnificent book. Besides that, he's also crafted several other brilliant novels, plays, essays and memoir.

Grass is among the greats of modern literature, melding the enormous with the intimate, the geopolitical with the personal, to dizzying, discomfiting and intoxicating effect.

This is a man of large ideas and huge literary presence, which is just one of the reasons why The Box, his latest volume of memoir, is such a charming read. Grass puts the intimate to the forefront here, retelling the story of his family and professional lives through a clever conceit and unique narrative voice: his eight children.

In a series of (presumably) invented conversations, the five sons and three daughters -- by four different women -- reminisce on their Berlin youth and unusual familial arrangements, and the bombed-out buildings of that remarkable city.

Underpinning it all are their 'memories' of Grass, their father: tapping on his typewriter, rolling cigarettes, campaigning for leftist politicians, struggling to locate the muse and complete some epic work of fiction. He comes across as a genial, avuncular character, though this isn't some sort of auto-hagiography (to coin a phrase). Grass admits, through the 'voices' of his children, that he was irresponsible and neglectful, unwilling to engage with the real world if it could be avoided.

It's hard to separate fact from fiction here; and the waters are muddied still further through the character of Marie, Grass's long-time assistant and possible lover, and owner of the titular box: an Agfa camera with which she took countless snapshots.

The 'children' remember her pictures as being premonitory, supernatural, able to reveal the past or warn of the future or cut beneath the surface of reality.

Again, fact and fiction are blended and blurred so skilfully that you don't know what's real, and couldn't care less.

It's more than enough to luxuriate in the emotional warmth and imaginative power of this lovely book, with its deceptively simple language, in which Grass once more, half a century on from The Tin Drum, beats a magical rhythm out of the details of everyday life. A fitting valedictory to a towering life in letters.

Irish Independent

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