Part fiction, part memoir, Günter Grass’s The Box is an account of the Nobel laureate’s personal life as told by his eight grown children.
The Box has been billed as a sequel to his 2007 memoir Peeling the Onion, a book that focused on Grass’s life up to the publication of his famous novel The Tin Drum in 1959. In Onion Grass said, “the temptation to camouflage oneself in third person remains great.” In The Box, he camouflage’s himself in first person—nine first-persons, actually: his own voice and the voices of his kids.
The book’s conceit—Grass’s grown children gather for a series of reminiscences captured on tape—gives Grass the chance to ruminate on his own life from a safe distance. It all feels just a little too self-indulgent, though, but then again, that’s one of the themes of the book: Grass is always “working something over in his head” as a writer, and this book is just one more way for him to do that.
The Grass that emerges from his children’s reminiscences does, indeed, have something churning in his head all the time. He’s always writing a new book or working on a political campaign. Fatherhood generally distracts him from those things. He comes across as a beneficent but removed father, preoccupied by work. The children—six biological and two adopted—tell stories about him weaving in and out of their lives.
I suspect Grass felt his structural conceit allowed him to come across as personally revealing in an uncompromising way, but the piece is less revealing and poignant than Grass probably thought it was. The kids have swapped “assertions of love, but also reproaches, stored up over the years”—but there’ve been no real scabs picked, no relationships wounded, no wounds to be healed. The portrait they paint of their father is generally pretty fond. Perhaps Grass, from his privileged perspective as the writer, thinks he’s offered some emotional vulnerability, but if so, I didn’t see it.
The other star of the book is Grass’s close friend and confidante, Mariechen, a photographer who serves as his Muse and who might or might not be his mistress. Mariechen documents the world that Grass then tries to capture in his novels. Through three wives and another lover, Mariechen serves as a constant presence in Grass’s life and, by extension in the lives of his tangled family. Mariechen’s camera magically captures the past and shows people their fondest wishes come true. “My box is like the good Lord,” she says. “It sees all that was, that is, and that will be. You can’t pull the wool over its eyes. It sees through everything.”
The box provides the story with the injection of magic realism Grass has become known for, and it makes an otherwise confusing memoir interesting. The structure of the novel—all the kids around the table, talking at once, interrupting each other, with no dialogue attribution, no clarifying punctuation, and no real distinctions between their narrative “voices”—adds to the confusion.
In the end, it’s Mariechen’s story, not Grass’s, that provides the texture to the book that makes it a worthwhile read.