John Irving reviews Peeling the Onion by Gunter Grass

A Soldier Once 

by John Irving 

As a college student, I chose to take my junior year abroad in a German-speaking country — because, in 1961 and ’62, I read “The Tin Drum” twice. At the ages of 14 and 15, I had read “Great Expectations” twice — Dickens made me want to be a writer — but it was reading “The Tin Drum” at 19 and 20 that showed me how. It was Günter Grass who demonstrated that it was possible to be a living writer who wrote with Dickens’s full range of emotion and relentless outpouring of language. Grass wrote with fury, love, derision, slapstick, pathos — all with an unforgiving conscience.

In the fall of 1963, I went to Vienna and became a student at the Institute of European Studies, learning German and reading German literature; I wanted to read “Die Blechtrommel” as Grass had written it, in German. I was 21. (I would never learn German well enough to read Grass — even today, when he writes to me in German, I write him back in English — but it was as a student in Vienna that I began to see myself as a writer of novels.) I had marked certain passages in “Die Blechtrommel”; I’d memorized the English translations of these passages. It turned out to be a way to meet girls.

“Poland’s lost, but not forever, all’s lost, but not forever, Poland’s not lost forever.”

The novel’s hero, Oskar Matzerath, refuses to grow; because he remains childlike, small and seemingly innocent, he is spared the political events of the Nazi years while others die. As Bebra the dwarf warns Oskar, “Always take care to be sitting on the rostrum and never to be standing out in front of it.”

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