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Peeling the Onion

(Autobiografical Trilogy #1)

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,709 ratings  ·  185 reviews
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 volunteered for the submarine corps at the age of fifteen but was rejected; two years later, in 1944, he was instead drafted int
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published June 25th 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2006)
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It must be the onion!

Why else would I feel my eyes fill with tears?

Finishing the tale of Günter Grass' layers of life, leading to that first sentence, that ominous first sentence that started the Tin Drum, that made Oskar Matzerath the master of the Grassian mind, I feel deeply, deeply touched.

Günter Grass grew up in Danzig, but before he published his first masterpiece, the city had ceased to exist in the way he knew it. He was taught to become a faithful member of Hitler's youth organisati
May 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: herrgrass
They had tried doing it by themselves in her room with a cheap onion, but it wasn't the same. You needed an audience. It was so much easier to cry in company. It gave you a real sense of brotherhood in sorrow when to the right and left of you and in the gallery overhead your fellow students were all crying their hearts out. The Tin Drum

The Goodreads/Amazon imbroglio only shocked me by being so predictable. Not to sound like a hungover Schopenhauer, but decay and disagreeable ends are to be expec
Dec 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
Gunter Grass died last night, and I am in mourning. Discovering his writing was like discovering a new uncle, one who spent WW2 on the wrong side of the war.

I read this book aboard an El Al flight to Israel, where those of us who knew and loved my mother were gathering at the cemetery in Beit Shemesh to dedicate the headstone in her memory.

Mom lived through many of the same events that Mr. Grass describes--though from the other side of the border. While he was idolizing Nazi submarine commande
Nate H.
Apr 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
The other day I listened to an interview with the american writer Charles Baxter where he said of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita ''it's one of those books that has Everything in it''. That phrase came to my mind when I finished this one by Gunter Grass. It's as if is a big container where Everything is thrown in. Un libro TOTAL. ...more
Oct 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Reading this intriguing memoir, I wondered why Grass wrote it. To expiate himself from the crimes of the Waffen SS to whom he had been attached at the tender age of 17? To pin down events before a fading memory lost them forever? Or to take the high road and cling to the claim that he never fired a shot during the war, but was shot and bombed to hell and back as a member of a defeated German army in the dying months of WWII, and therefore deserving to hang on to his Nobel Prize for Literature th ...more
Stephanie Griffin
Apr 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Günter Grass fans.
Shelves: favorites
Günter Grass is one of the best novelists to come out of Germany. In PEELING THE ONION, Grass’ memoir of his life up until the 1959 publishing of his first major novel, THE TIN DRUM, he reflects on the objects, people, and situations that ultimately wove their way into his stories. As in the peeling of an onion, one layer leads to the next, but all are part and parcel of the whole, which is his life.

It helps if one is familiar with Grass’ writings before reading this memoir. I myself have read T
Peter Beck
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is the perfect book for understanding Germany's most influential writer of the 20th Century. All I really knew about the Nobel Prize winner was that his most famous book, "The Tin Drum" was considered a difficult read. I also remembered the stir his autobiography created when it came out because Grass admitted for the first time that he had served in the Nazi Waffen-SS, albeit as an (eager) 17-year-old who was injured before he could harm anyone.

Grass is a great storyteller, with experienc
Kunal Sen
Jul 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
In 1975, in my college days, I saw Gunter Grass for the first time in my family’s living room in Calcutta. He came to see my father, a filmmaker. At that time we just knew him as a German writer who wrote The Tin Drum.

Later I heard from some people who expressed their disapproval of him as a Nazi, who fought for the Germans in World War II. That’s what prompted me to read this book, as I wanted to know what he had to say about his past.

I am no longer a college kid, and I try not to draw simple c
Jul 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Gunter Grass’s autobiography. This was a very interesting read after The Tin Drum. You slowly see how some events of the novel were influenced by his own life, and how many characters of that novel were based on the real people in his life. I couldn’t help comparing this book with Nabokov’s Speak Memory. Nabokov’s autobiography mostly disappointed me in spite of the good writing. This was far better. Grass tells the story of his eventful life in some really great writing.

Grass caused a controver
Almost gave up on mister Grass and his most peculiar style of writing, especially during the rather cumbersome part about his war experiences. In the end though, I feel like this is a very special book by a very interesting author. Grass has lived an artists life which I imagine might be virtually impossible to live nowadays, living through the worst of times only to come out on top through the pursuit of his many hungers, which include women, art and food.

Throughout the book, Grass is peeling h
Aug 23, 2014 added it
Shelves: memoir
The modern American memoir has decayed into mawkish, simpering shopworn confessionalism-- the sort of thing that was embarrassing back when Sylvia Plath scrawled "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard I'm through," and now is almost beneath reproach.

Fortunately, the fine tradition of the memoir as a catalyst for deep introspection and irony and exploration of larger themes is alive and well in Herr Grass' version. Here was a guy who did it all, and has to face the fact, again and again, that for a bit, he w
Apr 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Overcome with emotions, I have a hard time putting his memoir down. I am lost in my reading. In some parts I'm saddened because he has abandoned his belief in a personal God with finality. Curiosity also gets hold of me, especially when he talks of his adolescent urges and liaisons, his ambitions, the books and paintings that have transformed him. But I'm depressed when he talks about the war, or when he chooses to skip some very important parts, like what happened to his family while he was awa ...more
Zach Smith
Nov 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is nothing more than truly remarkable and fascinating. Gunter Grass is the Nobel Laureate and author of the world famous “The Tin Drum.” In my personal opinion he is undoubtedly the best author to write in the German language, and “The Tin Drum” (read almost 5 years ago) remains in my personal opinion the best novel written in any foreign language. “Peeling the Onion” is not a novel but a memoir, an autobiography. In our American schools, we learn a lot about WWII and the Holocaust, bu ...more
Apr 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this when it first came out in translation, and loved it, and decided to re-read it as part of a celebration of Grass' work following his death. It is every bit as marvellous as I remembered. The first half of the book has attracted particular attention because of his recollections about joining the Hitler Youth and SS. However, the rest of his memoir is just as compelling, giving us an insight into his development as an artist (in sculpture/drawing/painting as well as writing), which is ...more
Richard Newton
I am a biased reviewer as I am a huge fan of Grass - although hopefully I am an open eyed fan because as well as writing books I love, he has written some I really dislike. This book is in the former category!

This books is quite simply brilliant. The best writer's autobiography (or biography) I have read. Honest and not always self-complimentary. The book caused a bit of a storm when it became apparent what this leftward leaning author did in the war. But we all make mistakes!

Although the book
Jul 03, 2008 rated it liked it
Almost insufferably self-indulgent but not quite,
so I kept reading...I learned to skip the "product-
placement" tie-ins with his books, and--for all
the horrific historic connections in his young-Nazi
life--finally found most interesting his learning
to be a gourmet cook while imprisoned on a diet
of crusts and thin gruel.
May 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: autobiography
An autobiography of Guenter Grass, or how a sculptor became a poet and an author. It seems to have been the fault of the Olivetti typewriter that he received as a wedding present. Soon he had three, one in Denmark, one in Portugal and one in Germany.

The tale is presented using the peeling of the layers of an onion as a metaphor.

This is a wonderful book. Grass is a truly creative person and the things he does with the language are entertaining to say the least. The early years are quite hard goi
I'm not a massive fan of Grass the novelist. I've read The Tin Drum, when I was probably too young and inexperienced to appreciate it, but found the character of Oskar so insufferable that I remember it being really a chore. Grass himself is more Oskar than I'd hoped. Anyway, I've read so much, as have we all, about the suffering of Jews and other groups during the WW2 and its lead-up, and have long been curious to read about Grass's experience on the other side. That part of this book, the firs ...more
Nov 07, 2008 rated it did not like it
Going into this biographical book, I was quite interested to see how he made sense of his involvement in Nazi Germany's last stand, having thought his treatment of the themes of German guilt post-WWII in the novel CRABWALK were rather nuanced and abject. I come away from this biographical work with a decidedly different reaction.

Grass was admittedly young (16) and a participant for only a bumbling week (during which he seems to have forgotten pretty much everything that happened). So I suppose
Mark Lisac
Aug 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
Master storytelling about one of the biggest events of the last century, from the inside. Yes, it reads like the product of a wilful egotist, but he's also a top-rank artist, so the surprise of that is lessened.
There are at least three layers here: recollections of being swept along in massive historical events; reflections on what those events meant and on Grass's personal role in them; the universal story of a young man (and the book is written from an entirely male perspective) growing up and
Mar 19, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010
grass is difficult. pondering, long sentences. this is originally in german and the german language is pondering with long sentences. i like his prose though.

grass admits to being fascinated by nazi germany and i reckon he is trying to assuage his conscience a bit in this book....

it took a year to finish it after getting thru the first longwinded bit. I liked the second half best. describing his post-war experiences, his lovelife (the second hunger), the stirrings of his call to write. but he i
Dec 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This was such a beautiful book. After reading it I have a much more vivid picture of what it was like to be a German foot soldier in WWII. I was very inspired by his depiction of his own shame and guilt about his role, and at the end of reading this book I felt more able to look at my own past.

One interesting thing was I read this book at the same time as I was reading an autobiography of a Viennese Jewish man of about the same age. They both felt very proud of their German heritage and of Germ
Dec 05, 2010 rated it liked it
Grass offers an excellent account of what it was like to live as a German through World War 11 and survive the chaos and poverty of a divided country after the war. His guilt-laden and long delayed confession of service in the Waffen-SS adds another element to the story.
It was interesting to read how his beginnings as a sculptor slowly led to his emergence as a writer. I've just acquired The Box, a second 'memoir' written from the viewpoint of his children.

Peter Leeson
Sep 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A brilliant, must read memoir. This auto biography of a man who, as a teenager "missed out on learning to doubt" and joined the Hitler youth, movmoves the reader through his memories of the war, the discovery of the truth afterwards, his exploration of art (sculptor, painter, poet, author). I cannot recommend this enough. ...more
Dec 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Originally read for German Literature Month, but it spilled into December. Review still brewing.
Nathan Albright
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: challenge-2018
In reading this book, I found a lot of similarities with the memoir of Vladimir Nabokov that I had read some time ago [1].  There are a lot of similarities between the two men.  Both were immensely successful and even prize-winning authors, and while Nabokov's work has been more enduring in the West, both of them had to deal with charges of obscenity related to their most famous writings.  Nabokov is a much better writer to be sure, but this was a worthwhile memoir even if it was somewhat of a s ...more
Dec 30, 2016 rated it liked it
I’ve a particular interest in literary biographies, autobiographies and memoires. They seem to have made up the bulk of my reading this year and so I thought I’d end the year with one more.
I knew of Gunter Grass by reputation only, some of it more positive than others. A Noble Prize winning author controversy also surrounds Grass after it was revealed in this very book that he’d voluntarily joined the Hitler Youth aged 17 and then was drafted into the Waffen-SS. So it was with extreme curiosity
William Gosline
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've been infatuated with Gunter Grass since I found his collection of poems "In the Egg and Other Poems" while still in high school. From there I migrated to The Tin Drum and then the rest of the Danzig Trilogy. Over the years I would pick up one of his books every now and then, so when I heard he'd written a tell-all, scandal plagued memoir (scandalous because he admits to having been a member of the Nazi youth as a fifteen-year-old) I immediately went to my local book store and picked it up.

John F
Dec 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
beam häuten der zwiebel (The German title)
I deliberately purchased the German Version and it is a hard read, this man wrote some long sentences, but I did it because I suspected that with his writing style, no matter how hard a proficient person would try, something would get lost in the translation. If you like Hemingway, you will also like Grass. The book is an autobiography of sorts, starting with a harrowing end to his very short life in the German military and existing in various prison cam
Judy Owens
Jul 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Today's New York Times features an op-ed about how fear-mongering is taking hold as Germany deals with the practical and political crisis of taking more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the past two years. Gunter Grass cautioned against reunification of Germany back in the 1980s. His memoir of being a 17-year-old Waffen-SS soldier in the last months of the European theater of WWII has special relevance today. Chilling is his dry-eyed account of being a child who could not deny the disappearance ...more
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Günter Wilhelm Grass was a Nobel Prize-winning German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, and sculptor. He was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland). Since 1945, he lived in West Germany, but in his fiction he frequently returned to the Danzig of his childhood. He always identified himself as a Kashubian.

He is best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959),

Other books in the series

Autobiografical Trilogy (3 books)
  • The Box: Tales from the Darkroom
  • Grimms Wörter. Eine Liebeserklärung

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Secrets between siblings, grandparents with grievances, parents with problems. If you're looking for serious drama, check out these new...
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“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.” 6 likes
“But because so many kept silent, the temptation is great to discount one's own silence, or to compensate for it by invoking the general guilt, or to speak about oneself all but abstractly, in the third person: he was, saw, had, said, he kept silent...” 4 likes
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