Lucy and Todd

Gunter Grass–Of All That Ends

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 5, 2017 at 7:18 am

Gunter Grass, who died in 2015, made himself write or draw something every day in his last months. These written and visual memoranda show us what it will be like when we start inarguably to dwindle. He has much advice for those in this situation, but what he suggests might be taken up by us all in light of recent geopolitical cataclysms. Reread favourite books. Write long letters to friends who have passed on. Deliver indignant diatribes. Why not? We might as well assert or reassert any meaningful thing about ourselves, given that merely existing over the next few years looks like being pretty tricky.

There’s a Zen-like piece on melancholy – ‘the clock was invented to oblige it’. Hopeless loves are recalled as well as rewarding ones. The role of jealousy in life is given a good kicking. On the economy, which seems to be improving, Grass says, “We just don’t know what to save, or why,” and that applies to Germany as well as Greece. There’s an elegy to the Olivetti typewriter on which he wrote all his novels: “She was and is my favourite product from the fifties, sleek and elegant in form, as if Leonardo da Vinci had invented the typewriter on the side”. A lot of this is grim, some wry, all of it rueful. Well, what exactly is the matter with rueful?

Of All That Ends is also an album of drawings. Grass was a renowned graphic artist, very good with ink (see the cover of his novel The Flounder of 1977). He made many drawings of these appealing fish, some incorporating his own features, sharing that species’ lugubrious, confused look.

Most of the drawings here are in charcoal and graphite, with some washes – Grass no longer had the confidence for pen and ink, which he regrets. They seem like an almost systematic homage to the textures of Albrecht Dürer. Decay is the thing: dead birds, broken eggs, live snails crawling alongside petrified snails. Grass exhibits his dentures next to an eroded elk’s skull. There’s a lot here about his teeth.

Throughout this book are plentiful reminders of what a writer of the forest Grass was. Windfall apples and pears nestle in leaves, gently beginning to rot. There is a narrative of feathers, juxtaposed in particular with some twisted coffin nails, for which Grass recalls paying a cemetery worker in Lucky Strike cigarettes; at one point he was a stonemason by trade and spent time in graveyards. There are disturbing renderings of large pairs of paper scissors paired with human hands; later these big blades lie on a table with a lot of snipped-off fingers. Grass asks himself why he collects frogs and toads that have completely dried out, while arranging them for us in a penciled danse macabre.

There are chains, ropes, and a curious bundle of sisal which is used in India, smouldering outside shops that sell bidis, as a kind of continuous cigarette lighter. Grass’s own smoking has come to an end, and there are several drawings of his favorite pipes, now “cold and ill-tempered”. Grass watches Germany and the world, and the feelings and tastes of the world that he created, typically and definitely start to decay: onions, mushrooms, people, offal, walls, houses, tobacco and history. Books and paper. He finds pointed decay at the very heart of the reunification of Germany.

The compelling story of the book is about the day Grass and his wife decide to have coffins made for them, by an old acquaintance who built much of their furniture over the years. (A German word for coffin is Erdmobel, “earth-furniture”.)

The discussion starts over coffee and cake. Grass wants a birch box, his wife pine. He doesn’t want the box to taper toward the foot, and neither of them wish for cushions or linings. Grass gets the idea of lining the boxes with leaves, whether bright ones from summer fruit trees or decayed and autumnal: when they die, he and his wife will lie on leaves in their boxes and be covered with them. He rules out one leaf, that of the oak: a Nazi symbol. The meeting ends with schnapps.

It’s hard not to feel that here we are watching Grass being buried, not under the summer or autumn leaves he wished for, but under the scraps of paper ideas and images that make up this book. Whether or not this is bottom-of-the-drawer material (which he does allude to at one point), it reads, pitifully, a little more that way than not.

Duly the boxes are delivered by the friendly carpenter. Schnapps again. Grass and his wife take them down to the cellar and try them out, lying in them side by side. His wife tells him she wished she had a camera: “You looked so content.” Later, preparing dinner, Grass points at their two fish, nestled in a pan, and they both laugh.

The boxes remain, pointedly useless, in the cellar; eventually his wife begins to use hers for storing her flower bulbs. Now, against the certainties these two boxes would seem to offer, Grass surprisingly borrows a tale from a friend of his that intimates the two bespoke coffins were stolen, for a time, from the cellar. Later they are mysteriously returned, minus the bulbs, but containing two very delicate mummified mice. Grass’s doubt and ambiguity are there, were there, to the end.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, Jan. 1 2017

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