Book review: The Box

The Box Günter Grass, translated by Krishna Winston Harvill Secker, 194pp, £16.99

When you are 80 and have written the most famous German novels of your generation, and won the Nobel Prize for literature, and more other prizes than you can probably remember, you may be permitted to risk the appearance of being a touch self-indulgent. The Box is a sort of memoir, and sequel to the masterly Peeling an Onion, but Gnter Grass has chosen to tell this one through the voices of his eight children. They come together in one another's homes or in restaurants to exchange their memories of childhood and adolescence which, at their father's insistence, are all recorded.

This may sound straightforward enough, if somewhat contrived, for we cannot suppose that the words put in their mouths are all their own. Perhaps some of them are, perhaps none. They belong to Gnter Grass himself, since his name is on the cover, and he has, in a sense, made fictional characters of his children, though doubtless with their permission even perhaps encouragement.

It is fair to say that though they are made to speak of him with admiration and affection, they don't go out of their way to flatter him. They record his infidelities, the pain, sorrow and confusion these may have caused them. They remark that he often neglected them. "When we went upstairs," one of them says, "and asked him for something, he would act as if he were listening to every one of us. Even gave us a proper answer.

But you could sense that all he really heard was what was ticking away inside him. He told me, and the rest of you, no doubt, when you were little: we'll play later, when I have time. Right now, I have to work something through, something that can't wait." Well, most writers are a bit like that: selfish. He did cook for them, because he loved cooking, and he often kept them entertained, but only perhaps with what entertained him.

This is the straightforward part of the book, and it is interesting and often charming and mostly, I would guess, honest. Grass is well aware of his faults, and probably regrets them. He has always been a writer who marries wild fancy to an accurate depiction of the here and now. His novels are full of grotesques and talking animals and fish. He has ranged over time and imagined the future when the Germans have died out, the human race has had its day, but the rats survive. He was writing what is called Magic Realism before the Latin Americans cornered that market. His memoir wouldn't be true to his imaginative experience without it, and its most important character is not Grass himself, or any of his wives and children, but one of his oldest friends, Maria, with her camera, a pre-war Agfa Box No 54.

Like Grass, Maria - or Mariechen - belonged to the lost land of East Prussia and the Masurian Lakes, a German land for centuries, from which the Germans were expelled in 1945, and which has haunted the dreams of the survivors, Grass and Mariechen and countless unnamed others, ever since. It is their lost domain, and Mariechen's camera is a magical one.

It takes pictures, which she develops in her darkroom, of things not as they are, but as they might have been, or may be in the future. It transforms the lives of her sitters, even while she also takes photographs of everyone and everything that interests Grass at that moment or which he may need for his work. The Box transforms reality to make the real seem imaginary and the imaginary real. It is a metaphor for the novelist's art which can, for instance, take a street girl glimpsed for a moment in a dingy slum into the heroine of a tragic drama or the lightest of comedies.

There are two kinds of novelists. One kind transfers life to the page so that when you are reading their books, you find yourself saying, "yes, that's true, I see it now. This is what life is really like". Their genius - when they are geniuses - is to enable you to understand the social world, the world of everyday fact, more intelligently and sympathetically than you did before. The other kind transfers the page to life.

They illuminate our experience by transforming it. Life remains their material, but instead of having us recognise our experience in their books, they persuade us to see their books in life. We don't say Grass's novels are true to life. Rather, to our surprise, we may find life resembling his novels.

This distinction is admittedly somewhat arbitrary, and novelists of real talent will usually, or at least from time to time, bridge the divide. The most determinedly naturalistic of writers will sometimes persuade us to look at things in a new light, to let us see that black is not always black and that the world, even the social, everyday world, is stranger than we had supposed. Conversely, the novelist who deals in transformation will often delight us by dwelling sympathetically on the familiar to awaken our delighted recognition.

Grass in this charming memoir does both these things. The children's reminiscences invite us to share in the pleasure of recognition and to say "life's like that", intelligently and sympathetically recovered. Meanwhile Mariechen and her box open our eyes to the strangeness of dream worlds and the infinite varieties of possible experiences. We are shown the paths people take through life, and the paths they might have taken. The memoir is a work of art, and its true subject is the mystery of art. It is a fascinating book and, despite its contrivances, not really self-indulgent after all. The appearance of self-indulgence is another of the masks the novelist wears.