Published posthumously in 2016, Of All That Ends is Günter Grass’s last book, his testament to his arts – writing and drawing – and to his world. As the title suggests, it is a self-conscious meditation on mortality by a writer who feels his time is running out. As someone who had never read anything by Grass before, I thought starting from the end might not be a good choice. However, Of All That Ends, in its English translation by Breon Mitchell, showcases its author’s eclecticism and originality, in less than two hundred pages. The book features a range of genres, including poetry, short lyric prose, and social satire, but also illustrations, drawn by Grass himself. The predominant subjects of these black-and-white pencil drawings are feathers, animal skulls, small animal skeletons, and inanimate objects, such as iron nails, mushrooms, chains, shells, and dry leaves. Sometimes the correlation between the text and the drawing accompanying is not immediately clear, but there are pieces where the relation between the two is more immediate: for instance, eggs accompany the short prose passage ‘On the Inner Life’.
The arrangement of the texts does not seem to follow a specific pattern. There are short sections on specific themes: a series on mushrooms and old-fashioned foods, which includes ‘Standing singly and in fairy rings’, ‘Innards’, and ‘Once’; a couple of pieces on money, ‘On payments’ and ‘In Frankfurt Am Main’; a few texts about the author’s old typewriter, ‘On writing’ and ‘Grandpa’s beloved’. These short two- or three-piece sequences often follow a two-page drawing, which creates a sense of a rough thematic division.
The dominant sensation, however, is that of entering a sort of cabinet of curiosities: bitter meditations on society (‘On payments’, ‘Everyday events’) sit alongside reflections on letter writing (‘On letters’). A sense of melancholy hovers over the collection as a whole. Lucid plans for the burial of the author and his wife (‘How and where we will be laid to rest’) immediately follows a rather shrewd piece on xenophobia. One would expect a book featuring meditations on aging and bodily decline (take, for example, ‘Farewell to what teeth remain’), and the melancholy of old age (‘A lingering aftertaste’) to have a dark tone. However, the book takes the reader on a journey through the writer’s mind: his drawings, some disturbing, some evocative; his memories (‘Stacked lumber’, ‘To pass the time’); his fears (‘Fear of loss’); his imagination (‘Homesickness’). It is not an easy read. It’s personal, and therefore at times obscure, elliptical, arcane. Yet the book remains powerful and captivating.
Someone asked me if I struggled to empathise with a writer at such a different stage in life. A question that arises, I guess, from the fact that Grass’s book springs from the author’s personal experience and thoughts, although the reflections and fears portrayed in the book are universal. It is true that Grass’s meditation on old age might not be an obvious choice for a twenty-something, yet I believe that books should not only make its readers empathise with their author or narrator, but further empathise with the people around us. The book definitely had this effect on me. It provoked my own reflections on mortality, and my own fears, in a more intuitive, and therefore more powerful, way than other more traditionally narrative books. It is not an easy task, but it’s a rewarding one. In plugging into the most primeval human struggles and anxieties about death, the book acts as a memento mori. This genre has been popular throughout literary history, and the contemporary world certainly has not lost its fascination for it, even though the ways in which the memento mori works nowadays are different. In this sense, books such as Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air are so popular not only because they are beautifully written, but also, and perhaps more enticingly, because they act as a reminder that death awaits us all, and make us reflect on that moment. Glimpsing someone’s inner life is compelling, especially when dealing with so eclectic and creative a mind as Grass’s. But like all good books Of All That Ends forces it readers to adopt a different viewpoint, to imagine themselves in someone else’s place, an exercise that not only helps us to become better readers, but also better human beings.
‘Of All That Ends’ is published by Harvill Secker, RRP £12.99 (hardback).