If there’s a Günter Grass reader on your Christmas list, you’ve probably already thought about giving him or her a copy of The Box: Tales from the Darkroom, the quasi-novel quasi-memoir that came out last month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in a translation by Krishna Winston.
The Boxis not a great choice for those coming fresh to Grass, but for readers who are already familiar with his work it offers a pleasant trip through his collected works, with sidelights on his personal life.
The book is written from the point of view of Grass’s eight children, as they gather in (imaginary) meetings and reminisce about their dad, whose untidy love life — the children have several mothers — and dedication to his writing have made him a sometimes remote presence.
A constant presence in The Box is a family friend (and perhaps more) named Marie, who chronicles Grass and his family over the years. The conceit of the book is that her simple Agfa box camera can capture the wishes of its subjects or show a person or place in the future or the past. The real-life Mary was named Maria Rama. She died in 1997, and The Box is dedicated to her memory.
The 1973 book Inmarypraise, though it bears the name of Günter Grass, consists largely of Maria Rama’s work. Inmarypraise gives an added dimension to the story told in The Box, shedding light on the photography of Rama and the drawings and etchings of Grass. With copies available online for a dollar and up, it makes a thoughtful and inexpensive complement to The Box.
Inmarypraisetakes its name from a long poem that opens the book, addressed to Maria and presented in German and in an English translation by Christopher Middleton.
Agfa colour agfa colour declare the ducks,
coloured on shallow water.
But my dream is gray-etched,
and rained out, on both banks of the Stör,
(In German the ducks sound more ducklike: Akwakolor Akwakolor.)
Parts of the poem, scrawled in Grass’s bold handwriting, accompany the images in the rest of the book: Grass at his easel, etching a copper plate, eating an apple, or drawing with a stick in the sand. Sketches of fish heads, overflowing ashtrays, and bent railroad spikes are photographed beside their real-life models.
Inmarypraiseappeared the same year as the translation of From the Diary of a Snail, and five years before The Flounder. Understandably, there are images of snails and flounders here, along with scorpions, eels, and other wildlife (even a camel). And on facing pages are two images of Maria Rama herself: smiling through a window in a photograph, and looking solemn and a little uncomfortable in a drawing by Grass.