Mr. Grass was born in 1927. The century of the title is that of Germany, with a piece of the book for every year of it. The author begins with a brisk little story of the Boxer Rebellion, in which a young soldier salvages a pigtail from an execution site. His fiancée throws it in the fire, lest it haunt the house. This tale may, or may not, be considered a deliberate omen of the grim or ironic or discouraged reminiscences that Mr. Grass's fictional narrators subsequently provide. These narrators give a vivid, if partial, view of German society. Very few of them are persons of distinction, although the Kaiser does make an appearance. The years 1914 to 1918 are covered by conversations between the writers Erich Maria Remarque (anti-war) and Ernst Jünger (all for it), arranged by a Swiss researcher who privately describes her "witnesses of an era" as "an impressive, if slightly fossilized, pair." The item for 1919, set (unlike most) in its own time, is a housewife's diatribe against turnips. The Second World War is represented by a gathering of veteran war correspondents who complain about what their editors refused to print and explain military errors. It is one of several pieces with a clear satirical edge. Most of these not-quite-stories depend on oblique implications of folly and helplessness to create the impression of a country drifting without a course. The format enables Mr. Grass to write his version of history while pretending not to, and also to include the kind of odd detail that formal historians rarely mention.
Admirers of the painter Balthus (Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola) revere him as a great artist. Detractors accuse him of pedophilia, pornography, and mysterious deviltry. Mr. Weber belongs to the first category, and was euphoric when the reclusive painter agreed to extensive interviews despite his long-ago statement "I refuse to confide and don't like it when people write about art." Mr. Weber's profession is writing about art, with an inclination toward psychological and symbolic interpretation. The result of this conflict of positions is a peculiar and interesting book. Balthus was gracious, charming, and hospitable, very much the European aristocrat that he claims to be, and impervious to psychological probing. Mr. Weber eventually became so exasperated that he labels the painter a liar. He also resorts to quoting from everything ever written about Balthus, and to interviews with everyone still alive who ever knew him. He appears quite unaware that he is giving an amusing account of an earnest snooper in heavy-footed pursuit of an agile dodger. Balthus insists that he paints ordinary reality. Mr. Weber insists that he does not, and Mr. Weber is right in terms of what is ordinary. If, however, Balthus considers the imagination of the viewer to be part of reality, his more provocative paintings can be seen as operating like the ideal dirty limerick -- the kind that evokes naughty meaning in the hearer's head without the use of a single naughty word. Unfortunately, the illustrations in this truly exceptional book are so inadequate that the details discussed by the author are often invisible and the brushwork always is.