Death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, are the only certainties in life. But old age and dying, in the Anglo-American psyche at least, remain taboo – arguably greater taboos now than historically. Popular entertainment delivers stylised death and murder, but where is the sober take? Which lens is offering unfiltered sight of that far-off landscape – the one that appears on the horizon, only after the energy and heat of youth have long passed? Who is reminding us that physical decay will, eventually, lead to our teeth falling out. And that a) it will be very fucking distressing, and b) the only options are dentures and resignation – surrendering oneself to the tide as it slowly takes you out to sea. The answer is pretty much no-one…except Günter Grass. In Of All That Ends, Germany’s most celebrated post-war writer and Nobel Prize winner (d. 2015) has written a collection of around one hundred small pieces – poems, vignettes and non-fiction – meditations on every conceivable aspect of the last stage of life.
In this, his final sortie, Grass gives us a 360-degree picture of a life well-lived: of memories, both mundane and momentous, of righteous indignation and terrifying doubt. He shares his final thoughts on his internal world (physical stasis, mental torpor and yes, losing one’s teeth), the micro world of his family (his wives, his lovers and the grandchildren whom he’d soon be leaving behind), and the macro world of politics, technology, haves and have nots. And it is that dynamism, the beating heart of this collection that keeps moving the reader from subject to subject – from an old man pining for a lost virility, to the French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais; the narcissism of social media, the pleasures of eating offal, and what death means for a church-loving heathen – the constancy of change, the ever-shifting focus to disparate subjects all threaded through with the immanence of death… it makes this work very special. The power though comes from honesty – Grass’s to-the-point prose strips Death of neatness, of sentimentality, and thus lays extreme old-age bare. Yes, the reading experience is often melancholic, but it’s also energising – we are privy to Grass’s last burst of life, of creativity, and that’s weirdly life-affirming. And doubly so, given the paucity of mellow, lavender-scented notes. It is remarkable that so close to death, Grass was still spitting bile:
“The butterfly’s question “Is life just a dream?” has been transformed into a popular form that eats facts, then digests and excretes them as fiction. We are told that our egos exist only in cyberspace; everything that lives and communicates is digital; anything outside the Internet just feigns existence. We are immortal only if we are registered and stored as data.”
Structurally, Of All That Ends lends itself to piecemeal reading – dipping in, dipping out. And given the subject matter, that is no bad thing. Indeed it elevates the whole, giving the collection longevity; added potency. Which in turn makes it viable for a full-spectrum readership, in terms of age.
Any Cop?: It says something that a book about dying, feels relevant even to the young.