Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries

Uwe Johnson (1934-84), Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. NYRB, 2018. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

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Antoni Gaudí took over work on the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in 1883; when he died in 1926 it was far from finished – and won’t be for another decade. There were times when I was working through this enormous novel, Anniversaries – almost 1700 pages in a handsome two-volume box set from NYRB – that it felt a bit like that seemingly never-ending project. My mixed reactions to the novel were similar to my response to Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece when I first saw it: a weird blend of ugly, bizarre and glorious. Anniversaries is equally radical, experimental and innovative: a polyphonic work of astonishing ambition and beauty, but also of a not entirely harmonious blend of features, at times a bit of a mess (like life?).

It has two main narrative strands (and hundreds of minor ones): foremost is the story of Gesine Cresspahl and her ten-year-old daughter Marie and their life after six years in New York City, told in daily entries, one per day, from Aug. 21, 1967 to Aug. 20, 1968. They’re not diary entries: more like scrambled, collated fragments of texts, conversations, thoughts and urban encounters with random people.Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box set

Interspersed in this fragmentary narrative is a second: that of Gesine’s father, Heinrich, his courtship of and marriage to her mother, followed by the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, and the second world war and its immediate aftermath.

Gesine was born in 1933, the year that Hitler became Chancellor. This strand of the novel relates, again in highly fragmentary form, the destructive impact of this terrible era in history on her family, friends and fellow inhabitants of the small fictional town of Jerichow, Mecklenburg, near the Baltic coast in northern Germany (not the real town of that name in Saxony-Anhalt). When the war ended, the town was occupied briefly by the British, and then by the Red Army. The punitive, doctrinaire Soviet regime was as brutal as that of the Nazis, with executions, persecution (and suicides to avoid it) and social divisions rife.

Meanwhile the strand set in New York in the sixties involves the effects of the huge social upheavals in America and beyond at that period. Social divisions are the main feature here, too. African Americans are discriminated against by white citizens, with Jews not far behind. It’s simplistic to see this as history repeating itself, but the parallels between Europe in the thirties and the USA in the sixties are striking.

This was also the time of the Vietnam War, assassinations (Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy) and a rising counter-culture. In Europe there were signs of the political change that culminated in the évènements in France and the Prague Spring.

All of this is mediated through the endless conversations in which Marie elicits the story of her mother’s past: how Heinrich worked as a carpenter in Richmond, Surrey, then returned to Jerichow with his homesick wife for the birth of their daughter. Marie has adapted more successfully than her mother to their new culture: her English is better, more idiomatic and American-accented; she’s forgetting her German. She knows the Manhattan subway system ‘by heart’, and loves riding it. She also delights in her regular Saturday outings on the Staten Island Ferry with her mother.

Gesine, for her part, has an uneasy relationship with America and its culture: she’s more comfortable with the guy who runs the cafeteria in the building where she works (in a bank, with a creepy boss) than with her colleagues. Visits to friends often end in social disaster or increased isolation.

Gesine’s slowly-accreting, tangled historical account covers events in her family’s life before, during and after WWII. Even more gradually revealed is the story of Marie’s father; Gesine is very reluctant to give too much detail about him, and the full picture is never entirely clear in focus, and its unfolding only ends in the very final pages of this huge novel. This is a key feature of the novel: it withholds or occludes as much as it reveals.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesOften the narrative is taken up with scraps of unidentified voices in dialogue with others, sometimes in italics, and it can be confusing to try to figure out whose they are. At p. 1343 Gesine’s voice sort of explains:

I hear voices…don’t know when it started. I assume in my thirty-second year but I don’t remember a particular reason it would have started. I don’t want to. But it takes me back (sometimes almost completely) into past situations and I talk to the people from back then as I did back then. It takes place in my head without my directing it. Dead people, too, talk to me as if they’re in the present…in these imagined conversations… I hear myself speaking not only from the subjectively real (past) position but also from the position of a thirty-five-year-old subject today.[First ellipsis in the text; others mine]

Many of these voices, she goes on, are from before she was born, yet she hears them as clearly as the others; it’s a ‘special ability’ of hers, and she can respond to them in her mind, too, as she can with Marie’s unspoken thoughts. Even with strangers ‘the unsaid becomes perceptible, I mean what the other person doesn’t say or just thinks’. This second, ‘imagined strand’ of discourse sometimes displaces what’s “really” taking place, without quite paralysing it. Like a novelist’s mind, in fact.

Another main narrative component is the stories printed in the New York Times each day, and given in often exhaustive detail – after a while I tended to skip these interruptions to focus on the characters I was more interested in. Gesine is an avid reader of this paper. This aspect of the novel is magnified enormously compared with, say, Döblin’s Alexanderplatz or Dos Passos’ USA, both of which also incorporate such mini-narratives in their collage approach. OK, so they add context and often ironic commentary on American life seen through Gesine’s sceptical, seen-it-all European eyes, but I didn’t need several hundred of these long, repetitive texts.

Gesine had fled the communist regime of the GDR, but has an ambivalent view of the divisive politics and culture of her adopted country. She deplores the casual racism and isolationism she perceives there, and how her daughter is adopting some of these views (there’s a fraught relationship, for example, between Marie and one of her black classmates; with their German Jewish neighbours they’re a little more at ease – within limitations). She also collaborates with a friend back in divided Germany to assist dissidents or the persecuted in escaping from the communist East, while disapproving of Marie’s adherence to the prevailing anti-communist feeling in an America still engaged in the Cold War.

I also found myself skimming many of the sections in vol. 2 which dealt with the Soviet occupation of Jerichow. We’re given interminable accounts of seemingly every child in Gesine’s school and their attitude to the oppressive new order. This too I found (like the newspaper stories) tediously repetitive – an admission I’m not proud of, given the serious subject matter. But I think a novel shouldn’t bore me, and at times this one did.

These tedious sections are worth toiling through, however: the novel as a whole offers a fascinating insight into the collision of a damaged European sensibility with a decadent, stimulating American world. The parts that deal with the rise of Nazism and then communism are a refreshing change from other literary accounts that tend to be located in the big cities. Johnson explores in minute detail the lives of ordinary rural people who take pride in their provincial lives, and are suspicious of people from the regional capital; Berlin is another world.

I must praise the translation by Damion Searls. It’s a monumental effort, to render such an enormous novel into highly readable, idiomatic and fluent English. His task is made extra difficult by the obsession of Johnson with linguistic matters. Mecklenburgers often speak in Plattdeutsch, which is conveyed with a sort of eye-dialect technique that works pretty well. Main characters are sensitive to the nuances of their mother tongue and its difference from the “standard” forms, or the American English they are required to master. This aspect of the novel is an important and illuminating feature, given its preoccupation with social and cultural divisions. Language is explored as a means of connection and separation; a medium for social coherence, and for establishing identity as social outsiders.

Anniversaries has such a vast panorama, social, political and historical, and a massive cast of characters, most with lengthy and meticulously detailed back stories, it’s difficult to discuss it meaningfully here in brief. Instead I’ll focus on just one entry, for the date I started drafting this post: November 22 (1967, in Gesine’s world). That’s for tomorrow.

For useful insight into the translation (and Searls’ take on the novel) I’d recommend three essays by him in The Paris Review; link HERE to the third part, which has links to the first two.

Also check out the “readalong” hosted by Trevor at his Mookse and Gripes site (he calls the novel ‘a masterpiece in world literature’; I’m slightly less enthusiastic); readers are commenting on weekly entries in Anniversaries on the corresponding dates in 2019-20 (I’ve submitted a few myself).