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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz

Published in Germany as Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, this novel has been described as the German Ulysses – the style and content of which have clearly influenced it considerably. I found it a difficult but rewarding read. Each of the nine sections, called Books in this translation, begins with a terse summary of its contents; here’s part of the one for Book Two:

…this is no ordinary man, this Franz Biberkopf. I did not summon him to entertain us, but so that we might share his hard, true and enlightening existence.

Doblin, Alexanderplatz The plot and style have been admirably assessed in several places: I’d recommend Max’s typically perceptive account at Pechorin’s Journal here. He summarises the (rather basic) plot and themes: the downward trajectory of the life of Franz Biberkopf, ‘an erstwhile cement-and –transport-worker in Berlin’. At the novel’s opening he is released from Tegel Prison after serving a four-year sentence for the manslaughter of his girlfriend. He resolves to go straight – but the narrative relates his stuttering attempts, and ultimate failure, to do so.

After several menial jobs he falls in with gangsters, loses a limb in an act of treachery by his fellow burglars, and suffers more and more blows in his life.

As Max points out, the plot is exciting enough in its way, but it’s the high modernist portrayal of Berlin in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic that’s its most compelling feature. That, and the style, something between middle period Joyce and the Dos Passos of USA: montage, collage, snippets of classical literature, popular songs, ads on billboards, anything that surrounds Franz in his peripatetic quests across and beyond the city.

It’s not a cheerful or easy read. Like Emma of Book Around the Corner I found it heavy going. Just as I started to weary of the fragmented style, however, the pace changed and my interest revived. So let’s take a look at the style. As Max has already commented on the fragmentation technique, I’d like to just add a couple of features that stood out for me.

First there’s the use of non sequitur:

 Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie.

 

This is Franz’s stream of thought as he stands on a corner in front of a movie theatre. The scene of typical urban renewal sparks off thoughts of a possible job, but the movie intrudes and interrupts the flow. This is largely how we all experience our interior monologue, I’d have thought, and it works quite well, but tends to irritate me after several pages of it.

Tenses jump around for no apparent reason from past to present and back. Pages 41-42 contain a sequence of symbols for Trade and Commerce to Finance and Tax Office; these are reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s insertion of bizarre symbols in Tristram Shandy, and serve no particular purpose here, as far as I can see.

Those sections where I was most able to overcome my aversion to these narrative tics were the ones which dealt with the festering political situation in the city (Max mentions the anti-Semitism), but there’s also a stark portrayal of the extremes of nascent fascism/nationalism beginning to assert itself over socialism and communism. Here’s a taster, in a long scene in a Berlin theatre-cum-drinking den:

 The veteran whispered, his hand before his mouth, he belched: “Are you a German, honest and true? If you run with the Reds, you’re a traitor. He who is a traitor isn’t my friend.” He embraced Franz: “The Poles, the French, the fatherland for which we bled, that’s the nation’s gratitude.”

 

Soon after this Franz peddles ‘Nationalist pro-Nordic papers’:

He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order. For law and order must reign in Paradise; which everyone should recognize. And the Steel Helmet, he’s seen those boys, and their leaders, too, that’s a great thing. [There follow sickening extracts of fascist rhetoric from the paper] In the Elsasser Strasse the other fellows laugh themselves sick when he makes his appearance in the café at noon, his Fascist armband discreetly tucked in his pocket; they pull it out.

Here it’s possible to see the other problem with the text, apart from its modernist liking for cinematic verbal metonymy: the clunky translation. It has to be said, given the fact that the novel is apparently filled with Berlin dialect and thieves’ argot, that translation must be a nightmare. This UK-published edition was translated by the American-born Eugen Jolas (died 1952), who uses a register that swings oddly from prohibition-era New Jersey to Edwardian English (‘What the deuce are those big boots?’ asks one character, implausibly).

I’ve found it hard to pin down what I ultimately made of this novel: it’s a considerable achievement, and certainly a notable addition to the canon of experimental modernist European fiction. But I can’t say hand on heart that I particularly enjoyed it. I’d be quick to concede that it’s probably more to do with my defects as a reader than those in the text.

Edition used: Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, first published by Martin Secker in 1931. Thanks to Cornwall Libraries for the loan of their copy.

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg