Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Post 2

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. NYRB paperbacks, 2 vols., 2018. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

Post 2

The section dated Nov. 22, 1967 begins as so many do: news stories, partly modified, according to the translator (see his essay where he discusses this; link at the end of yesterday’s post) from the Times – events in Vietnam, draft-dodging in Oklahoma, hippies ‘provoking the Establishment’ east of Denver and a drug-fuelled infanticide.

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box setMost of the rest of this seven-page entry deals with the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl’s unconventional relationship with a fellow Mecklenburger called Erichson, but dubbed ‘D.E.’ by Gesine’s ten-year-old daughter, Marie. Gesine had met him before they both escaped to the West, in his case in 1953; he found her after she’d been in Manhattan for eleven months (1961-2). He’s a professor of physics and chemistry, and an adviser to the Defense Department on matters of secretive ‘Distant Early Warning’ radar technology (but maybe some of these systems ‘might be designed for other than defensive purposes’, Gesine suspects; it’s still the Cold War).

He’s a sophisticated and worldly man of nearly forty, a brilliant linguist as well as scientist. Formerly a ladies’ man, he’s now desperate to marry Gesine – or at least to live with her if she won’t commit to matrimony. It’s a narrative strand in this meandering, fragmented collage of a novel that embodies a central theme: parents and children. Anniversaries is, in some respects, about daughters’ quests for fathers; Marie, Gesine’s precocious, Americanised daughter, never knew hers, while Gesine lost hers too soon.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesWe see in this section how D.E., this possible surrogate father for Marie, whisked them away on exciting trips to Europe, often as surprises. He’s well off, drives a Bentley and spoils them with treats and expensive meals in smart restaurants. Marie likes and admires him, and he clearly likes her, and this causes Gesine difficulty; she’s as keen as he is not to become too committed. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of the novel, this on-off relationship. You have to wait for almost the last page to find out how it works out.

We’re given, as is unfortunately a fairly regular problem with Anniversaries, far more detailed information in this section than anyone could need, in this case about a small Irish town they visit, its topography, history, etc.

Seamless switch to Richmond, and Gesine hesitates as she goes to write out a telegram form, observed by D.E. in ‘a careless, pensive attitude’:

And yet he’ll conceal that he’s troubled. In such moments, he sees in me not the person he wants to live with but someone at risk of going insane. And wants to live with me anyway.

That first-person voice of Gesine’s often morphs into the third person, or even ‘we’; at times it’s difficult to tell whose voice we’re getting, and I found this confusing and rather annoying at times.

She goes on to reflect that the two of them are living together, just in different places, ‘an arrangement where his need for perfect solutions overrides my mistrust of settled finality: what was planned as loose has become fixed.’

Her narrative then drifts off into a speculative fantasy of what could or would happen if he she submitted to his ardour; a long list of modal verbs shows her unease with the matrimonial ménage he craves. Why is she so reluctant to commit to this man who in many ways would enable her to give her daughter the kind of life she longs to provide?

Maybe because her doubts arising justifiably from the gap between where she stands morally and politically and his apparent amorality (that dubious ‘defense’ work; some of his political views).

She muses less critically on his equitable, ‘consistent’ temper. He’s not ostentatious about his wealth, and never presumes to be anything more than a guest when he visits Gesine and Marie in their Riverside Drive apartment:

He’s not jealous: it’s only what goes on in my thoughts that he wants to be the only one, or at least the first, to know. There are many things he is the only one to know. What else does he want? Can’t he rest on the laurels of his famous affairs, and conveniently acquire a family that already has a child, one who already understands him too? He says: No. Am I supposed to do at my leisure, financed by him, what he can’t do: live for one person alone? He would say: If it were up to me.

In this day’s entry her misgivings are perhaps further explained when Gesine describes how he’s erased his past (whereas hers is always present – hence those long accounts to Marie):

He’s converted his memory into knowledge. His life with other people in Mecklenburg, only fourteen years ago after all, has been tucked away as though into an archive, where he continues the biographies of people and cities down to the present, or else closes the file in case of death. Yes, everything’s still there, and he can call it up at will, only it’s not alive. He no longer lives with it.

Maybe this is why Marie gets on with ‘this elegant gentleman’ so well: they’ve both become American, while Gesine clings to her European past. So although he doesn’t pry or make demands on her, she feels hemmed in, even though she acknowledges his relaxed approach to courtship:

If I ended up in a cage with him, at least it would be a cage made to my measure and furnished according to my requirements…The only thing is, why does he need someone in his life? Marie could do it. She could stand to live with him in one apartment, in one house.

That ‘cage’ metaphor is oddly similar to one used by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth: Lily Bart also fumes about the ‘great gilded cage’ women in New York society are caught in, waiting for a wealthy husband to maintain them in the luxury they’ve become used to but fear they are in danger of losing if they stay single. Gesine’s plight isn’t very different from Lily’s, as she sees it.

This narrative section about Gesine’s struggle to deal with how to resolve this situation with D.E. ends enigmatically:

That I believe. The other thing I don’t believe.

What does she mean? Presumably ‘that’ is Marie’s being able – even happy – to live with him as a family. ‘The other thing’?: her own capacity to accede to his desire to live with her.

The entry ends with another fragment of random reportage.

 

 

 

 

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.