The Fiction of Uwe Johnson

A review of Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl

Marta Figlerowicz
An image of the book cover Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson.

We are used to seeing 1968 through the eyes of students in their early to mid-twenties. They protest government abuses, authoritarianism, racism, and the war in Vietnam; marching through Paris and Prague, these students announce a new political sensibility. They were born in the midst of World War II or in its immediate aftermath. But they are too young to remember its horrors and have grown impatient with the order of values it left in its wake.

Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries keeps a foot on either side of this generation. His epic sixteen-hundred-plus-page novel moves from summer 1967 to summer 1968 through the eyes of a thirty-four-year-old single mother and her ten-year-old daughter. The two-person family lives in New York City, having migrated there from Germany six years previously. The daughter, Marie Cresspahl, was born in Düsseldorf in West Germany; the mother, Gesine Cresspahl, comes from Jerichow, a small town on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Her family had split between Nazis and anti-Nazis. Now they are all dead, and Gesine tells Marie about them.

What would the sixties seem like to someone with actual memories of the recent war–or to someone too young to rebel against her parents? Johnson’s answers to these questions are weighed and poignant. Skirting easy critiques of the decade’s better-known figures, he does suggest that their historical advantage over their elders–freedom from World War II complicity–is partly a blind spot. The young protesters his slightly older protagonist observes cannot always see how difficult it will be not to repeat the mistakes of 1930s Europe, or how often these mistakes are already being repeated and built on in 1960s New York. They also don’t yet face the challenge of becoming authority figures themselves: of needing to raise a new generation in the wake of ruins, tragedies, and failures.

Johnson died in 1984 at the age of forty-nine, having just completed the last volume of Anniversaries. He had put it out in four installments, in 1970, 1971, 1973 and, after a long pause, 1983. Much of the novel echoes his own life, which began in Anklam, a small town in Mecklenburg, Germany. Born in 1934, Johnson saw his father become a Nazi official. The father was captured by the Soviet army at the end of the war and was never seen again; his family eventually presumed him dead. In 1945, Mecklenburg became part of East Germany. Tightening barriers began to separate it from Western Europe. Johnson’s mother fled to West Germany in 1956, leaving her son behind, which resulted in local repressions against him. Three years later, he sneaked through into West Berlin as well, and lived the rest of his life moving between West Germany, New York, and England. A member of the famed Gruppe 47 (which also included Günter Grass), he published several acclaimed novels before Anniversaries. But this final, monumental novel was posthumously recognized as his magnum opus.

Gesine Cresspahl and several of her family members had already appeared in Johnson’s debut novel, Speculations About Jakob (1959). Johnson claims that he had a vision of Gesine in New York almost a decade later while living there with his wife and young daughter. The vision overtook him, he claims with characteristic detail, on Tuesday, 18 April 1967, at 5:30 p.m., on Forty-Second Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. He and the apparition talked, and she convinced him to continue her fictional life in Manhattan. Anniversaries was then slowly born from intersections of this inspiration with Johnson’s own experiences. The years he and his family spent in New York, 1966–68, include the year of Gesine’s life he documents. In 1967, he was only a year younger than Gesine: thirty-three.

Johnson’s novel comprises 367 short chapters. It is set between 21 August 1967 and 20 August 1968; each chapter documents a day. In this interval, many historical events take place. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy are assassinated. Race riots erupt in Harlem, and protests range throughout Europe and America. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War continues. The Eastern Bloc experiences the hope of the Prague Spring; then, this hope vanishes as Soviet tanks move into Prague on 20 August 1968, the novel’s last entry. Some of these global timelines are mirrored in the Cresspahls’ family history. (For instance, Gesine is born on Kristallnacht.) Others exist in counterpoint with them. The New York Times, which Gesine and Marie read daily, helps them keep score.

Like Johnson’s own, Gesine’s is an outsider’s and a migrant’s perspective. Not quite settled into America, the Cresspahls view it with a shifting, imperfect focus. They receive news of Europe with the white noise of journalistic propriety. (“Auntie Times” is what Gesine calls the newspaper’s self-righteously diligent liberal voice.) Living among Holocaust survivors and African American families, they gradually absorb their neighbors’ views of twentieth-century history. A taxi driver brutally reminds them of what recent events the Cresspahls themselves bring to mind. “I hope your child dies, German pig,” he shouts while taking Gesine and a feverish Marie to the hospital. For him, the two women are still only legible as former Nazi associates.

The novel’s form is ambitiously, magisterially modernist. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which obviously inspired Johnson, Anniversaries switches genres and registers to the point of whiplash. A collage of newspaper clippings, outlines, notes, journal entries, and transcripts of recorded conversations, it weaves them together into an immersive, spellbinding whole. At times, a daily entry is filled by a transcribed New York Times article, copyright included. At other times, it consists of a home budget or Marie’s outline for her school project on the Kennedy family. Gesine oversees and organizes this mass of data. But her voice often shades into free indirect discourse, or direct quotation, with little warning:

At home Marie has flowers. There were originally a dozen peonies, for six dollars, and–Then there was a Puerto Rican woman there with her little kid, nine years old, and the girl wanted some too and the mother kept saying: But they don’t last, child! So I waited for the girl outside the door and gave her six of mine. Is that okay, Gesine, Hey, talk to me!

—I approve, Marie. But why were you getting flowers at all?

Halfway through this passage, Marie’s voice begins to reach the reader directly, unfiltered by Gesine’s paraphrases. The effect is striking; it’s as if both Gesine and the reader were suddenly forced out of Gesine’s head to attend to her daughter, shifting the narrative’s form and perspective in the process.

The legacy of Nazism is one major theme of Anniversaries. The lack of viable, consistent alternatives to it is another.

Pliantly responsive to its characters’ intimacies and feelings, Anniversaries also attunes itself to the more public registers by which they are surrounded. Sometimes these alien registers are singled out by quotation marks and line breaks, like hateful little found poems:

a chance
to demonstrate
a change of heart and
atonement as well as
the forgiveness
of the community

At times, they also seep into the characters’ own language, becoming fodder for subtler modes of pastiche. In an interview for The Paris Review in which he discusses these stylistic allusions, Damion Searls calls Anniversaries “the hardest book I’ve ever translated.” “The insurmountable challenge,” he explains, “was capturing Johnson’s games with English”: “Those New York Times excerpts are given in Johnson’s sometimes playfully translated, sometimes ironic German—filtered, in other words, through the sharp and ironic reading of his character, Gesine, who is narrating the news to us. For those passages I had to start from the original, decide where I thought the German was intentionally deforming it as opposed to just translating it, and deform the English likewise.” The grace with which Searls accomplishes the effects he painstakingly outlines here, and many others, is stunning. A great novel in its own right, this version of Anniversaries is also a remarkable feat of translation.

Hannah Arendt loved this book, and it is easy to see why. It shares Arendt’s stiff upper lip without spiraling into her compatriot Theodor Adorno’s hopelessness. Gesine hides some of her feelings from her child behind a show of egalitarian frankness. Her wit cuts both ways, idealizing neither her old country nor this new one. Although Anniversaries borrows much from Ulysses, Gesine is neither a Leopold Bloom nor a Stephen Dedalus. Unlike Stephen, she refuses to glorify her anxieties; unlike Bloom, she is not a pushover. Deft and pragmatic, her intelligence seems all the more bottomless for how poorly it was nurtured in wartime. In another age, we are made to feel, she might have been a philosopher. As it is, she expends her energies debating life, politics, and history with her daughter, her boyfriend, and her own inner self, mixing abstract and quotidian observations indiscriminately. “These are the views on human nature in this bank,” she comments wryly after an awkward, misinterpreted interaction. In an interior monologue, she debates her boyfriend, D.E., on matters of death by comparing him and herself to the animals and machines around her:

You’re bad at suffering, D.E.! You turn everything into cause and responsibility and pay what you owe accordingly, then forget people.–Why should I suffer, Gesine? A bus has a long breath. Airplanes grind the air, don’t they? Today I’m the cat waiting for the host who’ll disappear someday–scabby, tunneled through with pus, limping, blind in one eye. does the air over manhattan make you unhappy? it makes us twice as unhappy. A year ago the old dial tone in the telephone gave up the ghost.

As Gesine contemplates human death, a dial tone starts to resemble a pulse, and the bus she rides appears to be breathing. Her thoughts flow seamlessly from comparing herself to a sick alley cat to letting an overdramatic bus ad mock this inner conversation. Her meditation is ridden with pathos without becoming overly personal; out of immediate fears and sensations, Gesine tries to extract some broader pattern from which she and especially her daughter could benefit.

The legacy of Nazism is one major theme of Anniversaries. The lack of viable, consistent alternatives to it is another. Gesine wants her daughter to have proper values: these include universal human rights and the equality of all religions and races. Those were obviously not the values of the Germany Gesine grew up in. They are also, Johnson insists, not the values of the America in which she raises her daughter. Marie has a single black classmate, named Francine, whom nobody wants to play with. The New York Times floods them with photos of disfigured Vietnamese civilians and evidence of American racism against them. Gesine struggles against the lessons New York seems to impart to her daughter with an awkward but dignified obstinacy. Perhaps, she wonders as she reads about the Prague Spring, she and Marie ought to move back to the Soviet Bloc.

Johnson’s depiction of Gesine’s socialist dreams is ironic, of course—the reader knows what will happen on 20 August. But her fantasy also represents an important imaginative horizon for the novel. It suggests how few utopian ideas Gesine’s world has that have not already been tainted beyond recognition; how difficult it is to imagine, within her new city or beyond it, a society in which the personal and the political, the local and the national mirrored and reinforced a set of transparent, democratic values. “If only we understood this country where we want to live! After seven years,” Gesine exclaims in one of her more cynical moments:

We heard news of the 1960s election as anecdotes that reached Germany–Nixon’s heavy stubble that hurt him on-screen against John Kennedy in a once famous debate, this one not about kitchen technology; we arrived to find President Kennedy and at first wanted to give him credit for abolishing the line on the questionnaire where we had to say if we were planning to assassinate him. Then we learned. We learned what a party precinct is and what a county committee can do, how someone becomes a favorite son and how much a TV ad costs per minute until it’s broadcast for free as news–the whole local folklore of capitalist parliamentarianism. Without much hope, just to know where we’d be and what we’d support if we trusted and believed in who we were for.

The New York Johnson depicts is a city of immigrants who mingle in the present without sharing their past with each other, a city in which these complicated pasts are being flattened into stereotypes or else linger indefinitely in people’s minds, making them solipsistic and musty. As Gesine tries to school Marie against the dangers of this city—its racism, its unselfconscious imperialism, its class snobbery—she fights against a society that has already won the battle over Marie’s primary language.

In the course of the narrative, Gesine’s strategies in this struggle continue to change. The book begins with an outpouring of confessions from Gesine to Marie. As it continues, these confessions become more guarded, as the history they recount inevitably invades the present. By the end, we are left waiting for the mother to tell her daughter about a recent event of great significance to them both. From fearing that her daughter knows too little, Gesine comes to fear that she already knows too much. The history which she had hoped carefully to dose out to her daughter has come to seem omnipresent and overwhelming. Like the protesters from the generation between them, Marie will inevitably be blindsided by repercussions of this history, for which Gesine cannot adequately prepare her. Also like these protesters, and to an extent Gesine can’t help her with, Marie will have to reimagine and rebuild her world anew. In Gesine’s growing awareness of these facts, Johnson movingly represents the 1960s ideological turnover as much more complicated and loving than an oedipal rebellion against one’s parents. He also ponders some of the ways in which this turnover relied on crossovers and fusions between American and European narratives of democracy and history.

Johnson’s writing deserves a broad public, both for its beauty and for the clear-sightedness with which he ponders such generational transitions. Searls’s masterful translation gives Anglophone readers a sense of the thrill to which its many German-speaking fans have long testified. Daunting in its length but never sentence by sentence, Anniversaries resonates in one’s mind long after one has finished reading it. Addictive as a stylistic tour de force, it is also a surprisingly generous, if unromantic, view of cosmopolitanism, belonging, and utopia.

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. She is the author of Flat Protagonists and Spaces of Feeling.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019


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