Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)
This is a huge book or, rather, a few huge books, the total adding up to over 2000 pages in the German editions. However, it is easier to read than his earlier books, not least because it more or less follows a conventional narrative pattern. The English translation does not convey the sense of the German which means, quite simply, days of the year and this is what this is, as it follows, chronologically, the days from August 1967 to August 1968. It tells the story of Gesine Cresspahl, whom we have already met in Mutmassungen über Jakob (Speculations about Jakob). She is now a single parent, living in the New York suburbs, working for an American bank, with a ten year old daughter, Marie who, though nominally German is American by upbringing. Indeed, one of the themes of the book is the culture clash between the German Gesine and her essentially American daughter Marie.
Johnson uses a mishmash of approaches in this book. In particular, he quotes extensively from the New York Times, using it to illustrate not just the main events of the day – Vietnam, race riots and a whole slew of problems in New York – but also news from elsewhere – the collapse of the British pound or the arrest of various of Hitler’s henchmen, for example – as well as trivial but interesting local tidbits. Using newspaper clippings is not new – Dos Passos used it effectively in USA. But Johnson does not just quote the New York Times but analyses, commenting on why a particular item is on a particular page.
In addition to his newspaper clippings, Johnson freely throws in dialogue, notes, random musings, authorial commentary, descriptions and other techniques. He even has a part with himself – Uwe Johnson, the writer – as a character, where he speaks to a US audience but gets (verbally) attacked. But, somehow, it did not seem as difficult to cope with as his earlier works. Though nominally set in 1967-1968 New Jersey/New York, we spend a considerable amount of time in the Germany Gesine came from. Her family was from a village in Mecklenburg and we follow not just the activities of her family but also the political events, in particular the Nazi era and the Communist era. We also follow the wanderings of Gesine and her family. Her father, for example, moved to Richmond in Surrey, England and Gesine herself travels around before landing in the USA.
At 2000 pages this is not casual reading. It took Johnson fifteen years to write (we know because he tells us at the end) and was clearly carefully thought out to provide a detailed and complex portrait of Germany and the USA and the difficult relationship between the two (with England thrown in as the middleman). Is it worth it? Maybe not but Johnson is clearly one of the foremost German writers and you won’t find many more thoughtful works than this.
First published in German by Suhrkamp 1970 (1), 1971 (2), 1973 (3), 1983 (4)
First published in English by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1975 (1-2), 1987 (3-4)