Caroline and Lizzy are once again hosting German Literature Month, and I wanted to squeeze in at the last minute to offer a few notes on a very long German novel I started reading last week. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (Jahrestage) has recently been issued in its first complete English translation by Damion Searls (whose good work with Hans Keilson, among a host of other writers, I’ve had occasion to note before).
If you follow translated literature at all, you’ve probably heard about the book; the publisher, NYRB Classics, has rightly been making a big deal about it. It’s an epic project, and I hope they’re financially rewarded for taking the risk. Anniversaries is long: about 1700 pages, and they’re not exactly easy ones. Johnson published it in four parts in the 1970s and early 80s; NYRB has combined them into two oversize (and heavy—the books are just this side of ungainly) paperback volumes that come in a slipcover box.
I’m not quite 200 pages in, so only have the barest sense of what this immense text is all about. What follows then are some disorganized and speculative first impressions.
Anniversaries centers on Gesine Cresspahl, a German woman living in New York in 1967 with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie. It also features Gesine’s parents, her depressive mother, Lisbeth Papenbrock, and her father, an enigmatic businessman who, as far as I can tell, has no first name. Cresspahl has emigrated to England (he meets Lisbeth on what he thinks will be his last return to Germany in the late 1920s), but returns to Germany in late 1932 with his pregnant wife, who wants to be with family when the baby, Gesine, is born in March 1933. Gesine tells Marie the story of her parents, though like everything in the book the telling happens obliquely—it’s not like we ever see them sitting down to chat, the girl demanding, Mother, how did your parents meet, that sort of thing. (Actually, there’s at least once scene like that, p 109 in my edition, but thus far it’s the exception.) The book’s driving force isn’t so much psychological (what motivated Lisbeth, say, to do this or that thing?) as structural (how are the two time periods juxtaposed?).
There’s another organizing principle, too, the one that gives the book its title: Anniversaries is organized into something like diary entries, one for each day of the year from August 1967 to August 1968. I say “something like” because Johnson makes no attempt to naturalize the entries—that is, it’s not really a diary (which, after all, would mean the book would need to be called Tagebuch). There’s no sense that Gesine is recording the events of her days. Importantly, and strangely, the book shifts between third person and first person plural, with only occasional instances of first person singular. Oftentimes, the “entries” aren’t even about Gesine and Marie’s daily lives. Instead they’re about what’s happening elsewhere to other people, whether across town or around the world. Or, rather, they’re about what The New York Times has reported in its daily edition.
Whereas the juxtaposition of past and present takes the form of oscillation—and this back and forth concerns space as much as time: the first entry begins while Gesine is on vacation at the Jersey shore, which leads the narrator to reflect on the difference between that shoreline and the one in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, on the Baltic, where Gesine was born—the accumulation of news from the Times takes the form of linearity.
Anniversaries, then, is a highly structured book. (I am surprised how non- or un-associative it is: again, this might have something to do with the preponderance of third-person narration; easier to present associative thinking in first person: I’m thinking of someone like Proust.) But it doesn’t feel tidy or airless. It is also distinctly unwelcoming. I can’t put my finger on what makes it so, I need to think about this more as I read. But I find myself reading more from admiration rather than fascination. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like it. I really do. But so far I haven’t fallen into it, and I suspect that’s because it doesn’t want me to.
Gesine loves the Times. Like a lot. She buys it every day, she fishes it out of trashcans if she misses a day, she reads it at breakfast and in the subway and on the Saturday morning ferry rides she takes with Marie to Staten Island (Marie’s own obsession). There are some great descriptions of how to fold the paper so you can read it in a crowded subway car. In this regard, the book has reminded me how much I love reading newspapers: first the Calgary Herald (either it was much better then than now or I was a much worse reader or, more likely, both), then the Globe and Mail, and eventually, after moving to the US, the Times, which it took me a while to warm up to but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as fully adult as when my wife and I first took out a subscription to it. We still have one, but for a few years now it’s been digital and I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to. Buying and reading a physical newspaper feels like one of those pleasures that life strips away from you, often for no good reason, as you get older.
But I digress. I can’t figure out why Gesine loves the Times as much as she does. Is it a sign that she, like me, is making her place in the US, binding herself to its journal of record? Is it because she needs to immerse herself in the present to keep the past away? (Remember, she’s born when the Nazis take power, and so presumably her story will become more and more representative of her birth country’s terrible path through the 20th century.) Given what I said earlier, about the book’s lack of interest in psychology, I probably shouldn’t be asking this question. Motivation isn’t the thing, here. But I’m puzzled by the newspaper material; I’ll have to keep thinking about it. We hear a lot about Vietnam, of course, and race riots in various American cities. But also about local events, crimes especially, but even some bits of local colour, news about the mayor, even sports, which Gesine seems alternately bemused by and uninterested in. 1968 is an epochal year, of course, so lots more is to come: the Prague Spring, the Democratic Convention, the assassination of MLK.
At one point, the narrator describes Gesine’s prodigious but erratic memory:
She had searched her memory for the year 1937 and once again retrieved nothing but a static, disconnected fragment. This is how her mind’s storage system arbitrarily selects things for her, stored up in quantities beyond her control, only sometimes responsive to commands and intentions.
Here, I think, we’re asked to think of Gesine as a kind of newspaper. Or is it like the reader of a newspaper, dipping into this story and that? Or as a kind of yearbook or encyclopedia or better web page, but one in which the flipping of the pages, the dipping into the entries, the clicking of the links is done for rather than by her?
Just after the passage I cited, we learn that Gesine values one function of her mind in particular:
memory, not the storage but the retrieval, the return to the past, the repetition of what was: being inside it once more, setting foot there again. There is no such thing.
You can glimpse what I’m calling the book’s unwelcoming nature in the eschewal in that last sentence of any conjunction. No “but,” no “however,” no “yet,” no “alas.” An austere, abrupt (in German they might call it ruppig) statement that almost brutally reverses or refuses what came before. `
Abruptness doesn’t preclude lyricism, though. Every once in a while, Johnson sneaks in something lovely, like this description of autumn in New York:
The park outside our windows is now entirely lit by the October sun that pushes every color one step closer toward the unbelievable: the yellow sprinkling of leaves on the grass, the elephant skin of the bare plane trees, the bright maze of branches in the thornbushes on the upper promenade, the cold Hudson, the hazy forest mist on the other side of the river, the steely sky. Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday. It is an almost innocent picture, in which children and people strolling along live as if harmlessly. It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.
The first lines are lovely, if a bit conventional. But the sense of quiet and lassitude is so well done: “Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday,” I love that. And yet as the passage continues, it becomes as “steely” as the sky: the picture is almost innocent; the passersby live as if harmlessly. And then this: “It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.” Is that “and” a recognition that Gesine and Marie, or maybe everyone on the Upper West Side, or maybe everyone everywhere else, too, lives in illusion? Or does it mean something like “and also” or “but at the same time”? An illusion yes, but also something like home? Can you see what I mean when I say it’s hard to fall into the book? It’s always making us think so hard.
When he wants to, Johnson can paint vivid character portraits. The less important someone is, the more sharply they come into view. Here, for example, is a description of Gesine’s friend Annie Fleury, nee Annie Killainen, a Finn who once worked at the UN, then married a writer who has taken her to Vermont, where she struggles with her three children and his abuse. She can’t keep up with the housework, what with three children and
because she also has to discuss “choice passages” of Mr. Fleury’s daily labors at night, and also has to type up a clean copy of these and all the other passages during the day. She seemed happy enough while straightening up and baking, and even though we were alone, with all the children out in the dripping-wet woods, she didn’t complain, it’s just that she hardly seemed to perceive F. F. Fleury at all when he showed his face in the kitchen and she wordlessly handed him a drink, making him a new one unasked every time, five before dinner, many more throughout the meal and afterward, until he finally found his way out of his stubborn, violent silence into the argument that Annie let pass over her, without defending herself, sitting slightly hunched, with strangely squared shoulders, hands between her knees, almost happy, as though what she’d expected was finally happening.
Amazing stuff. How economically Johnson gives us a vision of a life gone wrong, though not perceived as such, a portrait of a woman so beaten down that the only pleasure she has left lies in welcoming the beating. And although the focus is on Annie, we also get a glimpse of the pathetic, raging, and dangerous husband. Who even knows if these people will ever return in the book? (This is their only appearance so far.) I think the degradation of the scene—so powerfully presented in that image of the argument, that is, the screed, of a man battering a woman like a storm surge—is only heightened by the brief eruption into this dismal litany by that beautiful description of the children “out in the dripping-wet woods.” (Good with the compound adjectives, our Johnson.)
Almost as compelling is Johnson’s portrayal of Marie. She’s almost too good to be true, spunky and wise, a street-smart immigrant child who at first refuses to accept her new home but eventually identifies with it so fully she becomes afraid of the pull the old country might have on her mother. A bit precocious, Marie could at her most sprightly be a child from a Jonathan Safran Foer novel or, more tolerably, a Wes Anderson movie. But so far, so good. It’s clear Johnson adores her, but he hasn’t made her adorable, if you know what I mean. She has too much dignity for that. Here’s a nice moment on the ferry:
A Japanese gentleman had asked Marie for help, pressing his camera into her hand with extraordinarily fulsome apologies, and she had positioned him and his family in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers with expert instructions and hand gestures before flexing her knees to absorb the swaying of the ship’s deck and pressing proof of the visitors’ trip around the world into their camera. As she disembarked over the gangway and up the stairs and down the ramp alongside the ferry building, she answered the tourists’ friendly looks three times, not with a smile but with a slight bow suggested from her shoulders and recognition in her eyes. – Welcome a stranger: I said in English, and even though she obviously recognized the quote from the Transit Authority’s buses, she replied, almost in earnest, almost excited: — That’s right Gesine. Welcome a stranger.
Where Marie is almost sage-like (look at her, practically quoting the Torah, practically responding to foreigners in their own idiom—that near, slight bow) and unperturbable (she absorbs more than just the swaying of the ferry in this book), her mother is at once more enigmatic and more erratic. I don’t have a handle on her yet. I’ll finish this post with the moment that has troubled me the most so far. It’s from the entry for September 12, 1967, which offers an unusually self-contained narrative.
Gesine, who works at a bank, doing something we either don’t know about or that I have forgotten, has been asked to meet her boss at JFK to translate a letter he is bringing with him from overseas. She is taken there in the boss’s car, which is driven by his African-American chauffeur, Arthur. Arthur is distant and formal, rejecting her efforts to have him call her by her first name. He keeps the panel between the front and rear of the car up; Gesine “feels sealed, shipped, and delivered like a package for someone.” But when the boss arrives, Arthur is transformed. The two are matey, not equals but open and casual with each other. The panel between front and back stays down. Then we get this:
—And how did you and she get along? the boss asks, tossing his head towards Mrs. Crespahl. – She was fine: Arthur says, and Mrs. Crespahl catches his eye in the rearview mirror for a moment. He doesn’t wink at her, just gives her a tiny, reassuring widening of the eyelids.
I might have known that the boss would put his arm around your shoulders, hold the door for you, let you choose where to sit. Gesine, or whatever your name is.
All right, Arthur. And, go to hell, Arthur.
So many unexpected reversals here! We’re denied the possible moment of solidarity between the African American man and the immigrant woman, one who perhaps fancies herself free of American prejudice, or eager to show herself as such: he doesn’t wink. But he does offer that reassuring widening of the eyelid, an interpretation we are inclined to trust, especially if we think it comes more from an omniscient narrator than Gesine. Surprising, then, that what Arthur is thinking is anything but warm towards Gesine, anything but reassuring. And even more surprising, and disquieting, that Gesine responds with such hostility. Of course, we only have Gesine’s imagining of Arthur’s thoughts to go on. What makes her think that’s what he’s thinking? I find her hostility disproportionate in response to his—but why do I think that? Maybe the point here is that in relation to white men, who get to set the terms of how the world works, there’s no room for solidarity between those they are able to play off each other, those who need the validation of the dominant group much more than they need to look out for each other. I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of Gesine, here or elsewhere.
As soon as I learned this translation of Anniversaries was forthcoming I knew I had to have it. But that I have actually started reading it, so soon after its arrival (most books sit in my house for years before being read, if in fact they even are), I owe largely to Scott from seraillon. We were emailing a few weeks ago, and he was enthusing about its brilliance. At that point he was as far in as I am now (he’s probably almost finished by now!), and he said something that whetted my appetite:
What Johnson does with each day of his year of daily entries is of astonishing diversity and imagination. And some of it is really awe-inspiring, the kind of writing that just leaves me holding the book and wondering “How did he do that?” There’s a collage/montage quality, but as though of overlapping translucent motifs that gain depth and form as they accumulate.
Like all of Scott’s descriptions, this is beautiful and smart. It inspires me to make my own responses to the book equally nuanced and articulate. Check back in over the coming weeks as I report on my changing and, with luck, deepening impressions of this steely masterpiece.