“‘Go to hell, Arthur'”: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (1)

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.


Open City–Teju Cole (2011)

On the admittedly stringent criterion of Walter Benjamin—“All great literature either founds a genre or dissolves one”—Teju Cole’s Open City is not great. That distinction would have to go to the works of W. G. Sebald, the writer to whom Cole is so obviously indebted. But even if Cole’s book isn’t great on Benjamin’s terms it is really good. It even does some things Sebald’s do not, even though, to Cole’s own dismay—he has said that he isn’t particularly interested in novels—those things have to do with bringing a certain novelistic idea of character to Sebald’s model.

If you don’t know Sebald’s work, I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. But I bet you do, especially if your first language is English. Even though Sebald wrote in German (despite living most of his life in England), he has been championed by the English speaking literary world, which has almost universally taken his work to be something entirely new and compelling. Personally, I think interest in him has been a little overstated (he flatters critics by seeming so open to interpretation and thus has received more attention than other, less accommodating writers might) but he’s certainly pretty terrific. His influence on younger writers, even though his untimely death left his corpus smaller than it should have been, only continues to grow. One of the things that makes him so influential, and so open to critical canonization, is that his work is characterized by a series of distinctive elements: solitary, old-fashioned, even courtly first-person narrators, all of whom seem to be versions of Sebald himself, rather as the narrator of the Recherche seems to be a version of Proust; a digressive yet highly patterned style composed of complex, sinuous sentences; a melancholy fascination with the various crimes of the Western modernity.

We find these qualities in Open City. Its narrator, Julius, who is completing his residency in psychiatry at a hospital in New York after coming to the US from his native Nigeria as a teenager, takes long walks through his adopted city (the walk as an analogue for a certain idea of style being the conceit of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). These walks enable extended meditations on an array of erudite, even recondite subject matter, the various strands of which can all be grouped under the concept of change: changes of light, of seasons, of the almost physiological ebb and flow of the city, of the history of the city and the socio-material system of which (through immigration and trade, for example) it is a part. The narrator doesn’t simply bemoan those changes, but he does dwell at length upon the loss that accompanies them, especially in its most painful and even traumatic instances (also true of The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants.) In so dong, he reveals himself as a cultured sophisticate, a modern-day flaneur, fond of Mahler and Peter Altenberg.

Yet Open City is more straightforwardly fictional than anything by Sebald; it gestures, not always convincingly, at something approaching a plot: in addition to walking around New York, the narrator completes his studies and begins to work in his field, pays infrequent visits to an old professor from college, takes a vacation to Brussels, survives a mugging. One other important thing happens, about which more in a moment; the implications of this events have everything to do with Cole’s particular use of first person narration.

I really can’t think about what Cole is up to in this book without thinking about what Sebald sought to do in his. In fact, I think that’s what Cole wants me to do. He’s so overt in acknowledging his source that he is saved from being merely derivative. Sometimes I had the sense that Cole was messing about with me, so faithfully did he seem to allude to Sebald. So, for example, the narrator’s meditations about subways, underground cities, the Egyptian Heliopolis, in which we find the line “I thought too, about the numberless dead, in forgotten cities, necropoli, catacombs” offer a pitch-perfect parody of Sebaldian concerns. (He’s thinking these things as his plane circles Brussels; isn’t there a similar scene in Saturn in which the narrator’s plane can’t land due to fog or something?) His description of “the dead returning” echoes the famous line in The Emigrants, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

Less overt, but more important, both in terms of the homage to Sebald and to the concerns of the book itself, is an extended scene from the middle of the book set in a quiet but overflowing shop in Chinatown. Gazing at the tschotchkes crowding the shelves, the narrator experiences a curious doubling that conflates different times and places:

Standing there in that quiet, mote-filled shop, with the ceiling fans creaking overhead, and the wood-paneled walls disclosing nothing of our century, I felt as if I had stumbled into a kink in time and place, that I could easily have been in any one of the many countries to which Chinese merchants had traveled and, for as long trade had been global, set up their goods for sale.

I think your feelings about Cole can be calibrated by your reaction to that “mote-filled.” If it seems precious or stilted to you, you’re probably going to be put off by this book. But if it seems elegant or atmospheric, you’re probably going to admire it. Either way, this passage offers the book’s narrative and structural modus operandi in miniature. Julian’s peregrinations around New York invariably lead him to just such “kinks,” forgotten, abandoned, even fenced-off spaces (sometimes even within otherwise bustling areas like Wall Street and Battery Park) in which he is vouchsafed glimpses into the city’s past. These spaces are usually prompted by memorials of the kind most city-goers pass by (forgotten statues, plaques and the like which paradoxically allow us to forget what they memorialize), but sometimes they are summoned by memories of things he’s read or studied. Frequently these places and moments are connected to the city’s painful relation to globalization: encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, slavers and slaves, settlers and the nonhuman animal world they encroached upon.

The book thus reveals a pervasive substrate of pain under New York’s glittering, cultured, and moneyed façade; perhaps in keeping with the narrator’s profession of psychiatry this latent-manifest opposition abruptly turns personal and psychological at the end of the book. Despite all this unacknowledged pain, these unexamined traumas, the book isn’t depressing or despairing. Walking helps the narrator, responds to some need inside him; it’s as existential and even instinctive as the migrations of the birds he tracks throughout the book. And he’s always stumbling upon extraordinary things: a silent gallery full of paintings by the deaf painter John Brewster in the American Folk Art Museum (isn’t that the one that’s about to be torn down?), a woman davening in the apartment across the way, a secluded fire escape at Carnegie Hall.

The scene in Chinatown offers another such moment of surprising discovery. As the narrator muses amongst its wares, his attention is caught by the sight and sound of a Chinese brass marching band coming down the street. The narrator is immediately reminded of the songs he used to sing at his boarding school in Nigeria. He reflects:

Whether [the music] expressed some civic pride or solemnized a funeral I could not tell, but so closely did the melody match my memory of those boyhood morning assemblies that I experienced the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who, in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall, could clearly see the world doubled in on itself. I could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began. This point-for-point imitation, of each porcelain vase, of each dull spot of shine on each stained teak chair, extended as far as where my reversed self had, as I had, halted itself in midturn. And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, began to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone. (My emphasis)

An immediate reference here (alluded to directly elsewhere in the book) is Borges’s lovely and sinister parable about the cartographers of the realm, those overweening researchers who make a map of the kingdom so commensurate to its dimensions that it suffocates everyone who lives there. The point of this little tale isn’t to follow the King’s example in the conclusion and banish representation. Instead, it’s to suggest that copies oughtn’t to pretend to be more than what they are. What’s valuable about a copy (or model, any representation at all) is that it is at once like the thing it copies and not like it. In the difference lies the possibility of understanding something about the thing itself.

I think the narrator comes to a similar conclusion in the passage’s final sentence, though it’s hard to be sure. This passage is confusing—it is, after all, about the vertigo of the mise-en-abime. (And the use of the word “reflection,” primed by the mirrored wall but of course also naming the mental activity which the narrator is always performing, combined with the suggestion that “reflection alone” equals death, would seem to trouble our feelings about the narrator.) The strangest moment for me in this passage is the unmotivated comparison of the narrator’s blissful disorientation to the doubling experienced by a person “in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall.” (I’ve italicized it in the quotation.) Where on earth does this metaphor come from? Whose experience is it to routinely wander around stately old houses? (If anything, it sounds like something that would happen in a book by Sebald.) And what sort of peculiar mirrored wall would such houses regularly have? The metaphor is so strange that it lingers on, infecting the rest of the passage. It seems as tough the narrator returns to his current location—the store in Chinatown—in his next sentence, where he describes the porcelain vases and the teak chairs, but it’s hard not to furnish that imagined old house with these objects. Yet why would the narrator insert himself (“I”) in the generalized metaphor (“one”)? I honestly don’t know what’s gong on here.

At the risk of unduly domesticating the wildness of this textual moment I do wonder if the function of this moment is to suggest that the narrator might be a bit mad. The more we pursue this thought, the more we find to support it. Indeed, there seems to be something troubling wrong with Julius. To be sure, plenty of things might license his despair: ominous changes in the climate, the whole almost-buried history of violence and oppression that New York is built upon, the aftermath of 9/11, not to mention events from his personal life, like the recent break of up of his relationship with his girlfriend, the casual forms of racism he encounters in daily life, the death of a mentor from college, the unexpected suicide of a patient. But these events pale in relation to the most shocking thing that happens in the book, more shocking even than his being mugged, or his visits to a detention facility in Queens where would-be immigrants are held and “processed” for deportation.

If you haven’t read Open City and think that you might (and I hope it’s clear by now that I think you should) maybe you’ll want to stop reading here.

Two thirds of the way through the book, Julius runs into the sister of an old classmate of his from Nigeria who is now an investor on Wall Street. Moji is introduced as a ghost from the past (“apparition” is the narrator’s word), and that seems sinister in light of later revelations: in this book in which so much that happens is generated via what Proust called involuntary memory there are some very important things, it seems, that the narrator does not want to remember. At first it seems that Moji will disappear from the book: the meeting is desultory, for the narrator seemingly inconsequential, another tedious daily interaction to be navigated and then forgotten. But later we see her with the narrator and some friends having a picnic in Central Park. The two walk to the subway station; the atmosphere between them is uncomfortable. Is the narrator attracted to her? Why is she so irritable? Still later, she invites him to a party at her boyfriend’s apartment. The narrator is one of several guests who, we learn very near the end of the book, several pages after the description of the party itself, spend the night at the apartment. In the morning, the narrator and Moji are briefly alone, and she tells or reminds him that many years earlier, eighteen to be precise, when she was fifteen and he fourteen, he raped her at a party and then acted as if nothing had happened, to the point of pretending not to recognize her when they met all these years later.

The narrator tells us that Moji continues speaking for “six or seven minutes,” describing the details of what happened at that long-ago party, and of the hurtful aftereffects of his actions on her life. She concludes:

I don’t think you’ve changed at all, Julius. Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them. You forced yourself on me eighteen years ago because you could get away with it, and I suppose you did get away with it. But not in my heart, you didn’t. I have cursed you too many times to count. And maybe it is not something you would do today, but then again, I didn’t think it was something you would do back then either. It only needs to happen once. But will you say something now? Will you say something?

Julius will not. He gets up to leave, but not before telling us what he thought of in that moment: a story told by Camus about something that the young Nietzsche did, namely, mimicking the action of the Roman hero Scaevola, who put his hand in a fire rather than give up his accomplices to a crime. (This material is presented as convolutedly as I have here.) He adds that a few days later he looked up the story and found he hadn’t remembered it quite right.

And that’s it, even though there are another ten or fifteen pages in the book. He never returns to the incident. He neither denies it nor explains it nor admits to it. We could take his reaction—his silence, his rather preposterous, complicated memory—as a sign that the book wants to condemn him. And the “facts” of the anecdote from Camus, and the more important fact of misremembering them could be taken as a suggestion that our relation to the past (whether as individuals or as nations) can only be untrustworthy and self-serving.

But Cole’s bombshell (that is, Moji’s accusation) is so serious, so enormous, and, in its introduction of the personal and psychological history of the narrator, so apparently out of keeping with the predominantly public emphases of the story that it threatens to fracture his book irreparably. Which I suppose is part of the point. But I’m not sure what Cole is going for here. Is he aiming to be less like Sebald than I thought and more like, say, Nabokov or Ishiguro? Is his aim to make us reassess the narrator we have been led to identify with on the basis of a sophisticated and cultured exterior that only papers over the heart of darkness beating beneath the skin?

It sure made me rethink Julius. (And reading some other critics who claim to have found him bombastic and self-serving from the start it made me question what unpleasant parts of me were responding so warmly to him.) As I did, I started to think more carefully about some of his otherwise harmless or understandable actions: the narrator’s brusque dismissal of a man who he suspects is trying to pick him up; his exhaustion at other Africans and even African Americans who seek some kind of solidarity with him based on some shared relation to an imagined motherland, a response that comes to a head at the post office when a clerk asks him if he will meet to talk about his negritude-inspired poetry, a scenario that ends with the narrator agreeing to do so yet silently resolving never to visit that post office again; and, perhaps most pertinently, his experience in Brussels of picking up a woman for what seems like a mutually satisfying one-night stand but, in the light of the later accusation, is perhaps really only an ominous self-serving delusion. I began to indict him in my mind, and asked myself, if he’s not sinister, if he’s not guilty, why doesn’t he say anything, either to Moji or to us? It occurred to me that the book’s otherwise puzzling title, which I’d previously taken to refer to his encounters with New York, Brussels, and Lagos, might refer to his personality. For an open city, I learn from Wikipedia, is one that its leaders have given up defending. Is Julius’s silence a capitulation, an expression of defeat?

There is something ingenious in the way the ending demands we return to the beginning, re-reading for clues that might cast some light, if nothing so consoling as an answer, on Moji’s claims. But there is also something manipulative and unearned about it, too, as if Cole hadn’t played by the rules of novels. It’s fine to cast doubt on a character we’ve been forced to identify with, even on the very qualities of identification itself. But shouldn’t we have a sense earlier on that this is coming? I don’t know why I feel this way. Maybe I’m just upset and embarrassed at having been caught out liking a rapist. Is there any way we can read the book and think he didn’t do it? Wouldn’t thinking he didn’t put us in the position of blaming the victim? Of course, it is only too true that perfectly good people do get accused of things they haven’t done, do get caught in the crossfire of other people’s ignorance or need for attention or what have you. But if the book wants to be about false accusations, it needs to reflect on that possibility more clearly than it has. (Maybe there are examples of false accusations in the book that I hadn’t thought of. Even as I write this I’m reminded of the experience of Julius’s college mentor, Professor Saito, during the war, when he and his family were interned by the US government simply by virtue of their Japanese heritage.)

After all, Open City is so carefully constructed that it would make sense that this revelation has in fact been prepared for. But I wasn’t prepared; I was genuinely shocked. It makes we wonder about the relation between literary form and shocking events. Can a shocking event that isn’t prepared for be experienced by readers as anything other than a misstep, or, worse, a violation of the contract between reader and writer? (Woolf explored similar questions in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.) Or are we to read these shock as a mimesis of the effect of trauma itself—in other words, is Cole trying traumatize readers, by making them go through an overwhelming experience that by definition cannot be prepared for?

If you have thoughts about the ending, please share. The problems, like the passage describing the narrator’s experience in Chinatown, only get more complex the longer I consider them. The greatness of Open City might not be Benjamin’s greatness. But there’s clearly a lot to think about in this book, alongside a lot of gorgeous writing.

The day after I finished Open City I swung by the library (have I already told you how much I love the Central Arkansas Library System?) to pick up Teju’s new book, Every Day is for the Thief. (It’s both new and old: written before Open City but published in Nigeria it has been revised (though how extensively is unclear) and published in the US.) Thief is a much slighter book, in all ways: I read in two short sittings and enjoyed its insights into contemporary Nigeria and the emigrant’s dilemma, but I found the book too uncertain of its own aims. Is it reportage, an indictment of Nigerian corruption? Is it autobiography, of a fractured and multi-racial family? It’s never clear, but the muddled quality of the book works best when it mirrors the uncertainty, even guilty conscience of the person who has returned to a home he no longer belongs in. In The New York Review of Books, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who liked it more than I did, interestingly described the relation between Cole’s two books as “two very different experiments with the same character, run in parallel rather than in a series.” Note the importance to this reading of character. Again, this seems a grafting of a different kind of literary mode on to a Sebaldian one. For the most part, the Sebald influence is less apparent here, but the book does include photos, as Sebald’s famously do, though in Cole’s case they are his own. (I didn’t find they added much to the text.)

I read somewhere that Cole wrote these two books as ways of avoiding writing the art history dissertation he had embarked upon. All I can say about that is that if my own dissertation procrastination had been even a tenth as productive I would have been extraordinarily pleased with myself. Given the greater scope and sophistication of Open City the only question, to which I eagerly await an answer, is what Cole has in him next. In the meantime, his enjoyable twitter feed will have to tide me over.