Anyone following my site this year will have seen that 2018 has been fairly busy. Quite apart from the reading and reviewing, and the usual events such as my shadow Man Booker International Prize work and Women in Translation Month, I’ve finished off a couple of big series this year (Proust and Knausgaard – if putting them together isn’t too much of a blasphemy…). And I even ‘published’ a translation, too. Still, on top of all that (oh, and my actual job, too, I suppose), I was working on something else in the background. If you like big books, then listen up, because my last review for this year’s German Literature Month tackles one of the biggest, a novel that might just take you a whole year to finish. But is it worth it? Let’s find out 😉
Uwe Johnson’s Jahrestage (Anniversaries) is nothing less than an epic. Comprising four volumes running to 1700 pages, it’s a diary of sorts, running from the twenty-first of August, 1967 to the twentieth of August, 1968. The reader is immersed in the life of Gesine Cresspahl, a German woman working at a New York bank, learning all about daily life in the American metropolis and her eleven-year-old daughter, Marie, a bilingual child at a pivotal point of her life. The diary aspect is enhanced by the description of events of the time. An avid reader of the New York Times, Gesine informs us of what’s happening at home and overseas by relating the news of the day. However, there’s another strand, too. Marie is curious about her background, and so Gesine tells her (and us) a story. It starts long ago and is to become an epic of modern German history.
Without reading it, it’s hard to imagine the scale of Johnson’s novel. It’s a novel spanning the micro and the macro, relating children’s parties and break-ins as well as the formation of the GDR and the Prague spring. In a variety of text types (discussions, recorded conversations, newspaper extracts, friendly chats with the dead), the writer takes us through the turbulent times – at one point, Johnson even seems to be talking to Gesine himself… It can be a little difficult to follow at times, with the story leaping from one time and place to the next between sentences, and this isn’t made any easier by the use of German, Platt, English(!) and a sprinkling of other languages (I do wonder how that’s handled in the English-language version). Overall, what we are treated to is a careful overview of not only a year in history, but also of one town in East Germany and life there under various regimes.
Of course, Jahrestage is so much more than that. Some years in history are more notable than others, and 1968, in particular, had a lot going on. The modern strand plays out against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, with protests in the streets and death counts announced in the newspaper every day. As the year progresses, we hear of events in Paris, and the shootings of Martin Luther King Jnr and Senator Robert Kennedy. One of the features of the book, though, is the idea of history repeating, and Johnson squeezes in parallels wherever he can. One is the fate of the Jewish inhabitants of Jerichow, and further afield in Europe, and the strong Jewish presence in Gesine’s adopted hometown. Another is the ‘problems’ the US has with its black population and the Americans’ own actions in Vietnam.
Quite apart from these historical aspects, the novel paints a large-scale, yet nuanced picture of New York. I’m sure this will be a book that appeals to New Yorkers as it provides a detailed snapshot of their city at this time (the subways, the ferries, the slums, the boardrooms). As someone who’s never been there, I doubt I was able to fully appreciate the detail, but many readers will be able to follow Gesine and Marie as they go about their lives; some may even remember these very events. New York also provides Johnson with another important character, the New York Times itself – or perhaps I should say ‘herself’. Amusingly, the newspaper is personified by Gesine (and Johnson) as a prim old aunt, informing us disapprovingly of the shortcomings of society – and there are plenty:
Gestern morgen ging James Looby, 22 Jahre, ein Student aus Bayonne in New Jersey, in unserer Gegend spazieren. Auf der Amsterdam Avenue, an der 70. Straße, wurde er von drei Jungen um Zigaretten angegangen. Er war nichtraucher und konnte ihnen keine geben. Dafür bekam er ein sechszölliges Messer in den Bauch. Er hatte Lehrer werden wollen.
p.331 (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017)
Yesterday morning, James Looby, 22 years old, a student from Bayonne in New Jersey, went for a walk in our neighbourhood. On Amsterdam Avenue, at the corner of 70th Street, three youths approached him for cigarettes. He was a non-smoker and couldn’t give them any. As a result he got a six-inch knife to the stomach. He wanted to be a teacher.
*** (my translation)
Unfortunately, it seems as if this is just daily life in NYC…
For many readers, though, it’ll be the German strand that is of most interest. Johnson relates a family history, starting in the nineteenth century, but in the first two books the main focus is on Heinrich Cresspahl, Gesine’s father. Having made a life for himself in England, he is drawn back to Germany when his pregnant wife decides she needs her family around her, and despite his doubts and fears, he opts to stay. As the political clouds begin to gather, he has second thoughts, but by then it’s too late, and his fate is set. Ironically, history repeats itself after the war, with escape once again tantalisingly close:
Wenn Jerichow zum Westen gekommen wäre. (p.1106)
If Jerichow had become part of the West. ***
You see, the town where Gesine is born is close to the new border – but not quite close enough.
Jerichow is a small town where German history plays out over several decades. While dominated by the local aristocracy and large farmers at the start of the novel, the rise of the Nazis brings major changes. Many people leave (some by choice, others unwillingly), and a new class takes over the town. Once the war is over and the Soviets arrive, the process is repeated, and we see the small beginnings of what is to become East Germany. These are historical times, but in the small Mecklenburg backwater, it’s less the major events than the local intrigues that stand out. Johnson tells us of transportations, interrogations, black market dealings and betrayals, all in a town where everyone knows everyone else.
Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the way the two main characters, Gesine and Marie, develop and are fleshed out over 1700 pages. In a city that’s not without its issues and dangers, mother and daughter seem at home, independent and fearless new Americans, even if Gesine is still a little haunted by the ghosts of the past. Johnson explores the growing relationship between them in a year when Marie grows up fast. The conversations they have are wide-ranging, with far more in common with those of friends than of mother and daughter. There’s certainly a lot for them to discuss in such a turbulent time, and Marie discovers the unfairness of society in general, both through personal experiences (in particular, a difficult friendship with a black classmate) and the constant barrage of bad news from Auntie Times.
However, Marie isn’t the only one growing up fast. The dual nature of the book means that we get to see Gesine in duplicate, with Johnson turning from a multilingual bank employee singled out for big things to an intelligent schoolgirl growing up under the watchful eye of suspicious authorities, often on the same page. The sheer scope of the work allows us to get a rounded view of the main character, and while she intially appears a little distant, two-dimensional even, we gradually move beyond the aloof and superficial, learning of her fears, her doubts and her relationships.
No matter how much time passes, though, the grown-up Gesine is unable to shake off the ghosts of her past. As a German in the west, she is tainted by association:
Das Schockmittel war eine Fotografie, die die Briten im Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen gemacht hatten und abdruckten in der Zeitung, die sie nach dem Krieg in Lübeck laufen ließen.
Die Wirkung hat bis heute nicht aufgehört. Betroffen war die eigene Person: ich bin das Kind eines Vaters, der von der planmäßigen Ermordung der Juden gewußt hat. Betroffen war die eigene Gruppe: ich mag zwölf Jahre alt sein, ich gehöre zu einer nationalen Gruppe, die eine andere Gruppe abgeschlachtet hat in zu großer Zahl (einem Kind wäre schon ein einziges Opfer as Anblick zuviel gewesen). (pp.209/10)
The cause of the shock was a photograph the British took at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and printed in the newspaper they put out in Lübeck after the war. The effect continues to this day. I was personally affected: I am the child of a father who was aware of the systematic murder of the Jews. My nation was affected: I may only be twelve, but I belong to a nation that slaughtered another group of people in huge numbers (for a child, even one victim would have been too much to bear). ***
She’s acutely aware of this guilt, living in a city that is a sanctuary for Jews (in fact, on occasion, people are more than happy to remind her of her people’s crimes…). Even here, though, there are signs that not everyone agrees; the last volume begins with a young Jewish man walking past some anti-semitic graffiti on the street.
There isn’t a great deal of plot moving the novel along, but one aspect of the book that does fit that description is Gesine’s impending move to Prague. Over several years, her boss has groomed her for a special mission, a visit to the city to oversee negotiations for massive loans to the Czech(oslovakian) government. History unfolds before our eyes as the liberal communist regime in Czechoslovakia attempts to modernise the country by reaching out to the West, all the while sensing disapproval from the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries. For many modern readers, this may be new, but Johnson’s contemporary readers would have known exactly what was going to happen – and when. The last part of the book seems like a countdown to two events: young Gesine’s escape from the GDR and the older woman’s return to Eastern Europe. A hint – the dates the writer chose for his novel are far from coincidental…
Jahrestage is a marvellous creation, and it’s an incredible feat of engineering to keep it all flowing smoothly, but there are times when it does sag a little. I struggled a little with Part IV, especially when it focused on Gesine’s school days. It’s undoubtedly an important part of the book, carefully describing the move towards a spy state, but it comes across as a little slow, especially when the New York strand was pushing us towards the dramatic climax. I was also a little frustrated at times when characters disappeared for long stretches of the novel. For example, Cresspahl, a major character in the first half of the book, fades a little too much into the background as his daughter grows up.
More importantly, the fate of Jakob, Marie’s father, is a mystery that isn’t really resolved adequately. He’s a shadowy figure, hinted at over the first two parts, then handled carelessly and dispatched rather too quickly. Or so I thought… You see, I was unaware that Johnson had a tendency to link his work through his characters, and apparently there is a whole (earlier) book, Mutmassungen über Jakob, devoted to the fate of Marie’s father. WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME THIS???!!! You might be able to find a rather old (1963) English-language translation (Speculations about Jakob, translated by Ursule Molinaro) if you look hard enough online, but there’s a new German-language paperback version coming out in January. So that’s my Christmas present sorted…
Overall, Jahrestage is a wonderful work, and in truth today’s post is less a review than a confused attempt to give a prospective reader some idea of what confronts them if they decide to pick the book up (and they should). While I read it in the original German, all English speakers now have the chance to enjoy it too as Damion Searls’ version was recently released by (appropriately) NYRB Classics. Before you rush off, though, a word of warning. I began the book on the first of September and completed it on the nineteenth of November, in total spending thirty-one of my precious reading days over an eighty-day stretch on the book. That’s one whole month of 2018 spent just on this. Yes, I tried it in German, and you’ll probably have the English-language version, but still… However, in addition to this warning, I’d like to add a recommendation. It was well worth it, and I hope other readers will make the time to discover that for themselves 🙂