I never heard of Uwe Johnson until I was reading through a book about the Thames Estuary, and his name cropped up. One of the great voices of post-Second World War German literature, admired by figures like Gunther Grass and Heinrich Boll. And yet, unlike them, largely forgotten. The advice though was to get hold of the epic `Anniversaries’, his greatest single work. And as luck would have it, hunting around I found that the whole piece, all 1668 pages of it, was about to be issued in a full English translation, the first to appear.
New York Review of Books, and the translator Damien Searls, need commendations for allowing the English speaking world to now appreciate fully the fruits of Johnson’s final fifteen years (https://www.nyrb.com/products/anniversaries?variant=51442122951). Finished in 1983, the final page of the second volume of this splendid work states that it was in the underwhelming Kentish seaside town of Sheernes that the piece was put to bed. In fact, on a bitterly cold day in early January this year I took a pilgrimage to this place – it is close to where I live in the UK. A non-descript terraced house, facing a wall which in its turn faces the sea, with the smallest of plaques by the door commemorating Johnson’s final decade (he moved here from New York in 1975). As this excellent BBC documentary shows (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qyjsr) his period in Sheerness was a quietly tragic one. His death at the age of 49 in 1984 went unnoticed for a fortnight, till a neighbour alerted the police who came and found his body.
But in this house the bulk of `Anniversaries’ was completed. If Musil’s ‘Man Without Qualities’ and Joyce’s `Ulysses’ are novels of ideas, and Proust’s `Remembrance’ a novel of the sentiments, then Johnson’s work is a novel of events. This is not to disparage it. On the contrary, from the very first entry, August 21st 1967, the ways in which separate stories weave themselves together testifies to the primal importance of narratives, of the way stories are told, and how different levels about different things can weave into a single lived thread. If theren is a model of what the great Russian critic Bahktin called `heteroglossia,’ then this is it – voices about different things on different levels, shifting from reports in the New Yorks Times each day, to memories of the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl and her family in German and then Soviet Occupied territory during and after the Second World War, to dialogue with her 11 year old daughter about all of this, and their day to day life in New York over the year 1967 to 1968.
Long before the era of social media and the saturation of everyone’s daily life by reports online and in the news about events far beyond one’s own living environment, making the whole world almost tumble in on top of us all, this great novel shows the inner life of new global people. Vietnam, the assasination of Robert Kennedy, the presidency of Lyndon B Johnson, and the developments between West and East Germany – they all figure in the story, but so do stories of the past – the brutal occupation of Jericho, Gesine’s childhood home, and the impact of the defeat in the war, and the creation of a new life in its ashes.
The ennoblement of daily life, and the ways in which the story of someone who on the surface lives a very ordinary kind of existence with her daughter and yet has exraordinary tales to tell is one of the great messages of the book. The other is the way in which the placing of events, the meanings that can or should be imputed to them, plays such a great part in the work, from beginning to end.
Johson himself lived the most self-abnegating of lives – unremarkable almost to a fault, going most days to the pub in Sheerness in his final years there, striking the other drinkers as someone who was nothing out of the ordinary. The final laugh is his though. Under this facade, he was constructing one of the great heroic works of moderm times, a novel of vast and yet very human sweep, and an account of the heroic inner stories within us all. This makes the immense journey of reading this work very poignant – a private, intimate odyssey into the daily life of a single woman and her child, and yet something that speaks powerfully to anyone reading this work. Monument to normality, and how extraordinary that so often is..