The full new translation, highly acclaimed when it was issued, by American Damion Searls of German author Uwe Johnson’s monumental novel `Anniversaries’ was one of the most important literary events in 2018. A year later, as the world was buried in the pandemic crisis, author Nicholas Dames recognised the curiously calming and curative powers of the book under the lock-down his native New York was suffering at the time. New York, after all, was the place where Gesine Cresspahl, the key character in Johnson’s 1700 page novel, settled after her journey from war torn Germany. The story she told her daughter over the course of a single year from 1967 to 1968 had been described by one German critic in the early 1980s as a `letter to the Germany people’. But it was also a clinical and accurate description of New York, and heled Dames remember the landscape around him at a time when that was largely inaccessible.
British academic Patrick Wright in his `The Sea View Has Me Again’ addresses the particular question of why it was that this hugely consequential European writer, one whose star has been strongly in the ascendant in recent years, and who, as Wright says several times in this 650 page study, was so relentlessly focussed on fact and objectivity, a powerful antidote to our `post trust’ `fake news’ world, spent his final decade in the small seaside town of Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.
Born in what is now part of Poland, brought up in East Germany, an emigrant to West Germany when it was still relatively easy to make the transition, and then working in New York and Berlin, Sheerness was, to say the least, a curious choice for a writer called by Nobel Prize winner and compatriot Gunter Grass `the most important post-War writer in German.’ Wright supplies some speculative answers: the ways in which the sea vista Johnson could see from his house at 28 Marine Parade along the sea front in Kent reminded him of the same marine view he saw as a child growing up on the Baltic; getting refuge too from the often claustrophobic, gossip ridden world of Berlin was another. Johnson had become stuck on the fourth, and final, part of `Anniversaries.’ In 1974, when moving to the UK, he had acknowledged the attraction of being far away from distraction. Here was a refuge he could come to with his wife and daughter and concentrate on writing.
Things inevitably didn’t go to plan. The information, somehow conveyed to him, that his wife had, very briefly, been in a relationship with a Czech musician over a decade before had a corrosive effect on their relations (she was to move out of the house leaving him alone in 1978) and on his own health and stability. Already a strong drinker, he became even more so, frequenting two of the public houses within walking distance of his house, and becoming famous there as `Charlie’ (`Uwe’ proved too hard for the English mono-lingual fellow patrons of the bars to say). There he sat, drank, and observed. Some of what he saw seeped into his work. He had plans to write a full book, `Island Stories’ after `Anniversaries’ was completed. But that never happened. What observations of his immediate environment he had were largely conveyed in letters back to his friends and circle in Germany.
Johnson was, at least from the account in this book, not an easy man to get to know. He was intensely private, and made it clear he wanted no biography of him in his own will. Wright’s book, therefore, despite containing a huge amount of material about his life, both before and after coming to Sheerness, is also deeply respectful. Curiously, it is the environment to which Johnson came rather than the man himself that is Wright’s main subject. Much of it is about the history of his final home – of the way in which Sheerness had grown from naval dockyards in the 17th century, of how it had developed into a resort of sorts in the 19th and 20th, of how it had figured in the Wars, and of the devastating impact of the closure of the British naval posts in the city in 1960. Wright has undertaken meticulous research, using local newspapers much in the same way that Johnson used copious references to the `New York Times’ in his own work. He himself too has a link with this place: he was a student at the University of Kent in the late 1960s, and then taught in Whitstable around the time that Johnson came to the county. There is the haunting possibility the two may even, unknowingly, have crossed paths. Wright knew of Johnson at that time through some of his earlier works newly translated into English. Even so, the secrecy with which the older author surrounded his life meant few penetrated it. Those who did make the trip to Sheerness were often baffled by the environment they found him in.
A lot of Wright’s writing is about the sea: about its meaning for Johnson, and about floods, about the ways in which somehow Sheerness is a survivor, its coastal front directly before Johnson’s old house now overshadowed by a huge concrete protective wall. The final part of the book is concerned with another survivor of sorts that intrigued Johnson – the wreck of the bomb laden Liberty Ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, downed in 1944, its masts still poking hauntingly out of the water, the subject of endless enquiries and attempts to resolve what to do about its potentially deadly sunken cargo. Ironically, a situation judged critical and in urgent need of redress in the 1950s remains, today, equally critical, equally in need of redress, and equally unsolved.
Johnson died in later February 1984. He was by that time so isolated that his body was not found until the early part of March, over a fortnight after he had collapsed while trying to open a third bottle of wine. The fellow patrons at one of his favoured pubs regarded Johnson benignly as a curious but game foreigner. But as Wright says, starkly, what they were really witnessing was one of the greatest authors of the era slowly, but thoroughly, destroying themselves. Johnson was only 49 when he died. His relentless cutting off of his wife (it is not clear, from this book, what contact he had with his daughter after their final estrangement in 1978) showed an almost callous streak. This is ironic in view of the sensitivity with which he wrote about the relationship between Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter.
This book is about many things: the rise of post-industrial society in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s; the ways that diverse memories and feelings can be melded into a narrative by an author to give them some kind of shape and explanatory power; the relationship between location and imagination. Finally it is testament to the ways in which writing offers a sort of salvation, even to the most blighted of souls. Johnson was, on the glimpses one gets of him here, not a person to get close to; but his writing offers everything he had. That can be easily opened and read today. Sheerness may have had an accidental place in global literature, but with this one writer, that place is becoming secure.