On Uwe Johnson: Poet of Both Germanys


On Uwe Johnson

This week marks the publication in English of one of the great novels of New York City, and of the twentieth century: Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, by the German writer Uwe Johnson. This is the first of three essays by the translator, Damion Searls, a Paris Review contributor and former translation correspondent for the Daily, on the book, its author, and what it means to translate a foreign book about your hometown.


In 1961, the heads of six leading publishers—French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, and American—created the International Publishers’ Prize, “meant to single out writers who were actively transforming the world literary landscape, and to rival the Nobel Prize in prestige,” in the words of J. M. Coetzee. That inaugural year, the prize was shared by two writers everyone has heard of: Jorge Luis Borges, whose international career it launched, and Samuel Beckett. In its second year it went to a twenty-seven-year-old German named Uwe Johnson.

Speculations About Jakob had been published when Johnson was twenty-five, in 1959—the same year as the other canonical postwar pre-sixties German novel, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. It wasn’t Johnson’s first novel: he had started another in his teens, and in 1956 sent it to the legendary Peter Suhrkamp, publisher of Brecht and Hesse and so many others. The reader’s report read, in part: “Well, Theodor Fontane [the German realist master, comparable to Flaubert] is alive, he’s 23 years old, and he lives on the other side!” The East. Suhrkamp met with Johnson, encouraged him, but turned down his first effort as being too regional, too firmly locked in to the experience of Mecklenburg, northeast Germany: there was too much Plattdeutsch dialect, too much local color. Limited scope was not a problem Johnson would ever have again.

Where Grass was Rabelaisian, Johnson turned his realist prose more trendily modern, using camera-eye descriptions like those of the French nouveau roman and adding scrambled time lines, hard-to-attribute voices, and other levels of difficulty borrowed from his favorite writer, William Faulkner. He also went global, helped by the fact that he was based in Berlin, which in the Cold War was, as he called it, “the frontier of the divided world.”

With Jakob, two other novels, and various stories about East Germans in the West and vice versa, Johnson quickly acquired media-friendly branding too: he was the sympathetic yet critical refugee from East to West, the “Dichter der beiden Deutschland”—overliterally, this means the “poet of both Germanys,” but in English, where we tend to define poetry more strictly, a better translation would be “the voice of divided Germany.”

The topic was personal for Johnson, as all his writing was: he had predicted the surprise construction of the Berlin Wall before it went up on August 13, 1961, and begged his friends and loved ones in the East, especially his girlfriend, Elisabeth Schmidt, to get out before it was too late. When she didn’t listen, he had to help her escape, which she did in early February 1962: a two-day journey with a false Swiss passport from East Berlin in transit through West Germany to Copenhagen, to Hamburg, and by plane to West Berlin, for what used to be a ten-minute, twenty-pfennig tram ride. Uwe and Elisabeth married in late February in Rome, and by November their daughter Katharina was born, all in 1962, the same year as he won the International Publishers’ Prize.

West Berlin was a small world to be famous in, and Johnson was chafing under the reductive handle he’d been slapped with, so he jumped at the chance to take a one-year job in New York City in 1966–67, working for Harcourt, Brace & World putting together a reader for beginning students of German. With his wife and three-year-old daughter, he moved to 243 Riverside Drive, Apt. 204, and plunged into life in New York City.

The result of his time in New York would be his masterpiece, Anniversaries. Gesine Cresspahl—Jakob’s girlfriend in Speculations About Jakob, and the mother of Jakob’s posthumous child—has moved with her three-year-old daughter, Marie, to New York City, where they live on the Upper West Side, 243 Riverside Drive, Apt. 204, in fact. The single mother struggles with schools and pediatricians and a full-time job; the daughter struggles even more, in what is initially a totally foreign language. As European immigrants, they navigate the new world of America. Six years later, Gesine, nearing midlife and with her daughter now ten years old, starts reflecting on her past, telling Marie about her own family background: a complex and tragic story, especially since Gesine was born in 1933, as Hitler took power in Germany.

Her account of small-town life in northeastern Germany from the thirties through the fifties is a masterful realist novel-within-the-novel, one we hear Gesine telling and watch Marie hearing as she gradually gains the maturity to question and even revise her mother’s story. In a great scene nearly halfway through the book, Gesine asks, “So, what do you think about my family?” and Marie gives her take—she discounts most of the bad things Gesine says about her mother “because she’s your mother”; she actually kind of likes Nazi uncle Horst, who’s trying his best; and so on. With a sudden twist of the kaleidoscope, the colored glass forms a new pattern, and the realist third-person narrative of prewar Germany is revealed as a first-person story after all.

Along with the German past and the New York present, what is often called the third layer of the novel is Gesine’s consumption of the news, as obsessive as ours is today: she is a dedicated, if sometimes mocking or skeptical, reader of the New York Times, which is personified in the book as a moralistic but brassy auntie character of her own. Chapters open with news stories from the paper; some chapters consist entirely of quotes from the Times.

All three of these levels play out day after day, literally: every chapter of Anniversaries is a day, in order, from August 20, 1967, to August 20, 1968. We see the news of Vietnam, the RFK and MLK assassinations, city life, the weather, unfold alongside Gesine’s parents’ marriage, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and its later transformation into the Stalinist East, and everyday life in New York. As Gesine struggles between the temptations of cynicism and the promise of America, the Prague Spring tempts her to believe in socialism one more time. Grappling with the weight of history, trying to process brutal barrages of epoch-making news—Gesine’s story could not be more 2018.

Johnson didn’t know that this was what he would write when he got to New York. He received a Rockefeller fellowship that allowed him to stay for a second year, until August 1968. But he was at something of a dead end, no longer wanting to be the “voice of divided Germany” and considering devoting the rest of his life to translating Faulkner’s complete works.

Then—on Tuesday, April 18, 1967, at 5:30 P.M., as he later recounted the story, on the south side of Forty-Second Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, alongside Bryant Park—he saw a woman walking west, “recognizable by the way she held her head, by her relaxed yet vigilant way of swinging her right arm, with a small black purse in her hand (perfect for hitting back with, if necessary), locked into place by her fingers, from the first two of which the frame of her sunglasses was swinging. (The sun was behind the clouds for a moment.)” The short-sleeved gray sweaterdress. The size-nine pumps. It was Gesine, one of his “people”—he never called them fictional characters.

Because to him they were more than fictional: no writer has ever been more invested, more ethically committed, to the reality of his fictions. Johnson not only reused and revisited characters, again like his idol Faulkner, creating an entire universe—he also described running into them on the street. He published an interview with Marie in 1972, asking her what she thought of the book about her now that the first two volumes had been published. When giving readings, Johnson would often look up from the page and recite perfectly from memory for minutes on end; when asked about this by interviewers, he explained that it was no big deal, he did it especially when it was passages of dialogue, and of course then you know what the people are saying. It feels as though Johnson knew every inhabitant, could picture every brick, in Gesine’s (fictional) hometown of Jerichow. He extended his ambition to capture every aspect of the reality of life in New York City, too, across classes, sexes, races, boroughs, neighborhoods, generations, and ways of seeing the world. Anniversaries aimed to be a “paper of record” like the Times, and it does at least as good a job.

Back on Forty-Second Street on April 18, Johnson asked Gesine what she was doing in New York. He admitted that an American edition of one of his novels was being published the next day ($5.75, but would she like a free copy?), and then she said, “faithfully quoting from the Pocket Dictionary of the English and German Languages (Langenscheidt, Berlin SW, 5th ed., n.d., perhaps 1904): Oh no. Not again.” She had realized that Johnson was now free—finished even with overseeing any translations—and ready to use her in another novel.

Luckily she agreed to go along.


The second installment of this series can be read here. 

Damion Searls is a translator and the author of a book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, as well as of The Inkblots, a history of the Rorschach test and the first biography of its artist/psychiatrist creator, chosen as a Best Book of the Year by both NPR and the New York Post.