The Edge, Too Has Its Edge: Reading Uwe Johnson in New York

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Uwe Johnson never quite knew what to do with the self-satisfied authority of superlatives. He was interested in the inconclusive, the ambiguous, and preferred observing things from the edge. The texture of a frame seemed to him more revealing than the painting, the smell of ink on one’s fingers more revealing than the content of a newspaper article. He had originally wanted to call his novel The Third Book about Achim something different: Description of a Description, which would have been the more apt title. Thus, he would only have quietly shaken his bald head and tapped out his pipe ashes when confronted with a statement like: Anniversaries is the best novel ever written about America in the German language. Nevertheless, it is true.

Anniversaries was conceived as a book of normal length, but became a life’s work, in the true sense of the word. Johnson worked for fifteen years, and sometimes he was defeated. It would take him 1,900 pages to finish, and in reading one quickly realizes that even a single page less would have been a problematic simplification. (It is all the more inexplicable that there has only been an abridged version published in English.) After the last of its four volumes appeared, he died at the early age of 49. He was very lonely in the end; life on the edge had turned into solitude. He was found in his house in England three weeks after he died.

For all its bulk, though, the book doesn’t give you much time to decide against reading it. Two long sentences, to be precise:
Long waves sweep slanting against the beach, hump muscled backs, raise trembling combs that tip over at the greenest summit. The taut roll, already streaked with white, enfolds a hollow space of air that is crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there.
Yes, I will read you, I thought, as I finished these lines last summer. I would begin Anniversaries on an anniversary – August 20th, 2009 – and planned to read its 365 entries in 365 days.

Anniversaries follows the form of a diary. It begins on August 20th, 1967, at the New Jersey coast, and ends exactly one year later, when Russian tanks invade Prague. To describe what happens in between seems almost out of the question; the book is more of a literary landscape than a novel, and a mountain wants to be climbed, not surveyed. Once, when Johnson was asked to summarize the plot before a reading, he talked for one and a half hours (no time was left for the reading itself) not because the plot was so extravagant, but because some books are long for a reason, and because some novels about the passing of time need time to pass instead of just claiming that it passes. One needs to actually read them in order to respect them, just as Hannah Arendt wanted to call a life a life only after it was lived.

The particular life we follow in Anniversaries belongs to Gesine Cressphal, who works as a translator in a Manhattan bank. She was born into Hitler’s Reich and grew up in East Germany, where, in many offices and classrooms soon after the war, pictures of Hitler were simply replaced by portraits of Stalin. Gesine has learned early on how to lie; when she arrives in New York, “freedom” isn’t much more than a word. She has left behind in Germany a dead husband, Jakob. He didn’t exactly die peacefully. (In fact, Jakob has been the protagonist of Johnson’s earlier novel Speculations about Jakob. As with Faulkner, whom Johnson admired almost more than any other writer, Johnson’s books are intertwined over decades, full of connections, rumors, and secrets between people and places, like an old neighborhood. Johnson refused to bring characters into life just to have them suffocate between the boards of a book. During his time in New York, Johnson would sometimes say to his acquaintances that he just ran into Gesine Cressphal at Grand Central. He was actually serious.)

From August of 1967 to August of 1968, at a rate of one entry per day, Gesine tells her daughter the story of her life and asks – as Johnson does in all of his writing – What brought us here? She talks about her father who, in his hometown of Jerichow in Mecklenburg, saw the evil of Nazism approaching but nevertheless accommodated himself to it in order to not lose his family. She talks about her mother who once tried to let little Gesine drown in a rain barrel. She talks about time and guilt and why one passes and the other doesn’t. She also deals with religion, Vietnam, and America as the fetish of our world – but only marginally. Throughout, a larger question looms: Is it possible, after all, that the truth doesn’t have an essence, only edges?

Long before it became the duty of cultural theorists to damn it, Johnson was mistrusting “truth.” For him, it was no more palpable than memory, which Gesine likens to a cat: “independent, incorruptible, intractable. And yet a comfortable companion, when it puts in an appearance, even if it stays out of reach.” Perhaps one learns this automatically, growing up during a dictatorship.

And yet, as a reader, I can’t let go of truth – not for moral reasons but because nothing else touches me. The truth I look for in a novel has little to do with what is depicted, with the characters or historical details. It lies instead in what one might call the tone. Over time, I forget much of what I read; only this tone stays with me. But when is a tone truthful? When is it authentic? I suppose the answer has something to do with what is personal and peculiar, with what Nabokov called, when he spoke about exhilarating reading and writing experiences, “looking through glasses which will fit no one else.” The dialect of a text, something between the lines, more audible than actually readable, its volume, its acoustic color… The hidden lust for life in Thomas Mann’s books. The curiosity and angst (those twin sisters) in Kafka’s. With people, too, one knows after a few sentences whether one wants to show them one’s favorite café.

Many North Germans feel more familiar with the English temper than with, say, the Bavarian temper. Johnson’s language has much of this polite and confident restraint, which, in every sentence, hides as much as it displays. He barely dares to say “I.” To mistake this for frigidity, however, is a popular misunderstanding, about Johnson as much as about North Germans.

When Max Frisch, one of his few long-term friends, said that it’s not the writer who finds his language, but vice versa, it was especially true for Johnson.  He approaches his sentences carefully; he doesn’t triumph over them by stretching them into long technically obsessed hypotaxis or by brutally shortening them into bossy staccatos (both of which we Germans know how to do very well.) Sometimes he inadvertently falls into an English syntax shorter and more flexible than German, a syntax that flows where the German constricts. He seems to let the sentences have the shapes they chose for themselves. This has nothing to do with the trivial concept of the “death of the author.” Johnson always remains tangible in the background, but discreetly, like a concerned father who secretly hides in the car when his daughter goes to her first party. He believes in narrative, but wants neither the dubious dominance of an omnipotent narrator nor a visa into the anonymous universe of texts and textures. For where there’s no narrator, there can be no responsibility – and of course writing was for Johnson an act of social conscience.

In the Sixties, in Germany, literature and politics were still strongly looking to communicate with each other; the “Gruppe 47,” in which Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and many others grew as writers, was regarded as a moral authority. Johnson was perhaps the most intellectual among them; certainly he was the quietest. In a time of heated debates, his tone was laconic. Lacking the vanity required for outright outrage, he analyzed where others barked. He didn’t have to be politicized by loud agitation; the infringement of political power on private life had already shaped him in his youth, when he refused to denounce “hostile elements.” It is said that the division of Germany first came into literature with Johnson, that he was a representative for the people whose lives were, like his, shaped by living in East Germany. But nothing was farther from him than to draw a line under German misery. He didn’t want to conjure up a “zero hour” or a new beginning which was as clamorous as it was convenient. The present, in his work, is too full of the past. Gesine Cresspehl always hears the voices of the dead and calls upon them when she needs them, just as Johnson’s calm and serious tone resembles someone remembering those forgotten by time. Anniversaries, then, is a singular monument to justice, unraveling the fates of dozens of people over a span of forty years along the eternal conflict of assimilation and protest.

As I’ve moved through it over the last several months, it has been the curious unity of thoughtfulness and definiteness, of irony and moral seriousness that has fascinated me most. Alone, each is more often than not hard to bear. But Johnson both respects and distrusts language. He plays with it and, in the next moment, forces it to be austere. If he gets carried away with a pun, a dramatic turn or even just a jaunty image – for example with a waiter who “tucks a smile into his mustache” – then it seems as if he wants to apologize for it in the next sentence, as if he needed to put a stop to what mustn’t get out of control.

Johnson is a moralist, but not a polemicist who would lose his authority by putting himself above his topic, even for the sake of a laugh. His sentences are humorous in themselves, but don’t tell jokes; they’re chucklers, not kneeslappers. He knows better than to celebrate the violence of a Nazi-gang with rhetorical drama, and he portrays them instead as a pathetic but brutal amateur dramatic performance. One is almost relieved when he suddenly describes a Nazi official as a pig, only to be brought up short by the ironic twist that follows: “Not in any metaphorical sense, simply on the basis of physical similarity.”

Admittedly, he isn’t easy on his readers: He rushes them through places, times and several narrative levels, at times – dauntingly, within one sentence. The frame of the plot is complex; the structure of the journal is porous. Sometimes Gesine is the narrator, sometimes she is being narrated. She merges into the narrative and surfaces again, unexpectedly. Sometimes she is in dialogue with the author himself – in Plattdeutsch, the Low German dialect. Perhaps this, too, has roots in an adolescence defined by state power, when not being too direct can save one’s life.

But the unity is greater than that; it’s as if the peculiar was only made discernible by the random. The more complex a truth is, the harder it is to bind it into sentences, and one will be more successful looking for it in the margins. Johnson approaches the truth like a partisan, indirectly; but where postmodernity often circles narcissistically around an empty center, Johnson fulfills his self-imposed task – depicting the embrace of political history and personal biography –  by sometimes losing sight of it. Gesine, for example, is addicted to reading The New York Times, which she respectfully calls a “stubborn old aunt,” and which doesn’t only report the number of crosses erected on American military cemeteries during the Vietnam war, but also what wood they were made from and where it was cut.

As with a picture that loses its sharp contours as we move closer, one can get dizzy in the face of this abundance of details and episodes, the branching out of coincidences and allusions, a cocoon in which (hi)story lies like a larva. But Johnson’s language is always both concrete and allegorical. As smooth as the surface seems, there is above it a large space for reverberations.

Anniversaries is, above all, a novel about guilt. I have never read a book that dissects guilt with such precision and empathy without ever losing the clarity of its point of view. Evil is not personified in Johnson’s novels; it remains nameless, and thus threatening. Characters are people, not incarnations, and they are all entangled in their own time, their own space. That Johnson avoids a quick verdict doesn’t weaken his judgments. On the contrary, his moral questions gain power precisely by being less flexible for the lookers-on and hangers-on: the readers, us. The attraction of accusing others, which often lies in the suggestion of one’s own innocence, is what Johnson denies us; we are drawn closer already during the process of reading, by gazing into the abyss – just like Gesine’s mother, who sees synagogues burning and a Jewish girl dying during the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938, and hours later goes into the flames herself.

Any kind of over-dramatization seems to embarrass Johnson, and yet his prose is distant and serene only as long as we stubbornly swing from one word to the next while the seething has started beneath us. No sentence in itself gives in to the fury of horror―but just as every bright photograph has a disturbingly dark negative, so also is the beauty of Johnson’s language one that chokes on itself. It describes an execution as indifferently as it describes the ocean “crocheting delicate fringes to the land.” And seemingly all of a sudden, the stores of the Jewish cloth merchants in Jerichow are burning.

Here is what’s most disturbing about Johnson’s language: that the barbarism takes hold of it so gradually, just as with people, where it may have hidden in all-too-familiar notions of envy or fear or pain. The idea that evil rages with unmistakable thunder right from the start provides us, in the present, with a false reassurance. When Hitler’s soldiers marched into Poland, Mein Kampf had been standing on German bookshelves for 14 years already.

Anniversaries studies Germany from the viewpoint of New York for a reason. Martin Luther King is shot in Memphis, and one week later the revolutionary leader of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke, is shot in Berlin. In 1968, the New World present merges with the Old World past. Wrong wars are being fought. Capitalism falters, but Communism also fails. There have been worse times than ours to rediscover Uwe Johnson.

It is worth noting, in this connection, that Anniversaries is a Heimatroman, a “home-novel.” The word Heimat, which can be your home or home country, bears a burden, a patina unlike any other German word. Its proximity to Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness) is definitely appropriate. Origin always needs the gaze of someone looking back or coming back in order to become Heimat; it only exists with distance, loss, and in the realization of the past. For Kafka, only death was a true Heimat, the actual good place.

The fact that his beloved New York didn’t need to embrace or suffocate him like a homeland was a relief to Uwe Johnson as much as to Gesine. “True,” he wrote,
our home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is imaginary. The process of addiction to the area has been solely on our side, we cannot expect the others to reciprocate. And yet, an hour’s walk through the neighborhood inoculates us for years against moving away.
To read Anniversaries in New York, in its own rhythm, over the course of one year, has been like looking doubtfully at long-hidden pictures from the wild youth of an old lady. One will see her with different eyes from now on. And like hearing at least one familiar voice every day.

Like Anniversaries, New York is “crowded with the past, with presence.” The dialectic of freedom and constraint has always been more palpable here than anywhere else in the world. Freedom and promises can rise like water up to one’s neck; where everything seems possible, the road to nothingness seems very short. (Tell me your city, I’ll tell you mine.) But since reading Anniversaries I feel more at home in this foreign land – as if I had returned after a long time and as if Gesine Cressphal’s presence were my past and Johnson’s sentences the echo of my memory. Whoever recognizes something is at home. I’ve been here before.

(Translated from the German by Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf)

[Image credits: Thomas Kohler, Johannes Pape]