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[Note: this review refers to and relies on the original German edition, and all translations of quotes are our own. The English translation is an abridged version (authorized by the author), and of the 367 chapters, 64 were cut entirely and only 130 are translated in their entirety.]Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries (Jahrestage) was originally published in four volumes between 1970 and 1983, but it is a single, unified work. The literal translation of the title is, indeed, 'anniversaries', but can also mean 'days of the year', and it is as both of these meanings that Johnson presents his text. The novel covers, day by day, a year in the life of Gesine Cresspahl, beginning 21 August 1967, and concluding 20 August 1968. Johnson anchors the narrative in the present-day, making Gesine a dedicated and somewhat obsessive reader of The New York Times, and so there are many references to the stories of the day, most every day, and often longer excerpts from the newspaper. At the same time, Gesine is providing a (more or less chronological) account of her past to her ten-year-old daughter, Marie, and there are also present-day domestic scenes from their lives.
Gesine was born 3 March 1933 in Jerichow in Germany, in a part of the country that would become East Germany. She is a single mother who moved to the United States when her daughter was four and who works for a bank. They live in Apartment 204 at 243 Riverside Drive (three rooms, all with a view of the Hudson, for $124.00 a month ...).
Marie is a precocious and independent-minded ten-year-old who has readily and completely adopted New York as her home and who only speaks German (sometimes) with her mother. Gesine's on-going account of her past is delivered in part on tape, to be listened to later by Marie, as well as in their conversations (allowing for interjections and questions by the child): it is often straightforward narrative but occasionally tortured in trying to deal with a difficult past (shifting from recounted history to conversation to letters, etc.).
It's Marie that requests her mother record much of this: "What you're thinking now, what I'll only understand later. Complaints, too." There's a wariness on both sides, about what might be revealed or the sheer weight of it all, but typically they're comforted by their agreement:
- For when I'm dead ?Gesine's past covers much of Germany's most troubled times, from the rise of Nazism to the war years to the occupations first (briefly) by the British and then, more permanently, by the Soviets. Her focus in the early years is very much on her parents: a father who had settled in England and was doing well there but then married and followed his wife back to Germany when she wanted to give birth to their child there.
Cresspahl marries into the Papenbrock-family, but he remains an outsider: known as 'the Englishman' (despite being German) he remains friendly with the local Jews even as ugly nationalism rises around them. Tolerant, careful, he tries to keep a low profile and do his best to get through the difficult years: Gesine is able to say "Mein Krieg war gut versteckt" ("My war was well-concealed"), and not just because of Jerichow's remote location. Arguably -- Marie has her doubts -- he was also an agent for the English, and when they occupied the town after the war the British did make him mayor -- a position he filled capably, and one the Soviets (who then were awarded the territory) kept him in (before eventually tossing him in jail).
The flighty, depressive Lisbeth, Gesine's mother, was complicated in different ways, and never made the situation better. She was unhinged enough to watch and do nothing as infant Gesine threatened to drown (Cresspahl happened to witness the scene and plucked her out of danger), and if her violent death isn't a suicide, there's certainly enough reason to believe she would have done herself in eventually. As is, she dies when Gesine is still a small child; fortunately Cresspahl is up to the challenge of raising the girl more or less on his own. (Gesine does remain haunted by the mother-figure: when Marie asks her for her New Year's resolutions 1968, one of them is: "That I don't become like my mother" -- and even though her dread is obvious it's a remarkable admission to make to the child; it throws even the generally unperturable Marie, who tries explains it away for both of them: "You have fever, Gesine.")
Johnson began writing the book on 29 January 1968, and he lucked into quite a year. It's more than back-drop: the period is front and centre, omnipresent. The war in Viet Nam obviously dominates -- the first sentence of the first dated entry refers to it ("Clearing weather in North Viet Nam permitted Air Force raids north of Hanoi", etc.) -- yet it in its almost daily constancy becomes an almost repetitive drone: Johnson's choice to refer to weather conditions in his opening salvo are apt, since the Viet Nam-reports (much as the daily reports of American fatalities in Iraq have become in 2005 and 2006) resemble nothing as much as the daily weather report, with what (in print if not real life) amount to only small varying details. 1968 would also be the year of the shooting of Rudi Dutschke and assassinations of Martin Luther King jr. and Robert Kennedy (the latter two events that hit Marie harder -- or at least more demonstratively -- than Gesine), as well as the Prague spring. The Czech connexion is of particular importance, because Gesine is taking Czech lessons, and the book moves towards a planned trip to Prague (indeed, that is where they are set to be the day after the book closes, on 21 August 1968 (a date and place that should resonate for what else was to happen there and then, the Soviets putting a brutal end to the Prague spring)).
Anniversaries is also very much a New York-portrait, with Gesine still a part of immigrant culture while Marie is a full-fledged New Yorker ("Mit New York: sagt sie siegesgewiß, verächtlich: damit legst du mich nicht herein" ("With New York: she said, certain of prevailing, contemptuously: with that you can't fool me") Marie proclaims, knowing that she knows the city better than her mother). It's also a city that isn't doing that well: crime-ridden (their Upper West Side apartment is in what isn't -- at that time -- a great neighbourhood, and it sounds like they're lucky only to be robbed once over the course of the year), with racial tension, as well political unrest.
Race figures prominently too: Gesine won't stand for any racism, and proves more open-minded than most of the locals -- an attitude similar to that of her father, and which she passes on to her daughter. Among the many sub-plots is Francine, the token black girl who winds up in Marie's class at the exclusive private school she attends. Unlike her classmates, Marie feels an obligation to assist the child who is completely out of her element. Johnson's girl is, at times, arguably too precocious, but even something as difficult as this he handles well, convincingly having Marie express her frustration at the injustice perpetrated on Francine, who has, for example, never been taught how to learn.
Francine and her family are types -- snapshots of a world largely beyond his ken -- but for all that Johnson handles them well, without condescension (largely by describing it through Marie's experiences, and never having, for example, Gesine try to be buddies with Francine's mom or anything like that). Even brave Marie has difficulty in venturing more than once to Francine's tenement home; later, Francine's mother is injured in a violent incident, and it's only natural for the Cresspahls to take in the girl (as the other children are scattered in foster homes and elsewhere), a reaching out that mirrors Gesine's fathers attempts to reach out to strangers and locals when Gesine was a child (even as it probably strikes most American readers as utterly absurd). Again, the unlikely situation works because Johnson does not paint an easy idyll, but rather suggests the actual difficulties such an arrangement would pose: it is here that Marie is presented at her most childish (and thus, in some ways, most believable), fundamentally decent and trying to be helpful but also irritated by this foreign presence who herself feels so very much out of her element. Hands-off Gesine offers a secure environment that allows Francine the space to adapt, and Johnson captures this transition well -- and without forcing a happy end: Francine goes home again (and is ultimately a lost child), the status quo barely changed (and, yes, even Marie sighs somewhat in relief).
It is a political time, and while Gesine does not shy away from it, she almost tries to keep it at a certain remove. (Ironically, the reader sees her hurtling towards one of the decisive historical moments of the age, knowing the trip she is long planning -- Prague -- and knowing the date on which the book ends, one day before the fateful and dreadful 21 August 1968.) It's no wonder she prefers the black-and-white accounts from the day after as provided in the newspaper, refusing even to get a television despite Marie's frequent appeals. (It's after RFK's assassination that Marie decides enough is enough: she needs her mother's signature on the rental agreement, but she's the one that hires a television (and pays the $19.50 cost) -- and has it set up in her room.) It's Marie, too, that is the more active, louder with her outrage, eager to go to the marches and parades, caught up in the immediacy of things in a way that Gesine, who has seen and lived through so much, is not. On 1 May 1968 Gesine looks to Europe, but Marie has left that long behind, caught up in the here and now in a way that her mother can't seem to keep up with:
- Was geht's dich an ! du hast bloß mal da gewohnt ! sagt Marie.(The 'aunt' of course being the old grey lady, The New York Times)
Even Gesine is a bit shocked at Marie running underfoot at the Columbia-protests, and admittedly the girl's unsupervised gallivanting across town is one of the less believable elements of the book. Canny and wise beyond her years, the girl is still just ten and it's hard to believe any mother would let a child that age run about (and take the subway) as freely as Gesine does.
Eager to protest and make her objections to injustice known, Marie nevertheless has wholeheartedly embraced America. She is, for all intents and purposes, an American girl, and among the few things about her that seem to annoy Gesine is the girl's unquestioning anti-communism. It's not that Gesine necessarily disapproves of the attitude itself, but rather that Marie has bought into that party line unthinkingly: communism is simply an evil, enough said -- but Gesine knows from experience that it's all more complicated than that. Gesine is also far more ambivalent about the America she has made their home. Marie can protest the war in Viet Nam and the military-industrial complex and still live happily within the system, but Gesine is nowhere near as comfortable. "Wo ist die moralische Schweiz, in die wir emigrieren könnten ?" ("Where is that moral Switzerland to which we could emigrate ?") she asks herself only half-jokingly -- as experience has taught her that there is no place that allows such neutrality (hence also the question referring to a "moral Switzerland", rather than Switzerland itself, a country that can stand for neutrality without actually being that).
Some men do vie for Gesine's attention, but she's careful about letting anyone get too close. She doesn't reveal much about Marie's father, and admits on one of those tapes that she leaves for when she's dead that she can't let anyone (save her daughter) close for fear of losing them: "Ich will diesen Schmerz nicht noch einmal" ("I don't want that pain again"). The scientist Erichson -- known as D.E. -- is a frequent visitor and close friend, but as much an uncle-figure to the child as lover for Gesine.
Among the playful asides are some swats at German literati: Hans Magnus Enzensberger's open letter in The New York Review of Books (explaining why he resigned from his appointment at Wesleyan), picked apart over half a dozen pages, or a report in The New York Times on West German author 'Günther Glass' (his name more readily misspelt pre-Nobel prize) -- and there are even some Uwe Johnson sightings, including an awkward question-and-answer session at a Jewish American Congress event.
Anniversaries is a very long book; remarkably, it hardly ever flags. The variety of narrative techniques -- quotation, different voices and perspectives -- help keep the reader focussed, and the different storylines (Gesine's past, Gesine's present, Marie's present, the world at large) are woven together well. It is a history of Germany, 1933 to ca. 1953, as well as of 1968 America. It is about the experience of being a European emigrant, and about being an almost-teen in the late 60s. It is about past and present and, emphatically, morality in its broadest senses. It is about society -- German and American, and society under Nazi, communist, and capitalist systems -- and works as such because it isn't a moralising text and offers little forced philosophical exposition and debate: Johnson shows by example and experience. The major characters -- father Cresspahl, Gesine, Marie -- act, and while they don't or can't always do right, and can't always be sure of what they do, they are, in their different ways, exemplary.
Johnson mixes things up enough to keep readers alert -- tossing in a grocery list (on snowy 29 December), notes for a school-essay on RFK (6 June), even variations on the colour yellow (in New York -- 1 August). But it's with the effective repeated use (but not over-use) of newspaper-detail -- all those bits of reality which can never be kept at bay -- as well as, especially, the mother-daughter back-and-forth that Johnson achieves so much momentum. Much of the story is most powerful when Gesine is not, in fact, front and centre: especially the parts about her parents and then her father are more interesting than when she figures more prominently in her own story of childhood and youth. But in the present, and especially in her dealings at work and at home, Johnson presents a remarkably full character-portrait -- enlivened also by the challenging semi-equal, Marie (who, after all, doesn't call her 'Mammi' or anything of that sort, but simply: Gesine).
There are some lapses: an odd kidnapping episode seems out of place, and much of volume three seems off-pace, but overall it's a remarkable and consistent accomplishment. For what looks like a diary-book it's, in fact, a compelling novel, and in the three generation-representatives of Cresspahl, Gesine, and Marie a book with three superbly rendered characters. For insight into life in Germany in the 1930s, and in New York in the 1960s -- admittedly both times from a particular vantage point -- it bears comparison to the best literary portraits of those eras and places.
It is a lot to tackle, but it is a book that is in every sense substantial, and ultimately very much worth the time. (The effort, too, one might add, but it doesn't really require much effort, readily engaging the reader.) Certainly a book that will endure, deserving of a place beside the best of the most ambitious post-World War II German novels (such as The Tin Drum, The Aesthetics of Resistance, and The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura).
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Uwe Johnson was born in 1934, and moved from East to West Germany in 1959. He died in 1984.
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