Review: Uwe Johnson’s “Anniversaries, Vol. I”

You are right, as I was, to be intimidated by the sheer number of pages—1668—of Uwe Johnson’s novel, Anniversaries. This may be the longest novel that you/I will ever read, but I can assure you that you will be richly awarded. Johnson’s novel was originally published in Germany, in several volumes, between 1970 and 1983, so I think it’s appropriate to review the superb two-volume English translation by Damion Searls in two parts, this week and the next, although I confess that it took me more than two weeks to read the entire. Yes, you can save the entire work for your retirement, but there are good reasons for reading it now. Compelling reasons, perhaps.

The first volume of Anniversaries is mostly set in New York City, between August of 1967 and April of the following year, during a time when the war in Vietnam was building up or—more accurately—getting out of control.  The two main characters, Gesine and Marie, a German mother and her ten-year-old daughter, not only discuss the war in Vietnam but, also, Hitler’s rise in Germany, which was happening when Gesine was a child in a northern part of her country. As a child, she spent some time in England, with her father, just as Marie is growing up in a country not of her birth. Mother and daughter arrived in New York six years ago, where Gesine subsequently took a job at a private bank, working as a translator and facilitator for some of the bank’s international operations. Thus, there’s an overseas parallel in the lives of the two. Both, as children, watch the disturbances—the violence and the riots—going on around them.

Amazingly, The New York Times plays a pivotal role in the story because Gesine is addicted to the newspaper, initially to improve her English but mostly to keep herself informed about international events. There’s a certain irony for me reading the novel during a time of Trump’s constant vilification of the paper, but since Anniversaries is among other things a quasi-documentary of the era (the year recorded) each chapter begins with a date and a summary of significant world events, though the focus is upon the war in Vietnam and what is currently going on in divided Germany. Each day the newspaper provided its readers with a body count of how many Americans were killed. Summaries of other major articles are also included and sometimes an actual article from the Timesis reprinted verbatim, complete with a copyright symbol at the end.

Those of us of a certain age will remember the daily body counts, something that contributed to the escalating anti-war protests in the United States and, indeed, something we haven’t had for the subsequent debacles our government has gotten us into. I was a graduate student at Indiana University when all of this was happening, scared to death that I was going to be drafted, reading The New York Times almost every day. You couldn’t get it delivered to your door at that time, so I’d walk a few blocks to the newsstand and pick up a copy. The daily cost ten cents and the Sunday edition a quarter, though the prices were somewhat inflated in Bloomington. Gesine doesn’t get the newspaper delivered to her flat on Riverside Drive either, and days she misses it (perhaps because she and Marie are at the beach), she is so upset about the situation that she searches for thrown out copies in people’s trash. Both of us can attest to the fact that the Timesplayed a significant part in our lives during that era. For me, it still does.

Marie is precocious as hell and was reading the newspaper, also, when they moved to New York City, when she was four, even though initially she hated the city and wanted to return to Germany. Well before she is ten (during the first part of the novel) she’s totally flipped her feelings about the city. She does not want to return to Germany. Also, when they are first in the United States, Marie refuses to try to speak English, she won’t practice English with a tutor, she doesn’t speak at all unless it’s German (which presents a problem at school), but then one day she blurts something out in English, speaking better than her mother (probably because she’s spent so much time watching American TV). After a few years, Marie is doing all of their grocery shopping alone, talking to people on the street. Above all, she has learned to embrace New York City’s diversity, though she still looks down on Negroes (who were only beginning to identify themselves as Blacks). Here is one of Gesine’s observations about where they live:

Broadway is our neighborhood’s street, its market square. We hardly need to leave to buy anything we want, whether we’re in the mood for Japanese beer, Kamchatka king crabs, Irish honey, Dusseldorf mustard, or Dresden stolen. There are Chinese restaurants where Chinese people eat too, Israeli diners, bodegas, an establishment called Maharaja, Italian ice-cream parlors and pizzerias; newspapers for the Eastern European émigrés hang alongside the West German tabloids and news magazine. Here, at the shoe repair, the florist, the little delis, at Schustek’s, people ask after our health, our holidays, the child’s school, and wee too resort to this consumerist social lubricant, marveling at Schustek’s deft cleaver blows between the pig ribs, complaining about the weather.

Gesine’s parents lived in London in the early 30’s, though they returned to Germany, where she was born, in Jerichow, in 1933: Gesine Cresspahl. At one stage, mother and daughter remain in Jerichow, while Cresspahl (a skilled carpenter) returns to England. Most of the first half of Anniversariesis devoted to Gesine and her daughter’s life in New York City. The New York Timesbecomes the third wheel, with Gesine referring to the newspaper as a woman, as Auntie. For example, in a reference to Che Guevara’s posthumous papers, Gesine observes, “When it comes to the interests of The New York Times, The New York Times reports that The New York Time sis ‘reviewing the new situation.’” Somehow this does not reach overkill, although Gesine one times confesses, “And when I’m done with her I go wash my hands.” That’s obviously a double entendre. Readers today still have to wash the ink off their hands when they finish reading the Times.

As the second half of the first volume develops, the focus in frequently on Gesine’s father, especially his defense of the Jews who live in Jerichow. He wants to return to England, but Lisbeth, his wife, wants to stay in Germany. His workshop is burned down because he’s perceived as a Jew defender. Shortly after that, Lisbeth commits suicide. Thus, Gesine is raised by her father, in a situation that once again parallels Gesine’s later relationship with Marie. As the war ratchets up, Cresspahl (Gesine’s father) works in counter intelligence for the English. The narrative shifts from the buildup of troops in Vietnam to the increasing disasters of the war in Europe. Racial issues are dead center in the narrative, especially the murder of Jews in Germany and the treatment of Negroes in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination followed by race riots and anti-war protests, eventually juxtaposed to Soviet occupying forces in Jerichow (in East Germany) at the war’s end.

There’s a curious incident when Gesine and Marie observe a Negro woman knifed on a street near their flat. They take the woman’s daughter home for a couple of weeks and the incident reveals the utter discrepancy between black and white people living in close proximity in New York City. The black girl, whose name is Francine, is roughly Marie’s age but overwhelmed by the fact that Marie has more than one change of clothing, let alone all the other “stuff” in her room. Francine has nothing she can call her own; whatever reading she does is limited to comic books, while Marie reads The New York Times and other more complicated materials. What Francine is used to eating bears no connection to Marie’s eating habits.

Johnson is an acute observer of the United States—especially of our racial disparities—considering that he was writing nearly fifty years ago. This, for example, about slum landlords:

The landlord can ten turn these small apartments into single rooms. Now he makes many times the old rent. Since his renters see even such living conditions as an improvement, if they come from Harlem and Brownsville, and the Spanish-speaking ones are incapable of resistance to begin with, the landlord is free to delay repairs, save money on heating, not bother with a super. The laws are specific and impose fines on all such acts of negligence, but people without education or sufficient knowledge of the language rebound off the bureaucratic system, and the courts are inclined to treat the slumlord mildly for it is he who embodies the concepts of income and property.

How can we read this today without thinking of the Trump and the Kushner families’ traditional sources of income? Then the passage continues: “Income and property are what created the slums in the first place: the ugliness and permeability of the dividing walls, the unreplaced window-panes, the defective door locks, the broken mailboxes, the slippery encrusted dirt in the hallways, the rusted kitchens, the cells infested with vermin and the rates about which the representatives of the people laughed out loud last summer. Mrs. Daphne Davis, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, got to the point last summer where her daughter was playing with a rat. It was so big the child was calling: ‘Here, kitty, here, kitty.’”

It’s difficult to determine if the voice in that passage is Johnson’s, or Gesine’s, or The New York Times’, but the next passage (and others) clearly reflects Johnson’s feelings about America: “The prejudice of the American nation against a long-established tenth of its members may be incomprehensible, but what this prejudice is used to defend is perfectly tangible and concrete: jobs as a means of income, education as a means to better income, the right to rights that safeguard income. It’s known as a race among rats, and handicapping some competitors can certainly help one’s own chances of winning.”

Anniversaries’ structure is like delicate lace, seamlessly moving from Gesine and Marie in New York City during the awful build-up of the war in Vietnam, then back to Germany during Gesine and her father’s time during Hitler’s rise and eventual fall, between differing cultures and languages, differing ages of the characters. If there was ever a novel rooted in a specific time, it is this—even more than John Dos Passos’ USA. (The two share a number of similarities.) We often think we are inside of Gesine’s point-of-view, only to realize it is Marie’s—or Johnson’s or an omniscient narrator. Uwe Johnson even appears for a few pages in the story, identified by name, since, as you might have guessed, he lived in New York City during the year recorded in the narrative. Anniversaries is audacious, brilliant, surprising and human.

As I wrote at the beginning, next week’s review will be of Volume II.

Uwe Johnson: Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cressphal,
New York Review Books. Volume I: 875 pp. Volumes I and II: 1668 pp., $39.95.
Translated by Damion Searls.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.