Review: Uwe Johnson: “Anniversaries, Vol II”

The second volume of Uwe Johnson’s massive novel begins a day after the ending of the first volume: Saturday, April 20, 1968 and concludes Tuesday, August 20thof the same year. Last week I reviewed the first volume, arguing that since Johnson published Anniversaries, in German, in several volumes between 1970 and 1983, that that alone—ignoring its length—justifies a two-part review. Johnson’s main characters have reached the next year of their lives: Gesine, 35, and her daughter, Marie, 11, living in New York City, where Gesine works at a private bank. The second volume focuses less on the war in Vietnam and more on the aftermath of World War II, in East Germany, in an area known as Mecklenburg, under Soviet occupation, because Marie is inquisitive about her mother’s own childhood and adolescence and wants her mother to describe her growing up during those years.

There’s a curious but especially revealing passage early in this volume about the veracity of Marie’s mother’s account as she relates the facts of her life: “Anyway, she [Gesine] wasn’t honest herself—she pretended to prefer the Socialist cause while working in a capitalist country, for a bank!  While the child can’t very well suggest that if that’s what her mother wants she should move to a Socialist country to be consistent, because then that child would lose the whole of New York, and all her friends and the subway and the South Ferry and Mayor Lindsay, so she has to make do with dishonesty, which she’s told shouldn’t exist.” Among other things, the passage explains to the reader why there are several loose threads in the plot by the novel’s end—several facts about their lives that Gesine does not reveal to Marie (and, therefore, the reader).

The Soviet occupation of Jerichow (in Mecklenburg) instigates not only fear in the people but a high level of corruption. Gesine’s father, Cresspahl, is temporarily made the mayor of the town. Gesine will fall in love with Jakob, who will eventually be Marie’s father, though the two will not be married. [Curiously, those of you of a certain age may remember a rather celebrated novel of the 1950’s: Speculations about Jakob, an earlier novel by Johnson about the same character.] No surprise that the Soviet occupation of Mecklenburg was worse for the people than the rise of Nazism. Gesine’s father will eventually be imprisoned by the Soviets in one of several of their gulags. The area will in time shift back to British control, becoming a contested area during the immediate years after WW II. I confess that I found some of these passages a little bit slow reading—more historical than fictive—but more about that later.

One aspect of the second half of Anniversaries that is consistent with the first is the continued exploration of New York City the two make together, revealing not only the strong bond between the two of them, but their continued love of the city. Many of these sections are called “South Ferry Day,” as they avail themselves to the five-cent ferry rides throughout the city. Marie attends a private Catholic school; her mother’s work at the bank leads to a promotion but that will have its problems when her boss decides that he would like her to move to Czechoslovakia, representing the bank. Gesine has no idea how she can break the news to her daughter. There is also the fact that she intends to marry DE, her lover of several years. That date is even set and a larger apartment, on Riverside Drive, is picked out for the three of them. DE has bonded especially well with Marie. Besides being a professor at Columbia University, his specialty is computer espionage.

In the always-current political background of the novel we observe Robert Kennedy’s assassination (paralleling Martin Luther King Jr.’s in the first volume), juxtaposed to Post-WW II reconstruction in Europe (and what will eventually need to be similar reconstruction in Vietnam). In May of 1948, Gesine’s father will return to Jerichow to everyone’s surprise because they assumed he was dead. Although a bag of bones, he will in time, again, play a significant role in his daughter’s life.

As you can see by what I have written, much of the second part is political/historical, especially about East Germany after the war. Curiously, however, I should note that Volume I concludes with a section titled “Appendix to Part Two” and a further title, “Through Cresspahl’s Eyes,” treating many of the characters in Part I (but not Part II) as if they were real people and not creations of the writer’s imagination This is no brief addendum but twenty pages long. Moreover, in the publisher’s description of Anniversaries, at the beginning of Volume II, we encounter the following: “On Tuesday, April 18, 1967, at 5:30 p.m., as he later recounted the story, he [Johnson] saw Gesine Cresspahl, a character from his earlier works, walking on the south side of Forty-Second Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenue alongside Bryant Park; he asked what she was doing in New York and eventually convinced her to let him write his next novel about a year in her life.”

Exactly what we are to make of this information I do not know. I do know that Anniversarieshas given me more satisfaction that 99% of the other novels I have read in my life. The fact that it is so heavily grounded in history and less about character (Gesine and her daughter are two of the most symbiotic mother/daughter figures I have ever encountered) bothers me not at all. Perhaps the best insight to all of this is a line at the end of the novel: “History is a rough draft.”

Can’t that be said of character as well?

Uwe Johnson: Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, Vol II.
New York Review Books. Vol. II: pp. 881 – 1668. Two volumes boxed: $39.95.
Translated by Damion Searles.

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