Tuesday, March 19, 2019

ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson


                                    
 FOR SOME TIME I have found it difficult to write about the books I am reading and my own writing as it seems one writes into an abyss by way of this blog yet of course all writing that hopes to last beyond a day--- is written into the abyss and this sunny March day walking on Second Avenue in Manhattan urged me to share the opening of an essay of mine that is in the current issue of THE HOLLINS CRITIC, a rare readable actual print journal yet one that is available electronically  via good libraries as I know it is from the New York Public Library

                          TRUTH AND FACTS
        An essay on ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson
                                      

                                               PREFACE
                                                           
1
Uwe J.[Johnson] last and solitary 10 years in England always fascinate me. Shortly after his death I met a bookseller in Richmond that knew him. And when Sebald invited me to a symposium in Norwich I met there the late Michael Hamburger that was his friend. Speculations [About Jakob]... a very innovative work. I keep a very good Spanish translation, Conjeturas..., from 1973, annotated, with a critical introduction and bibliography. No publisher will do this kind of work in Spain anymore. And his Spanish translations are out of print. But I believe Zamyatin was right: the future of Russian literature, and of literature, for short, is in its past. The rich past will erase the pastime. And the eyes of a new and real reader will follow the lines and the lives of St. Patrick's Day...

(from a letter from Julian Rios (author of LARVA) to the writer of this essay)

2
The tendency of every age is to bury as many classics as it revives.  If unable to discover our own urgent meanings in a creation of the past, we hope to find ample redress in its competitive neighbors.  A masterpiece cannot be produced once and for all; it must be constantly reproduced.  Its first author is a man. Its later one--- time, social time, history
                                              ----Philip Rahv


ONE


         ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson is a great American novel though written in German but now available in a complete, precise and very readable translation by Damion Searls.

ONE
I began writing this essay about Uwe Johnson’s ANNIVERSARIES on September 1, 2018, the 79th anniversary of the beginning of World War Two and I am writing the essay in a small town in New Jersey, home to a former Michelin tire factory that closed in 1930 though the main street is still crossed by Pershing, Haig, Foch and Joffre streets with a little side avenue named for Petain and an American Legion hall named for Joyce Kilmer as is the elementary school.  Everything remains and is forgotten.
ONE
I had thought more provocatively to have started my essay with:  ANNIVERSARIES  by Uwe Johnson is one of the greatest New York City novels  and of course it begins at a New Jersey beach town and will end at a Danish beach town.
       ONE
Or, Uwe Johnson’s ANNIVERARIES From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (giving its complete title) is the freshly translated, definitive and complete 1668 page novel constantly centered on the year of 1967-68 in the life of a German woman living at West 96th Street in Manhattan remembering or being placed in times that include both the Nazi past and the then present divided Germanys, while constantly mirroring those lives in a daily reading and quoting from The New York Times. 
And one will be happy to know that this woman has nothing to do with the so-called Upper West Side intellectuals who were memorably described as inhabiting a world of “Keeping up with Niebuhrs” by the writer James McCourt.  A world of Lionel Trilling, Meyer Shapiro, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Krystol, Susan Sontag and Reinhold Niebuhr.  And there will be nothing about the Democratic Convention in Chicago!
         The novel opens: 
“Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their very greenest.  Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round a cavity of air crushed by the clear mass like a secret made and then broken.  The crashing swells knock children off their feet, spin them round, drag them flat across the pebbly ground. Past the breakers the waves pull the swimmer across their backs by her out-stretched hands.  The wind is fluttery; in low-pressure wind like this, the Baltic Sea used to peter out into a burble. The word for the short waves on the Baltic was: choppity.  The town is on a narrow spit of the Jersey shore, two hours south of New York by train.” (3)

An opening wordier than: “Stately plump Buck Mulligan…” or “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” but closer “From a little after four o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that sight and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler…”
SO TO  “There was a depression over the Atlantic.  It was travelling eastwards, toward an area of high pressure on Russia.”   The last quotation is the opening  of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. 
Of course the same ocean now joins these two novels forever, underlining what one can only hope to urge: Johnson has written the necessary masterpiece linking the United States and Europe--- and why not allow for Germany standing in for all of Europe in the way the United States can represent the New World  imaginatively since no other book I know of does this while  of course one is aware  that the central character of Celine’s Journey to the End of Night spends a long time in the United States and Michel Butor in his book Mobile creates a wonderful European recreation of the whole of the United States—while recalling the more fantastic version of the United Stakes created by Kafka, a writer who had the benefit of never coming to the  US---but the  essential point is that the experiences of both places are  given equal weight in Anniversaries thus avoiding the common and usual dichotomy of the visitor and the visited… whether long or short term it matters not at all.
TWO
ANNIVERSARIES closes 1668 pages later:
“As we walked by the sea we ended up in the water. Clattering gravel around our ankles. We held one another’s hand: a child, a man on his way to the place where the dead and she, the child that I was.” (1668)

New Jersey and the Baltic! 

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