In this sprawling multivolume novel, the events of one woman’s life over the course of a year in New York hearken back to several decades’ worth of German history and political upheaval. Gesine Cresspahl is a German woman in her mid-30s who lives with her daughter in New York and works for a bank. Johnson’s novel opens in the late summer of 1967, and proceeds through the following year day by day, with all of the political turmoil that that entails—both in the United States and behind the Iron Curtain. Interspersed with this are occasional meditations on the New York Times and, more prominently, the story of Gesine’s family over the course of her early life. In this way, Johnson covers the rise of fascism in Germany, the wartime experience there, and the separation of the nation into East and West. The novel’s 1967 segments occasionally trace the aftereffects of fascism and sometimes parallel the tumultuous American politics of the moment, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson keeps the line between past and present murky, which seems in keeping with his larger points about the nature of history as it’s remembered versus history as it’s lived. The growing political consciousness of Gesine’s daughter, Marie, provides a wonderful counterpoint to the novel’s themes of crises personal, national, and global. This is a haunting and unforgettable portrait of the momentous and the historical. (Oct.)
[T]he book seeks to be a comprehensive account of the ’60s, commenting on media coverage of Vietnam, housing segregation in Manhattan, the Prague Spring. At nearly 1,700 pages long, it is oceanic, and it is a masterpiece.”—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, “Times Critics’ Top Books of 2019"
“[Anniversaries] requires a hard chair, a fresh pen and your full attention—for attention is its great subject . . . Searls’s superb translation inscribes Johnson’s restlessness and probing into word choice and the structures of the sentences themselves, which quiver with the anxiety to get things right, to see the world as it is.” —Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"Juxtaposing the tumult of 60s America with everyday life in Nazi Germany, Anniversaries chronicles 20th-century turmoil through the eyes of Gesine Cresspahl, who leaves postwar Mönchengladbach to raise her young daughter, Marie, on New York’s Upper West Side . . . Against the big-picture backdrop, we get a fine-grained treatment of motherhood and migration . . . It feels thrillingly spontaneous, almost out of control. You can certainly see why it wasn’t all translated before now. But here it is: a novel of a year, perhaps the novel of the year." —Anthony Cummins, The Observer
“Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries is a book to live in: two volumes and more than 1,700 pages of roomy universe, robustly imagined and richly populated. Its streets are long, and its landmarks are varied. Sometimes the weather’s sultry, and sometimes the pipes clang in the cold. But Johnson’s rhythm is always patient, always mesmerizingly meticulous . . . Johnson’s observations are indeed possessed of a peculiar, sprawling omniscience. His opus belongs in the canon of encyclopedic, modernist German-language tomes like Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Man Without Qualities, and it allows itself divagations on everything from the prevalence of the color yellow in the American visual landscape to the subtleties of Hungarian politics . . . His writing is inhuman, godlike in its immensity.” —Becca Rothfeld, Bookforum
"Johnson’s book effectively gives the reader forty or fifty years of world history and a single year of Gesine’s life, every day from August 21st, 1967 to August, the 20th, 1968. Its scope is startling, from the social organization of a small German town, to Gesine’s work in a New York bank, to her father’s work as a master carpenter, running a business in Richmond, in London.” —Tom Sutcliffe, Saturday Review, BBC Radio 4
“I am absolutely stunned and slightly mortified that I’ve never heard of this book before . . . I think it’s extraordinary, I think it is a great late-modern masterpiece . . . How do you map Germany in 1933 with Vietnam? But, he does it, he does it in the first paragraph. It should be clunky or absurd or just slightly embarrassing, but he does it brilliantly. It contains the whole world. . . . I was completely gripped, and there are none of the usual narrative handholds, there’s no romantic relationship, you’re never quite certain why she’s on her own, who the father of the child is—all of those props are not available to us, and still it’s absolutely extraordinary.” —Kathryn Hughes, Saturday Review, BBC Radio 4
“European modernists used the novel as a means of mapping metropolitan experience. From James Joyce’s immortalizing of ‘dear, dirty Dublin’ in Ulysses, to the grimy urban paean of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, to Robert Musil’s elegy for imperial Vienna in The Man Without Qualities, the city was no longer merely decorative scrim but a collaborative possibility, the ideal vessel for consciousness. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, a sprawling novel about an East German émigré and her 10-year-old daughter as they navigate life on New York’s Upper West Side, is a natural heir to this tradition.” —Dustin Illingworth, The Atlantic
“This book is truly a masterpiece. . . . It is a record, and an enduring one for our whole post-Hitler era. You have actually made this past tangible and—perhaps a much harder task—you have made it convincing. Now I know how it was and is over there—know it down to the tips of my toes. . . . This seems to be the only appropriate way to speak and think: about great-grandmother and grandmother and mother and child, in the interplay of generations and across two continents.” —Hannah Arendt, February 7, 1972, Letter to Uwe Johnson
"Johnson's novel is now regarded as a hugely significant work of world literature, and it is indeed huge—some 1,800 pages in the forthcoming two-volume publication from New York Review Books, the first complete publication in English. . . . Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl lives up to the hype. In my reading so far, it's carefully observed, utterly propulsive and resonant with meaning about a year I remember well, and I can't wait to finish it, though I concede that it will take some time. The bonus for me is local—Gesine lived 14 blocks south of where I live now—but Johnson's writing invites everyone into its riches." —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“Uwe Johnson is the most incorruptible writer I’ve ever read, always searching for what we so frivolously call the truth. In Anniversaries he approaches this fundamental thing, the truth, from different sides, across different continents, across time. Page after page, we are shown how we need to see clearly, without prejudice, to think properly. Page after page, thinking with Johnson offers us the greatest of pleasures.” —Jenny Erpenbeck
“A gripping, complex, highly significant work in which the author displays not only his mastery as a storyteller but also his humor, irony, and descriptive power.” —The New York Times
“Johnson has Balzac’s passion for the telling detail, the revealing exactitude, here a passion that is impelled by the imagination of love. So intensely are the figures imagined—Gesine and her daughter, Gesine’s desolated mother, and all the tribe of Baltic relatives who variously endure and resist the Nazi scourge—that the ballast of Manhattan fact is needed to keep the book on the page, the life in focus, to keep the agony from getting out of drawing.” —Richard Howard
“[T]he lavish NYRB two-volume box set . . . bear[s] with it a strong personal recommendation from one of the more exacting readers I know—Luc Sante—and promis[es] something like the immersion I’ve been craving since finishing Robert Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities.’” —Jonathan Lethem, The Los Angeles Times
Living in New York City midcentury, German author Johnson decided to write a novel taking the form of a diary contemporaneous with the time of the writing. His protagonist was Gesine Cresspahl, a German émigré living on Manhattan's Upper West Side with daughter Marie and working as a translator at a bank. Covering August 1967 to August 1968, this immense novel —finally translated into English— spans a watershed year in American history, presenting events of earthshaking significance with a you-are-there immediacy that combines staggeringly rich detail with a clean, almost laconic delivery. Yet despite the sense of currency and intimate details of Gesine's American life (she's especially devoted to reading the New York Times, which she likens to a fussy but prudent old aunt), this book is not specifically about Sixties America. Prompted by her curious daughter, Gesine reveals her family history, back to the landowning Papenbrocks of Jerichow, Germany, and her mother's marriage, which took her to England and back. The narrative cuts quickly from Gesine's everyday life to the build-up in Europe toward war and Holocaust to contemporary world events: comments like "shooting has resumed on the Israeli-Jordanian front" and "The Vietcong are continuing their attacks in the South" sit without preamble next to accounts of Gesine's dates, Marie's schooling, and the reserved, upright Gesine's scolding any sign of racial prejudice in Marie, who wears an antiwar button. The result is a layered sense of human interconnectedness, and propelled forward by the core mystery—what is Gesine doing in New York?—we come to see her as a citizen of the world ripped from home and compelled to wander, making the book resonant reading today. VERDICT A huge commitment but highly recommended for readers interested in history, politics, and world literature; one can only regard both author and translator with awe. [See Prepub Alert, 4/30/18.]
"Das war es denn wohl. That takes care of that." An overstuffed masterwork of late European modernism by German writer Johnson (1934-1984).
Hailed by Günter Grass as the most significant East German writer, Johnson left his homeland in 1959, dying at the age of 49 in England. From 1966 to 1968, though, he lived in New York, where he wrote the tetralogy called Jahrestage. Likened to Joyce's Ulysses, it's really a kind of Joseph Cornell box in words, a vast montage stretching from August 1967 to August 1968. The narrator, Gesine Cresspahl, lives in self-exile on the Upper West Side, working as a translator, trying to raise a daughter, Marie, by herself. Gesine is too young to have been complicit in the crimes of the Third Reich, but she saw them unfold, enabled by those who stood by, some of whose uniforms have merely changed colors in the years since the war ended even as other things have remained the same. The Levy's Jewish rye ads on the New York subway, for instance, bear ominous signs of old: "There tend to be swastikas drawn on these posters," remarks Gesine after reflecting on both a moment of wartime history and the opening of baseball season. "It's true that they aren't drawn correctly…but tonight I saw one more of them than I did this morning." Past feeds into present and flows backward as Gesine travels in time and space to places like New Orleans and San Francisco in a time of torment. She sighs, "This summer is over, it's now our future past, that's what we can expect from life." Her diary—which is to say, Johnson's 2,000-page novel—touches on Vietnam, World War II, postwar Eastern Europe, the inhumane conditions of that New York subway system and the humanity of its riders ("Marie was always given a greater amount of breathing room than she needed"), the triumph of despair, and countless other topics.
A rich book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, from a writer too little known today.