A translation of the first two volumes of Uwe Johnson's Jahrestage.
Johnson was born in Kammin in Pomerania (now Kamien Pomorski, Poland). At the end of World War II in 1945, he fled with his family to Mecklenburg; his father died in a Soviet internment camp (Fünfeichen). The family eventually settled in Güstrow, where he attended John-Brinckman-Oberschule 1948–1952. He went on to study German philology, first in Rostock (1952-54), then in Leipzig (1954-56). His Diplomarbeit (final thesis) was on Ernst Barlach. Due to his lack of political support for the Communist regime of East Germany, he was suspended from the University June 17, 1953, but was later reinstated.
Beginning in 1953, Johnson worked on the novel Ingrid Babendererde, rejected by various publishing houses and unpublished during his lifetime.
In 1956, Johnson's mother left for West Berlin. As a result, he was not allowed to work a normal job in the East. Unemployed for political reasons, he translated Herman Melville's Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (the translation was published in 1961) and began to write the novel Mutmassungen über Jakob, published in 1959 by Suhrkamp in Frankfurt am Main. Johnson himself moved to West Berlin at this time. He promptly became associated with Gruppe 47, which Hans Magnus Enzensberger once described as "the Central Café of a literature without a capital."
In 1965, Johnson travelled again to America. He then edited Bertolt Brecht's Me-ti. Buch der Wendungen. Fragmente 1933-1956 (Me-ti: the Book of Changes. Fragments, 1933-1956). From 1966 through 1968 he worked in New York City as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace & World. During this time (in 1967) he began work on his magnum opus, the Jahrestage and edited Das neue Fenster (The new window), a textbook of German-language readings for English-speaking students learning German.
On January 1, 1967 protesters from Johnson's own West Berlin apartment building founded Kommune 1. He first learned about it by reading it in the newspaper. Returning to West Berlin in 1969, he became a member of the West German PEN Center and of the Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts). In 1970, he published the first volume of his Jahrestage (Anniversaries). Two more volumes were to follow in the next three years, but the fourth volume would not appear until 1983.
Meanwhile, in 1972 Johnson became Vice President of the Academy of the Arts and was the editor of Max Frisch's Tagebuch 1966-1971. In 1974, he moved to Sheerness on the English Isle of Sheppey; shortly after, he broke off work on Jahrestage due partly to health problems and partly to writer's block.
This was not a completely unproductive period. Johnson published some shorter works and continued to do some work as an editor. In 1977, he was admitted to the Darmstädter Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (Darmstadt Academy for Speech and Writing); two years later he informally withdrew. In 1979 he gave a series of Lectures on poetics at the University of Frankfurt (published posthumously as Begleitumstände. Frankfurter Vorlesungen).
In 1983, the fourth volume of Jahrestage was published, but Johnson broke off a reading tour for health reasons. He died February 22, 1984 in Sheerness in England. His body was not found until March 13 of the same year. At the time of his death, he had been planning a one-year stay in New York City.
She comes from Mecklenburg, a province on Germany's Baltic coast. She was born on the weekend when the Nazis came to power in 1933 (echoes of The Tin Drum, except Gesine grew up). She grew up during the Nazi dictatorship, then the communist dictatorship. Somehow, she escaped from East Germany through Czechoslovakia and Frankfurt to reach her permanent residence in New York.
Her thoughts (sometimes they are clearly diary entries, other times they seem more glimpses into her consciousness) take us through several points in 20th-century German history. We see the land-baron Junker society of eastern Germany, tottering amid worker and farmer uprisings in the desperate years after World War I; her father gets caught in the struggles between socialists, communists and nationalists as the Nazis take power; religious figures suffer in the lawless Hitler regime.
At the same time, she observes her surroundings sharply: the upper West Side neighborhood in which she lives, the daily dispatches of America's Vietnam involvement, courtesy of that "friendly aunt, the New York Times," her ambivalent quasi-romantic involvement with alcoholic weapons engineer "D.E." The English title is slightly misleading: Gesine Cresspahl relates stories relevant to her life each particular day, rather than stories of what happened on each day in history. "Days of the Year" would be a better translation than "Anniversaries."
I read the first of the four "deliveries" of this novel on the recommendation of a German in-law; he said he thought it the most engrossing work he's read. I agree: the descriptions of the long-gone pre-1945 German society are fascinating, and Gesine is a striking narrator, as much for what she tells you about herself and her observations as what she does not. I read it very slowly (in German, 6 pages a night with my dictionary beside me), and never felt like giving up. Having finished volume one, I intend to continue my slow march through the 1,200 other pages to find out how Gesine left the Democratic Republic and to see if we find out anything more about Jacob, the mysterious father of her child.
The style is very down-to-earth. While Johnson (like Grass) may be trying to tell us something deeper about how Germans should handle their intimidating history, the message is subtle and not given at the expense of the interest in sheer narration.