In ANNIVERSARIES I, which covered six months in Gesine Cresspahl’s life--from August, 1967, to February, 1968 -- Johnson probed the consciousness of a woman self-exiled from one world but who has difficulty in adjusting to another. In her diary, Gesine records her round of experiences with a double vision: of the past horrors of Nazi and then Soviet persecution, mingling with the present reality; of a refugee trying, not always successfully, to remain a German while also becoming an American; of a cultivated woman, keenly aware of significant political and sociological events, struggling against the current of New York trivialities.
In ANNIVERSARIES II, a continuation and completion of Gesine’s diaries, she records incidents from February to August, 1968. Sharply detailed, the notations capture impressionistically the flux of daily life, the rhythm of past impinging upon present. Moreover, the notations capture in brief time capsules a measure of history itself. Gesine records her impressions of articles from THE NEW YORK TIMES, of television programs (from public television’s THE ADAMS CHRONICLES to PERRY MASON), and of trivia that, selected with a judicious eye for symbolic truth, appear in fact significant.
By the end of 1968, Gesine has mostly shaken off the burdens of the past, particularly memories of the mysterious death in Germany of her lover, Jakob; she has come to terms with her daughter Marie; but her final entry to her diary, for August 20, 1968, looks backward, not forward, to that day when “we held each other by the hand: a child; a man on his way to the place where the dead are; and she, the child that I was.”
Johnson’s major achievement in this novel is to view recent American social and political history from the vantage of a European rather than a native. This perspective is sometimes startling, always insightful. In Gesine Cresspahl and her contemporaries, Johnson has created richly imagined characters whose life is symbolic of the displaced and dispossessed people of our time. Yet the author’s view is not strictly elegiac. His message in this, his final work (Johnson died in 1984), is one of optimism, not despair; of belief in the courage of decent people who manage to endure.