Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The main theme of Anniversaries is recollection, the metaphor for which is"the cat of memory.” How true is recollection, even when supported by physical evidence? How is this truth affected when challenged by a totally different viewpoint? Johnson affirms that, with much work, an approximation of the real truth is possible. The truth thus reached is satisfying on an intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic level. Johnson’s quest recalls that of Marcel Proust or Jean Dutourd. Yet Johnson never relies on one viewpoint, and he requires documentary proof and physical evidence before he is satisfied.

Johnson’s affirmation that truth exists and can be known is a counterbalance to the tragic content of the novel, centering on painful ethical issues. The most salient of these issues is collective guilt or guilt by association. Johnson accepts the thesis of collective guilt on principle but warns that it leads to madness. Suicide is raised as a moral and religious issue. The local pastor, when queried, is surprised to find that, in fact, there is no specific prohibition against suicide in the Bible, but “in place of the prohibition is the reminder of God’s mercy that is put to the desperate person.” He remembers, too late to help a suicidal but religious individual, that “suicide was not wicked in the eyes of men...suicide was a falling away from God.”

Johnson’s (or Gesine’s) belief that “suicide was not wicked” in the fundamental moral sense has a bearing on many events in the novel. In addition to several outright suicides, there are the ambiguous accidental deaths of Jakob Abs—also the central figure of Johnson’s first major work, Mutmassungen uber Jakob (1959; Speculations About Jakob, 1963)—and Pius Pagenkopf, in neither of which is suicide to be completely ruled out. Since Anniversaries includes a seemingly disconnected news item about an American who has been found dead in the Vltava River in Prague, Gesine’s final decision to go to Prague borders on self-destruction, despite her announced bright hopes.

Anniversaries, Johnson’s last novel, ends literally on the brink: Gesine and Marie are left standing on the Baltic seashore, where Gesine’s memories began. Readers will remain divided as to whether this equipoise, where Johnson deliberately stops (marking the novel as finished), means a new beginning or a most tragic end.