Speculations About Jakob Essay - Critical Essays

Uwe Johnson

Critical Evaluation

Uwe Johnson is counted among the most important German novelists in the period following World War II. In 1959, three German novels contributed to reestablishing German literature as world literature. The best known of these is Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1961), with its grotesque allegories. Billard um halbzehn (Billiards at Half-Past Nine, 1962), by Heinrich Böll, who later received the Nobel Prize in Literature, is the most traditional of these three novels. Speculations About Jakob stands out among them as the most experimental novel and the one that focuses on the East-West conflict rather than on the Nazi legacy.

Speculations About Jakob invites readers to form their own opinions based on the speculations they encounter among the book’s characters. Reader participation is required, which makes the novel challenging as well as rewarding. The information is presented in three distinct, although at times intertwined, modes: interior monologue, dialogue, and third-person narration. The interior monologues, which are by Rohlfs, Jonas, and Gesine, are scattered throughout the book, but they are easy to recognize because they are in italics. (In contrast to the German original, the English translation identifies the speaker at the beginning of each section of monologue.) The dialogues, also spread throughout the novel, are marked by dashes, while the contributions by the narrator, which provide the transitions and background information to hold the novel together, are regular text.

It has been pointed out that Johnson’s novel is not speculation itself; rather, it portrays speculation. The technique of flashback dominates the flow of the story, and the story line as it is summarized above unfolds in a fragmented manner within five main divisions covering a period of about one month. Each character describes Jakob in a different manner because Jakob means something different to each one; therefore, readers have to consider the issues of the individual characters’ reliability and their points of view in interpreting what they say.

Johnson’s narrative technique owes much to the experimental tradition of the twentieth century, especially to the American writer William Faulkner. Faulkner was a master of the abandonment of the omniscient narrator for the sake of multiperspectivism. On the level of vocabulary and syntax Johnson is also innovative; for instance, he mixes various kinds of idioms....

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