Johnson, Uwe 1934–
Johnson, a novelist, was born in East Germany and has lived in West Berlin since 1959. His novels portray the conflict of a divided Germany, focusing on people lost between two worlds and two generations. Johnson strives for journalistic objectivity and clarity in his work. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Uwe Johnson has an assured place in the history of modern German literature as the novelist of divided Germany. When Mutmassungen über Jakob (Speculations about Jacob) appeared in 1959, commentators were quick to appreciate that Johnson's was the first serious treatment of a strangely neglected theme, and Das dritte Buch über Achim (The Third Book about Achim) of 1961 confirmed Johnson's position as the writer of the two Germanies. All such comments are true enough, but need qualifying, for, as the reader soon notices, Johnson's theme is not so much the two German states themselves, as the fact of their separation. In other words, he does not compare the two systems nor does he discuss or evaluate their differences, but rather points insistently to the gap separating them. It is, he claims, an unbridgable gap. (pp. 19-20)
It is plainly not Johnson's aim in his novels to promote discussion, to present an issue or attack abuses. Rather he is interested in the clash of opposites that denies the possibility of reconciliation or compromise. In other words, his approach to the German question, as reflected in his novels, can fairly be described as anti-liberal…. (p. 20)
The theme of separation runs constantly through all the novels. In the first novel, Jakob, however, this separation is but one aspect of a prevailing lack of comprehension that separates man from man and makes truth inaccessible. Human motives are shrouded in fog, and the novel demonstrates this fact in its structure, for it proceeds by a series of conjectures and suppositions, so that it is often uncertain whose thoughts or words are being recorded. All the minor conjectures that go to make up the novel are finally gathered into the conjecture as to the ultimate cause of Jakob's death, when crossing the railroad tracks in a fog. The death may well be a case of suicide, motivated by Jakob's secret despair at his position, torn between East and West, but this is deliberately left uncertain.
The subsequent novels are far more vehement in pointing to the gap separating the two Germanies and far less inclined to stress the isolation of the individual. In Achim the separation is no longer shrouded in fog, but concretely represented in a central symbol, the inability of...
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[Johnson's] methods of exploring and integrating a narrative so defy conventional realistic ideas of sequence that he has been labeled "difficult" by well-intentioned critics, and this putative encomium has inevitably been confused with "incomprehensible" and "obscure."… Johnson is not a difficult novelist in the sense that Henry James and Melville, Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence can often be difficult, and Tolstoy, George Eliot and Mann are not. In difficult fiction the words on the page suggest much more than they specifically denote; one intuitively understands that the writer has in mind an equation of meaning and consequence going beyond the language itself, and uncoverable only through a metaphoric, deliberately uncharted, collaboration between reader and writer. Uwe Johnson's meaning, on the contrary, is consistently lucid, hard and immediately accessible. This is as it should be, since the matrix of his novels is politics—the all-too-clear politics of a divided, defeated nation.
It is no accident that Johnson's titles usually are flat declarations of unequivocal intent. They announce investigations into the human archeology of political conflict, narratives about an East German railroad worker, Jakob Abs, whose mysterious death needs to be explained, or an East German bicycle champion, Achim, whose biography is being written by a journalist. The titles are mockingly Teutonic in their earnest pedantry—the third...
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The metaphor sustaining [Anniversaries] is the dossier or data-bank. The reader is given an excess of data, from which he must learn to select; and sometimes the novel (showing that it is alive after all) will positively buttonhole him upon the irrelevant. With this goes an 'affectless' tone; the novel may start numbering its statements….
[The novel, further, has a] fondness for the 'finding-out-about-someone' plot (to which, of course, the dossier-like form is appropriate). Someone is trying, across the years or the political frontiers, and from questionable, or perhaps deliberately falsified, data, to reconstruct another person's life and deeds; or perhaps several different people are doing it for different motives; or someone is doing it for some third person's benefit….
Two stories emerge and are pursued in parallel—the story of what led up to, and the story of what followed, the events in Uwe Johnson's first novel, Speculations about Jakob. (p. 318)
As in Speculations about Jakob, one soon finds Johnson's expressionless, 'mechanical' form to be, after all, expressive. The 'mechanism of events' is not an idle phrase to Uwe Johnson. We are a long way from the Victorian novelist's 'Character is destiny'; destiny, here, is every kind of fact or pressure, none singled out as privileged. There is expressiveness, too, in telling the story discontinuously, with suppressions...
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