Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759
Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl is a multileveled record of the ongoing lives of Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie, counter-pointed by Gesine’s reconstruction of the past. The present encompasses the historically critical, highly eventful year of August 21, 1967, through Au-gust 20, 1968. Verbatim quotations from The...
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- Critical Essays
Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl is a multileveled record of the ongoing lives of Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie, counter-pointed by Gesine’s reconstruction of the past. The present encompasses the historically critical, highly eventful year of August 21, 1967, through Au-gust 20, 1968. Verbatim quotations from The New York Times provide a running chronicle that emerges as the nagging liberal voice of yet another character, “Auntie Times.”
In volume 1 (volumes 1 and 2 of the German original), a heavy drama of the 1930’s is framed by a relatively light, optimistic tale of newcomers to New York City (from August, 1967, through February, 1968). Day by day, as if making diary entries, the thirty-four-year-old Gesine Cresspahl, now a bank employee, notes both the immediate present and the events of the past, often occurring at the same time of year. Her attempts at reconstructing the past are increasingly aided by her gifted ten-year-old child, Marie, who responds, challenges, and evaluates, understanding more and more.
In the early 1930’s, Heinrich Cresspahl, a German master carpenter comfortably settled in England, impulsively married a very pious, much younger woman of a higher social status during a visit to Jerichow, a fictitious town in Germany. Despite their real love, Cresspahl’s wife, “our Lisbeth,” could not endure England and returned to the bosom of her patriarchal German family, the Papenbrocks, to give birth at home, in Jerichow. The only child of this couple is Gesine. Cresspahl eventually joined his wife and was unable to extricate himself or his family from increasingly Nazified Germany. While Cresspahl pragmatically and phlegmatically made the best of things, however, Lisbeth lost her sanity. Her last act was an illumination to others—including the daughter and granddaughter, who subsequently reconstruct her life, helping each other.
Volume 2 (volumes 3 and 4 of the German original) covers the 1940’s and the early 1950’s in Germany, and March through August of 1968 in New York, with a whirling peripheral vision of the world outside. Now the reconstruction of the past, moving into the Soviet Occupation, the years under Walter Ulbricht, and Gesine’s conscious life, becomes more ironic while the present, which had begun rather brightly, darkens.
In a sharp stroke of irony, the apolitical Cresspahl is made mayor of Jerichow by the victorious British, only to be tortured and imprisoned by the Russians who come to replace the British. Gesine’s years of growing up, the regime of a German secondary school (still very traditional despite the addition of political propaganda and Russian lessons), and the pairings and jealousies of adolescents are described with gentle irony. Before discovering her latent love for Jakob Abs (Marie’s father, who dies in an accident before Marie’s birth, without having married Gesine), Gesine had gone with the touching, faintly ridiculous Pius Pagenkopf, son of a Communist Party official. Harsher satire is found in the story of Johnny Schlegel, who sets upa wonderful agricultural commune in which everyone is supposed to be happy—for which he is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor.
Back in the present, the Vietnam War is escalating, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are assassinated, and demonstrations and riots are everywhere. More intensely than before, Gesine begins reliving her mother’s obsession with guilt by association. Young Marie, though still loyal to her new homeland, also feels disappointed and disillusioned (even with her erstwhile hero Mayor John Lindsay). Then Gesine suffers a personal tragedy which she does not dare to tell her daughter: Dietrich Erichson, her longtime suitor and almost a father to Marie, dies in a plane crash. Grasping for hope around which to build a new life, Gesine commits herself to a dangerous job with which she has been toying since the novel began: to become a discreet representative for her employer, an international bank, in the recently awakening city of Prague. She would be authorized to offer millions of dollars in credit (very quietly) to the Dubcek government. Here, at last, is an upstanding, guiltless, and idealistic regime that she could admire. Always ill at ease with the West because of her Socialist-informed education and now uncomfortable with the spreading guilt of the Vietnam War and the many other troubles that she has long been imbibing through Auntie Times, Gesine uproots herself and Marie for a fresh start in a newly regenerated Czechoslovakia. Author Uwe Johnson leaves Gesine and Marie on the Baltic coast, in Denmark, poised for the last lap of their journey on August 20, 1968, the day before the Eastern Bloc’s surprise invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of the Dubcek regime.