The ambiguous deaths of several of his characters foreshadowed the end of Uwe Johnson’s own life. He died in England at the age of forty-nine, not long after the publication of the final volume of Anniversaries. He had been dead for three or four weeks when his body was discovered, and the circumstances of his death remained unclear.
Anniversaries was Johnson’s crowning achievement. Critics have noted that the completion of this book was necessary in order to make all of his preceding works understandable. Important characters from all of his earlier works, including Jakob, Karsch, from Das dritte Buch uber Achim (1961; The Third Book About Achim, 1967), Cresspahl, and Gesine herself, are brought back to have some mysteries at least partly clarified and their portraits filled in or shaded. The consistency of Johnson’s characters and the web of interplay among them over time recall the grand design of Honore de Balzac’s The Human Comedy (1829-1848) and, to a lesser extent, the work of William Faulkner.
Johnson borrows John Dos Passos’ semidocumentary technique—but for a purpose other than to capture some kind of Zeitgeist. Johnson strives to reach the point of intersection of mind and reality. When he approaches such points, his language becomes poetry.
In Anniversaries, Johnson relaxes his devotion to a Spartan modernism just enough to accept some of the bourgeois sensuousness of Thomas Mann. He tips his hat to Mann both humorously, with his hapless “Papenbrocks” clan, and seriously, with the inclusion of a bona fide letter from Mann to Ulbricht (published for the first time). While Johnson was known during his lifetime for complicated political views and difficult techniques, his painfully verified characters, as if wrested from reality, overshadow technique and ideology as time passes.