Speculations About Jakob

by Uwe Johnson

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Places Discussed

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Jerichow (YEHR-ee-kov). Seaside town in East Germany’s Mecklenburg state (not to be confused with the real town of Jerichow in Saxony-Anhalt). Once a rural town, owned mostly by a single noble family, Jerichow has “a thousand and one houses along the Mecklenburg stretch of the Baltic coast, with the wind blowing stark and dark all year round.” The town’s church dates back to Saxon times, with Romanesque and Gothic architectural features revealing how it was built in stages. Gabled houses surround the marketplace and are relics of the elegance and affluence of earlier times. Now, they are subdivided because of the acute postwar housing shortage and because the First German State of the Workers and Peasants has eradicated the ruling class. The castle that rises from the forest near Jerichow is regarded as a memorial to exploitation and is now used as a home for the elderly. Jöche’s young family lives in two sublet rooms separated by a hall, with three parties sharing the kitchen. Many people are still housed in barracks.

Johnson creates a sense of place in Jerichow that transcends the town’s present problems. For example, the residents’ language does not change overnight, and the novel’s original German text contains many remarks in the local Mecklenburg dialect. Similarly, the efficient East German secret police agent Herr Rohlfs uses topographic maps from the discredited fascist German Reich because the “gracefully undulating landscape” remains the same. The fertile region was populated by Germanic settlers a millennium earlier, and waves of people have passed through since then, leaving “round graves, long graves, conic graves.” Jakob himself arrived there as a refugee from Pomerania.

Cresspahl’s house

Cresspahl’s house. Home of the widowed cabinet maker Heinrich Cresspahl. The long one-story house is located at Ziegeleiweg 3-4, at the quarry “behind the old, burned-out tile kilns across from a fenced-in park around the villa of the Soviet Headquarters.” It resembles a house that Johnson lived near when he attended school in Güstrow, Mecklenburg, after World War II.

After the war, Cresspahl divided his house into two apartments to accommodate Jakob and his mother when they were refugees. Their half is now registered as a railroader’s apartment. Jakob carved the letters “CRESSPAHL HARDWOOD INLAYS” over the workshop door for Cresspahl. The expansive house, garden, and workshop have been Cresspahl’s for years; its living-room ceiling is gray with age, and he has no thought of leaving. In the turbulent postwar period, his home represents reassuring continuity. Cresspahl is quietly self-sufficient. He tends the garden, collects firewood for his stove, and likes sitting in his leather armchair smoking his pipe. A seventeenth century map of the coast hangs on the wall. Even Cresspahl’s cat has a long Jerichow lineage.

Railway yards

Railway yards. Government railroad facility in a fictitious port city on the Elbe River where Jakob works until he is struck by a train and killed. The railway yards have their own atmosphere, “heavy sooty air between the groaning engines.” When fog from the river rolls in, visibility is reduced and the tracks are slippery. From his locked observation tower, Jakob communicates with other dispatchers over the microphone and tries to keep the trains on schedule. The rundown state of the railway makes precision impossible. Tracks torn up by the Red Army’s wartime invasion have not been replaced, the trains are old, and there is a shortage of coal.

*Federal Republic of Germany

*Federal Republic of Germany. Commonly known as West Germany, a capitalist country whose fast pace of life is illustrated by Gesine Cresspahl’s demonstration of how they play autobahn: You pass me, I...

(This entire section contains 648 words.)

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pass you. Jakob finds it offensive that the jukebox in the bar still plays the “Badenweiler March,” a Nazi song, and is shocked that the Bundesbahn runs express trains with only one employee aboard


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Boulby, Mark. Uwe Johnson. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. Places Johnson’s novel within the context of world literature and German literature. Provides plot summary and character analysis for this intricate novel. All quotes in English translation.

Demetz, Peter. After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria and Switzerland. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Concise discussion of Johnson’s complete works. Useful for understanding of Speculations About Jakob.

Detweiler, Robert. “ ‘Speculations About Jakob’: The Truth of Ambiguity.” Monatshefte 63, no. 1 (1966): 25-32. Discusses the main question of what is truth and suggests the terms “juggernaut” and “labyrinth” to describe the novel’s structure.

Hirsch, Marianne. Beyond the Single Vision: Henry James, Michel Butor, Uwe Johnson. York, S.C.: French Literature Publications, 1981. Interpretation and character analysis, including discussion of each character’s function as narrator. All quotes given in the original and in English.

Johnson, Uwe. “‘Unacknowledged Humorist’: An Interview with Uwe Johnson.” Interview by Leslie A. Wilson. Dimension 15, no. 3 (1982): 398-413. Contains several questions and answers pertaining to Speculations About Jakob; allows immediate access to the way Johnson thinks.


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