Uwe Johnson Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Uwe Johnson has been called “the author of both Germanies,” sitting, as it were, on the border dividing East and West Germany and directing his critically analytical yet passionate glance at both parts simultaneously. Johnson was born in 1934 in Cammin on the Dievenow River in Pomerania, a former northern German province which has been part of Poland since 1945. At age ten, he was sent to an elite school run by the Nazis, where he was reprimanded for his “unhealthy continuous reading.” After flight from his now-Polish homeland, he and his family settled in Güstrow, in the northern German province of Mecklenburg, which had also been the home of the world-renowned sculptor and writer Ernst Barlach, persecuted by the Nazi regime, about whom Johnson later wrote a lengthy essay. While at the University of Rostock, Johnson was called upon, as a member of a Communist youth organization, to testify about the political crimes of the religiously affiliated youth group Junge Gemeinde in 1952. He refused to participate in the false accusations and decided to tell the world about how those lies were used for the furtherance of political causes. Because of the incident Johnson had to change universities, and he finished his studies under the eminent literary critic Hans Mayer in Leipzig.

Johnson admired the writings of Thomas Mann enormously and began to tell himself that he, too, could write. He started to give fictional shape to the experienced events he found so deplorable in his first novel, Ingrid Babendererde. After rejections from two East German publishing houses, he submitted the novel to the West German publishing house of Suhrkamp in Frankfurt am Main. Peter Suhrkamp met with Johnson in Berlin to let him know that he thought the young man definitely had a talent for writing, but he rejected Ingrid Babendererde because of its provinciality, because of what he called “a lack of world.” The novel was finally published, posthumously, in 1985.

After graduation from the university, Johnson found that he was unemployable; based on his refusal to cooperate with the functionaries in power in East Germany, his cadre papers were found lacking. To earn some money, the author translated novels by American authors and for the first time read several novels by William Faulkner. It proved to be a seminal experience; Johnson destroyed the first chapter of his next novel, Speculations About Jakob, as he had written it and opted for a multiperspectival style which no other German author had yet employed and which would prove highly controversial once the novel was published by Suhrkamp. Johnson left East Germany and settled in West Berlin in 1959, the year of the publication of Speculations About Jakob, which was advertised by Suhrkamp as a perfect blend of local concerns and avant-garde. In 1960 the young author was awarded the Fontane Prize of the City of West Berlin, and he was invited to read from his works to the prestigious Gruppe 47.

Speculations About Jakob chronicles the death of a railroad dispatcher and is set in that working milieu which the governmental policy of socialist realism exhorted writers to employ. Nobody was a witness to Jakob’s being killed by a train in dense fog. While the novel clearly evokes the figure of the young working man and his relationships with various people, the reader is never told whether the death was an accident, whether Jakob committed suicide, or whether he was killed after being suspected of fraternization with people from West Germany.

After having won the Prix Internationale de la Littérature in 1962, Johnson wrote the shorter novel Two Views, which was published in 1965. Two lovers, a photographer from West Germany and a nurse from East Germany, cannot be united because of the closing of the borders when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. An underground effort helps the nurse to escape, but on the Western side she is a stranger in a strange country and no longer sure of her feelings.

Johnson’s last work, his tetralogy Anniversaries, a gigantic novel of almost two thousand pages, its four volumes first published in 1970, 1971, 1973, and 1983, chronicles another border experience, namely that of a young German woman transplanted to New York with her young daughter. Johnson, like Faulkner in the southeastern United States, populated a certain region in Mecklenburg with certain people who appear in several of his works. The young woman, Gesine Cresspahl, had been the lover of Jakob Abs, the main character in Speculations About Jakob, and Marie is their child. The novel purports to be a diary-like account of exactly one year (August 21, 1967, to August 20, 1968), told sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third person. The narrative is interspersed with direct quotes from The New York Times. It interweaves Gesine’s memories of the Adolf Hitler years in the Mecklenburg of her youth with the events of this specific year, which include the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The canvas of the novel is enormous, the juxtaposition of former developments in Germany and present developments in the United States fascinating and mutually illuminating.

After having spent nearly two years in New York, from 1966 to 1968 (he insisted that he could only write the truth as he himself had experienced it), Johnson settled in Sheerness, England, on the island of Sheppey in the mouth of the Thames River, because the region reminded his wife, Elisabeth, of stretches of Mecklenburg. It took Johnson ten years to complete the fourth volume of Anniversaries, at least partly because he was deeply troubled by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity during the 1970’s. Although he finished Anniversaries and had even started to work on another project, he never recovered from his disappointment concerning his wife, about which he wrote the moving short story “Skizze eines Verunglückten” (sketch of an unlucky one) in 1980. Johnson slowly drank himself to death. He must have died (based on circumstantial evidence) on February 23 or 24, 1984, but his body was not found until three weeks later.

For a contemporary author, Johnson is the subject of a relatively large body of critical works. His reception, however, has not been without controversy. The critic Richard Alewyn found the author’s style “mannered,” and Marcel Reich-Ranicki called him a mere “registrar.” Johnson’s works were met with silence by the East German literary establishment. His reputation as one of the most important postwar German authors is now well established, however.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

After receiving his early schooling at a Nazi boarding school in Poland, Uwe Johnson, born Uwe Klaus Dietrich Johnson, fled to Mecklenburg with his family. There, he attended school in Güstrow until 1952. Before he entered the university, he joined the Free German Youth. He remained an uncompromising advocate of Marxism until postwar realities generated doubts about the advantages of Communism.

In 1952, Johnson entered the University of Rostock. He remained there for two years before moving to Leipzig to complete his studies in Germanic philology under Professor Hans Mayer. The lean university years, from 1952 until he received his diploma in 1956, were especially important for Johnson’s development as an author. During the winter of 1953, he began writing, although he then viewed his fiction as secondary to his chosen profession as a literary scholar. Growing tensions with the political establishment almost made it impossible for him to complete his program of study. Eventually, these conflicts prevented him from obtaining secure employment in his field, even after Mayer had made it possible for him to graduate. Johnson was then forced to look more seriously at writing as a primary occupation.

As a student in Leipzig, Johnson completed his first novel, Ingrid Babendererde, which was published after his death. State-owned publishing houses had rejected it for political reasons in 1956, and the author later abandoned it as an unsuccessful and immature product of his youth. Soon after graduation, he began composing Speculations About Jakob. Exposure to the works of William Faulkner, especially The Sound and the Fury (1929), and to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) gave him significant stylistic insights that caused him to change his approach and rewrite the first chapter of the new book. Both Faulkner and Joyce had a profound impact on Johnson’s literary development. While struggling with Speculations About Jakob, Johnson made a meager living through occasional work as an editor and translator. Requests that his second novel be revised to meet accepted political standards finally convinced him to break off negotiations with East German publishers. He decided to move to West Berlin, where he could work under more favorable circumstances.

Johnson was rapidly integrated into the West German literary mainstream. In 1959, he was introduced to other successful writers at a meeting of Gruppe 47 in Elmau. For a time, he maintained a warm friendship with Günter Grass, and he also became closely associated with Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Nevertheless, after his relocation, he systematically refused to take the side of the West or to renounce the East during public appearances and, until 1961, he maintained active ties with friends in the German Democratic Republic. In 1969, he became a member of the West Berlin Academy of Arts. The same year, he joined the West German branch of the PEN Club, an international writers’ organization.

Although he once felt that West Berlin might become a permanent home, it never did. Johnson had been something of a homeless wanderer since his first literary success in 1959. Two years after he settled in West Berlin, he visited the United States as the guest of Wayne State University and Harvard University. A year later, he received a grant to go to Rome. Following his marriage to Elizabeth Schmidt in 1962, he remained in Berlin for four years. He was finally given West German citizenship in 1965. A two-year stay in the United States from 1966 to 1968 proved especially significant for the genesis of Anniversaries, which is set in New York City. From 1975 until his death, at the age of forty-nine, on March 13, 1984, Johnson lived in England, excepting a period in 1979, when he visited West Germany as a guest lecturer in poetics at the University of Frankfurt/Main.