Uwe Johnson described his writing as an attempt to discover the truth. The trail of clues that he followed in his quest leads from the environment of his youth in Mecklenburg, through the divided city Berlin and the two postwar German states, to the ultimate symbol for modern urban society, New York City. Each of his novels forms a step along his path and represents a fragment of the author’s acquired understanding of a world rife with contradictions, confusion, and paradox.
In the essay “Berlin, Border of the Divided World,” which first appeared in 1961, Johnson disclosed in detail the perceptions of literature that shaped his career, beginning with his novel Ingrid Babendererde. Several important ideas compose the basis of his approach to fiction. Of special moment is the distinction he makes between discernible facts and reality as a whole. Johnson saw a potential danger in trying to make something “real” out of something that is only “factual.” Reality is bound inseparably to the individual’s internal nature and thus remains an elusive intangible that can never be circumscribed entirely by facts alone. The novelist’s task, therefore, is to present his or her material with a precision that will allow the reader to examine the facts and draw personal conclusions about reality. Accordingly, the author must not hide the truth that he or she has invented, nor should the author suggest that his or her information is anything but fragmentary and incomplete. Inevitably, the material that the writer offers is subject to interpretation. Yet that in itself is the measure of true reality amid the ambiguities of life today.
The principal reason for Johnson’s failure to place his early novels with East German publishers was his unwillingness to compromise in his literary search for truth. His desire to dig down to the heart of contemporary individual existence could not be reconciled with the Socialist Realist demand for a portrayal not of life as it is, but of life as it should be. The preconceived pattern prescribed by Socialist Realism precludes the objective illumination of society from a variety of viewpoints. Such a method, however, is the most characteristic trait of Johnson’s literary technique. Moreover, the typical absence in his works of a definitive perspective, which makes total penetration impossible and allows the reader to arrive at an independent judgment, is quite unacceptable in the rigidly programmed literature of the German Democratic Republic.
Fundamental to Johnson’s approach to postwar German reality is temporal context. The background of Germany’s past is inescapable, and Johnson builds each story from a historical perspective. Each of his novels employs a major national event or situation as focus and external symbol for the central truth that is the narrative’s target. In The Third Book About Achim, the pivotal experience is the workers’ uprising of June 17, 1953; in Two Views, it is the building of the Berlin Wall in August, 1961. The events themselves are nothing more than points of orientation, against which the lives of affected individuals are projected. It is the scrutiny of basic human reactions to the broad social and political happenings, the implications of international tensions and unrest for the everyday life of the common person, the concrete situation of people who perceive their world as natural and only in coming to grips with ideological positions discover that they are bound by politics that provide the raw material from which author and reader create a joint picture of the twentieth century world.
The literary impact of Johnson’s prose fiction depends largely upon his stance vis-à-vis his audience. Like Bertolt Brecht, whose works he greatly admired, Johnson tells his story in a way that will force the reader to take it, think about it, and measure it against his own experience. Especially important is the continuing effort to resist producing illusion. That specific requirement had a fundamental formative influence on Johnson’s style, the devices of which function as the narrative equivalent of Brecht’s famous alienation technique in the drama.
Although Speculations About Jakob is especially marked in style by the influence of Joyce and Faulkner, even in that early work, Johnson made use of virtually all the literary techniques developed in the history of the novel. He experimented with syntax and punctuation, employing inverted, paratactic sentences, colloquial dialogue, narrative report, and internal monologue in unending variation. The transitions from one type of presentation to another are very often fuzzy and sometimes impossible to discern. Thus, the reader must constantly reflect on what has just been read in order to pin down the context. The books that followed Speculations About Jakob feature differences in language and approach that are specifically adapted to the needs of the particular novel. In almost all of them, however, the prevailing style is severe and soberly intense. The language, especially that of technology, is painfully precise. Metaphors are exact and symbols are few and simple. Rapid shifts in point of view and nonlinear plots force the troubled reader to search for the essence of the author’s message. Only in Two Views did Johnson opt for a more conventional chronological development in order to portray the mundaneness of his characters’ spiritual involvement with their surroundings.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Johnson’s writing is his ability to give substance to his characters. Rarely are the characters themselves described in extensive physical detail, yet they are vibrantly real. The stiff, cumbersome language found in the Mecklenburg scenes of Anniversaries, for example, matches the nature of the central figure, Gesine Cresspahl’s father, while the emphasis on superficial external detail in Two Views underscores the shallowness of the two central personalities in their interrelationships with each other and their respective social environments.
Speculations About Jakob
The creation of his first published novel, Speculations About Jakob, was for Johnson a process of refinement of personal experience through analytical challenge of external facts and appearances, in an effort to explain the ambivalence of his own feelings about the realities of life in postwar East Germany. As a result, Speculations About Jakob has something of the form of a judicial inquiry. Witnesses are called upon to testify, providing bits and pieces of information that illuminate the book’s central problems from a variety of perspectives. The author serves as court recorder, meticulously noting the details of testimony in the varying forms in which they are given but leaving it up to the reader as jury to organize the random elements into a coherent whole from which proper conclusions may be drawn.
The focus of the investigation is the peculiar death of Jakob Abs, an East German railroad dispatcher who is crushed between two trains while crossing the tracks in the morning mist. Following the classic pattern of the analytic fable, the plot is presented from the reference point of the story’s end in an attempt...
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