Uwe Johnson Johnson, Uwe (Vol. 5) - Essay

Johnson, Uwe (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Johnson, Uwe 1934–

Johnson, a novelist, was born in East Germany and moved to West Berlin immediately after his first novel was rejected by an East German publisher. All of Johnson's work portrays his concern with divided Germany and the confrontation of two cultures, a sociopolitical situation which represents, for him, the partition of the world. He has been both praised and criticized for his fiercely realistic depiction of modern Germany. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Wallace Stevens noted: "In the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of imagination." This helps me express my dissatisfaction with Two Views, effective as it is on its own terms. Johnson reports a grim situation excellently, without flinching or exaggerating. But the overall effect of the book, despite some insight into behavior under stress, is not imaginative. The situation remains itself in the reader's mind; it does not expand in significance. But as an American far from the battle (and one not particularly interested in politics), I feel uncomfortable about saying this. Another kind of reader may find the book more suggestive. (p. 110)

David J. Gordon, in The Yale Review (© 1967 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1967.

Almost exclusively, Johnson dedicates himself to the phenomenon of the divided Germanies: "the border: the difference: the distance." Although the nature of freedom has been dealt with by philosophers and historians, it gains deeper dimensions in the fiction—or literary journalism—of Johnson. (p. 100)

Johnson's methods have been compared with those of Joyce and Faulkner, but methods, although they bear similarities, do not make art. Joyce and Faulkner's people live through their full and sensual apprehension of experience; Johnson's people live through their fragmented and lugubrious cerebrations. One is art while the other is artifice. (p. 105)

To the extent that the author disclaims omniscience, [The Third Book About Achim] becomes reportage and an ingenious game. Yet the novelty of portraying an honest "attempt at an attempt" to corral truth forces the reader into involvement and participation in the search—a rare accomplishment in the modern novel. With The Third Book about Achim, Johnson went beyond the sterotypes so numerous in Speculations about Jakob; with Two Views he demonstrated a sureness of touch with less unconventional methods. (p. 108)

In no other novel is the dividedness of the two Berlins and the two Germanies—culturally and politically—rendered with such precision of language and feeling [as in Two Views]. Jakob, Karsch, Karen, Achim, and Beate are personifications of the anguished internal dialogue and conflicts taking place…. In the East German language, Johnson is "Ein Objektivist," a person politically unreliable because he sees both sides of an issue and questions both. Although Johnson knows that "freedom" in the East is obsolete, he has refused to become a propagandist for the West either as a novelist or as a public figure. Possibly to avoid the very tangible pressures that have been placed upon him, he takes frequent trips abroad. Yet, his writings speak honestly and clearly of impartial compassion and they report his experiences, without naïve optimism for the future. (p. 109)

Siegfried Mandel, in Contemporary European Novelists, edited by Siegfried Mandel (copyright © 1968, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of the author), Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Johnson's first novel, Speculations about Jacob (1959), focuses on speculations about the mysterious death of Jacob Abs…. Is his death an accident, suicide, or liquidation? The novel seems to reveal the truth of the matter through fragments of conversation, reports, monologues, and reminiscences, none of which, however, manages to go beyond superficial evidence. All the remarks about the hero remain pure conjecture, and the reader finally realizes that he has been exposed to the hideous atmosphere of everyday life in a totalitarian state, one in which everyone is suspected and no one knows what really happened….

The differences between the two Germanies are even more evident [in The Third Book About Achim] than in Johnson's first novel. Various linguistic means make their alienation particularly visible: for instance, when two speakers using the same word have two different conceptions of its meaning. Once again everything remains shrouded in vagueness and speculation. For this reason, Johnson clings intensively to detailed descriptions of tangible objects, thereby pointing to that realm alone in which clear assertions are possible.

Two Viewpoints (1965) indicates even in the title the author's intention to present East and West from varied perspectives. The building of the Berlin wall separates the West German photographer-journalist, B., and the East German nurse, D., who had been brought together by a superficial love affair. In this clearly structured book B. and D. are presented in alternate chapters. Their separation does not particularly affect either of them. In spite of their physical intimacy B. and D., abbreviations for Bundesrepublik (West Germany) and Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East Germany), can find no meaningful mutual relationship. It is remarkable that Johnson handles a highly political subject quite unpolitically. Political realities are implied in the fortunes of the characters without polemics or propaganda. In no way does Johnson intend to present the West German nation in more favorable light than the East German. The author's own position on the dividing line where the two Germanies touch as well as diverge is appropriate to the subject of his works. (pp. 392-93)

Diether H. Haenicke, in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971.

Among the literatures of postwar Europe, German writing occupies a special and difficult position. It has had to be created virtually from nothing, because the twelve year period of Nazi rule between 1933 and 1945 constituted a hiatus; writers at home were silenced or brought into line with state policy in artistic matters, and those in exile, like Brecht and Thomas Mann, were cut off from their linguistic and cultural roots…. None of the writers who have achieved eminence since 1945 has been either able or willing to elude the necessary confrontation with the facts either of his country's crimes and of its total and crushing defeat, or of the terrible poetic justice meted out by the devastating, pillaging, and raping soldiery of the allied armies repaying eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Nor has it been possible to ignore the obscenity of the continued division of the country…. And in the international sphere, finally, the German writer has spent much of the post-war period overcoming his cultural isolation: for, after the long years of Nazi censorship, Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and above all Kafka, had to be rediscovered. If novelists like Uwe Johnson occasionally appear to have been excessively influenced by these forebears, it is quite understandable, and certainly pardonable.

All these factors—the trauma of the defeat and subsequent political division of his country, the need to recreate the literary tradition, and the problem of relating to a self-satisfied and philistine society—are present in Johnson's work, which I find aesthetically the most accomplished to have come out of Germany in recent years. He constitutes, for me, the genuine avant-garde: beside him, Böll appears ponderous, Grass flashy, and Walser arch. And yet his work to date centers on one obsessive theme (the mutual incomprehension of the two Germanies), and certainly lacks the richness and complexity of the world we associate with his rivals: … he has produced a masterpiece by concentrating rather than by diffusing his focus. The masterpiece—dominating head and shoulders his other work—is The Third Book About Achim, which is concerned with the foredoomed effort to "fix" the real, to determine its true importance and accuracy, and to solidify the past moment in all its sharp vividness. Reality is not grasped by language, but created by it: language not only delimits the world as Wittgenstein rightly perceived, it also structures it. Johnson—like Nabokov, Simon, and Borges among the other great neo-modernists—has seized upon this essential truth, and explores it with dazzling virtuosity and invention. (pp. 81-2)

[All] Johnson's works ask the same question: what is the truth, what is the reality behind the appearance? The answer invariably given is that there are many possibilities for interpretation, that there are no absolute truth-values, that enquiry must remain open-ended and ambiguous, and any report cannot help but be elliptical, cryptic, and allusive. (pp. 83-4)

John Fletcher, "The Themes of Alienation and Mutual Incomprehension in the Novels of Uwe Johnson," in International Fiction Review, July, 1974, pp. 81-7.

It is a suspect occasion when I find a book so large in its aspirations, so fresh in its attitudes, so militant in its inventions, and so unmistakable in their realization that I must call it a masterpiece, even though it is not (yet) the entire work. Here is the first half of Uwe Johnson's fourth novel [Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl]; the second will appear next year. Yet I do not hesitate to speak maximally about the book under review, any more than I would have hesitated to call the first installments of Little Dorrit or Middlemarch masterpieces when they appeared serially, as novels always used to do. For there is a unified, if not a uniform, impulse of composition here that justifies the division into parts, into successive volumes, and I believe I can speak above suspicion for the integrity of the book even though the author's ultimate intention has further designs upon me. (p. 38)

Uwe Johnson has never before been so explicit, never so committed to the toll that the actual takes upon what we take for our real lives. He is the author of three previous novels, and characters from all of them appear in Anniversaries: Apparently he believes in the cumulative evidence of his imagination. The fragmentation of narrative in all of his books, the displacement of compositional interest from what is told to the telling itself, suggest that from the start Uwe Johnson has been so possessed by his own place and his familiar people that he can give himself up to a sort of stupefaction of storytelling, an invoked ecstasy of utterance without explanation or stage direction.

None of the earlier books, despite or perhaps because of the enormities of the immediate, the perishable, the "journalistic" that Johnson wants to accommodate in them, is much fun to read: None of them focuses on an eroticized central character, which is what we mean by a "sympathetic" one. Instead, the hypertrophied devices, the obstructed "tellings" are the focus, and the novels take the shape of exacting spirals wreathed around an empty center, a cold heart. These books have been praised and given prizes—through gritted teeth, as it were: The moral poverties of East and West are not heightened by grotesque comedy, as in Günter Grass, or relieved by divertissements of suspense, as in Heinrich Böll; endurable hunger and unsatisfactory pleasure are the poles, the extremes of these fictions….

Anniversaries is the first of Johnson's books to be written with—though not about—love, to dramatize characters with whom we identify because they have an identify themselves, because they love themselves. And, of course, because they hate themselves. In an America destroying Vietnam and disabling her own cities—the year is 1967; the place is New York City, chiefly the upper West Side—the characters misgive themselves, to warp a phrase, for enjoying their own freedom.

From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl is the second part of the novel's title. We have met this appealing, "eroticized" young woman before. She is the toughminded young translator in Speculations About Jakob….

Uwe Johnson has come into possession of—has been possessed by—a world, the mythology of a town (Jerichow), and a family (the Cresspahls), which he is enabled to criticize and distance by the very circumstances of their presentation in exile, their gentile diaspora….

[Nothing] is endorsed in Anniversaries, though a great deal is identified—insight, not advocacy, is the undertaking here…. Anniversaries substantiates a claim that it is not, or not only, some universal historical process, some ideology, or some other large abstraction that embodies and enacts morality, but rather certain realizations of our own conscious lives within the rehearsed limitations of a given society—national socialism, Marxist communism, capitalist democracy. (p. 39)

One thinks of the portraits of New York by foreign writers, from Dickens to Robbe-Grillet, and nowhere in that catalog of despisals does there occur so loving and so accurate a delineation of the city as that in Anniversaries. One might expect the descriptions of German landscape, German weather, German gesture, but the surprise is the affectionate, funny, and searching scrutiny of New York. One would not look for the proper sociology of West End Avenue from such a visitor, but Johnson has a Balzac's passion for the telling detail, the revealing exactitude. He can afford to tamper with narrative, to interrupt, and even to impede our interest with random notations, because he is so sure of his facts, so convinced of his realia….

It would be comforting, as a New Yorker, to assume that my city and America herself had bestowed, somehow, upon this gifted and intricate novelist the saving graces of affection and humor that had appeared to be in default in his more strictly German books. But I cannot think that local color is rose color. Rather, I think that Uwe Johnson, at 40 and at ease with his own arsenal of means, has collected together what he had all the time wanted to say, and that he has been "released," by what Proust would call the accidental and inevitable occasion of New York, into his first mastery.

Is it a mastery of the novel, one might ask, or of journalism, as I have suggested? I think the risks Johnson takes, as he has always taken them, with the day-by-day are great risks indeed, for we sense … all the dross of a life merely lived out, which is to say eluded. Yet so momentous is the judgment passed upon that life—upon all our lives—by the form it takes, and refuses to take, that I think the journalistic mode is no more than the means by which this fiction obtains access to reality, to the expressed values of existence. So intensely are the figures imagined … that the ballast of Manhattan fact is needed to keep the book on the page, to keep the life in focus, to keep the agony from getting out of drawing. (p. 40)

Richard Howard, "City Spirals," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 22, 1975, pp. 38-40.

Clearly, Johnson is his own man, even to the extent of not worrying overmuch about national membership and he joins those other expatriate writers—Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, Jakov Lind, Cortázar—who have focused their material the better by leaving it behind or have discovered new material of more ecumenical clout. If Johnson has an abiding theme, it is deracination; and if he has a typical mental movement it is that of emigrating in the mind—as he did in West Berlin when, after reading Faulkner (banned in the East), he Yoknapatawpha-ed Speculations, entirely recasting it. Overland, or in the mind, he is a novelist of transits, borders, hinterlands, spatial simultaneities, and, above all, history lodged in the head like contraband.

Yet he is far from being a novelist of fragments, a rootless experimentalist, as Anniversaries proves at some length. He does permit himself a certain scrambling of narrative procedure—unexplained tilts from voice to voice, or from one time to another, or from I to we, even from a plural-feeling I to a singular-feeling we—but these are far from innovational, and he emerges increasingly as an orthodox novelist occasionally given to mystification and quaint chronic overlap, as if Mann's Buddenbrooks were being ghost-written by the Faulkner of, say, Requiem for a Nun….

[In] reading his dense, allusive, mighty intelligent book [Anniversaries], I felt my head much exercised but my pulses moved only by the pulsations of history. Johnson's grave plethora is that of a pensive, moral, intact man who prefers speculation to the known and is given to longwinded trance. Nothing wrong with any of that; but, as several speculative novelists have shown (among them Claude Simon and Cortázar), the multiple choices in the enigmanovel need to be at least twice as vivid, as garish even, as the established facts in the novel that gives what's-known-for-sure. It's odd that Johnson, in the mold of the chronicle-novel, has created a long work in which what happened next seems almost irrelevant to the heroine's life. She's a fine mirror, even as a distorting one, but for insistent, integrated presence she doesn't compare with the woman in Heinrich Böll's equally complex Group Portrait with Lady, which Leila Vennewitz translated with the same ingenuity and scruple.

Paul West, "Uwe Can't Go Home Again," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 6, 1975, p. 2.