Uwe Johnson Johnson, Uwe (Vol. 15) - Essay

Erhard Friedrichsmeyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A major reason for the positive reception of Mutmassungen über Jakob] is Johnson's success in the creation of characters….

Most obscure, yet most alluring is Jakob, the novel's hero. As the title suggests, the speculations are about him. The state agent Rohlfs, Jakob's "adopted" sister Gesine, Jonas,… the narrator, and the reader conjecture about Jakob. But not only with regard to the hero and the other figures in the novel is there uncertainty. The plot itself is clear only in its barest outlines; even they seem capable of being misread. (p. 215)

We learn about … occurrences through the people around Jakob and through the narrator, who, far from omniscient, takes part in their speculations. Although the more remote past is touched upon, their questions concern primarily the last few weeks in Jakob's life and focus on his ideological orientation. What was his relationship with Rohlfs? What accounts for Gesine's safe conduct to the West? None of these questions is unequivocally answered for us. The nexuses in the plot remain obscure. We, as all participants in conjecture, know only part of the facts.

Yet, the quest for Jakob is by no means a gratuitous chase. If we direct our attention to its presuppositions, we gain a perspective for reading the novel that lends meaning to the search. Those who surmise about Jakob—the reader joins in empathetically—see him primarily in terms of a single crucial factor in their existence…. Since Jakob was not a stranger to them, but a part of their lives, since they liked and respected or even loved him, their search is not for facts, but for an image. Here is a man whose enigmatic death alone—which may have been suicide—makes it impossible to file him away like a settled account. As we shall see, they understand him as a man who lived his life more independently than they can. He is in death a man able to furnish them with an image of hope in a world that imposes catastrophic restrictions upon the individual. His accident triggers their search. If it was suicide, it no doubt was an escape from the state, a Pyrrhic victory for Jakob. But it would have been a triumph of courage as well. The enigma of Jakob's death, then, the aggrandizement of his personality it makes possible, is fertile soil for the creation of an image. Moreover, the very process of reconstructing the figure of Jakob enlarges his dimensions by necessity. The real man is inevitably and thoroughly altered by affection and memory. The process of transfiguration by memory is involuntary, though it may have been prompted by a wish. (pp. 217-18)

Jakob as a man remembered must therefore be larger than he was in life. Bearing in mind the time and place of the questions asked, we can readily understand that Jakob will emerge as a wish image. To those around him the Jakob remembered will be a man who successfully coped with the forces by which they are frustrated and diminished. The import of the quest for Jakob does not lie in what we know about him, but rather in what we believe him to have been. (p. 218)

The title of the book itself intimates the ambivalence of our search. Primarily, to be sure, the term "Mutmassungen" [speculations] connotes uncertainty. But in light of the emergent image of Jakob it reveals more positive vestiges of meaning. It reverts to a significance all but lost today. Applied to Jakob it denotes a measurement of value, as the constituents of the compound suggest. (p. 219)...

(The entire section is 1442 words.)

Ira Kuhn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robbe-Grillet and Johnson share the same literary heritage. The "crise du réel" that is common to the novels of Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, and Beckett is also at the center of their works. Absolute, unquestionable values and certainties no longer exist. Everything is subject to doubt. The rational, stable bourgeois world of Balzac has crumbled…. Robbe-Grillet discusses the author's position in this world of changing realities and explains at length his theories on the role of the new novel in a series of essays assembled in Pour un Nouveau Roman. Uwe Johnson states his views on literature in a short essay entitled, "Berlin, Border of the Divided World." He shows the difficulties that he encounters in conveying to the reader the truth and complexity of a simple, observable incident: a man getting off a train that has just crossed the border dividing the Eastern and Western sections of Berlin. In addition, interviews and above all their own works are ample proof that both writers are aware of the opaqueness and complexity of our world and yet are equally dedicated to giving expression to it. (pp. 185-86)

[The] search for truth and reality and their concern not to betray it create some basic affinities between these authors.

Some of these similarities emerge in a comparison of their views regarding the author's position in a text. The absence of the omniscient author eliminates psychological analysis of characters or any other kind of interpretations or conclusions regarding the story itself…. The observable phenomena appear to be the only things that one can rely on in one's quest for truth…. The works of both writers abound in factual information and detailed descriptions. (p. 186)

However, the present function of descriptions differs radically from the one it had in previous realistic or naturalistic texts. In the light of the uncertainty of modern reality, descriptions can no longer serve to reveal or express an already existing reality or an established, unquestionable truth. Their present function is to create reality, this unknown that both novelists are in search of….

Johnson insists in his theoretical essay that the author ought to admit "that he invents what he tells"…. He himself follows his own advice literally in two of his novels. In The Third Book about Achim he lets the author make it clear that all is invented. And at the end of Two Views the narrator assures one of the main characters of the novel, "it is made up" when she insists that in telling her story, he invents it.

The reader finds himself in a position very similar to that of the author. He no longer is in the passive role of an observer, but is actively involved in the creation of the text….

Quite rightly the novels of Robbe-Grillet as well as those of Johnson have been compared to puzzles and detective stories…. However, unlike the traditional puzzle or detective story no answers or solutions are given in their works. The open ending is characteristic and a logical conclusion of the modern novel. Even the most detailed material evidence leads only to suppositions and hypotheses about reality. (p. 187)

The doubts that prompted the modern quest for reality also make its success virtually an impossibility. Not only truth and reality, but also the very elements that constitute and create it are subjected to doubt [according to Robbe-Grillet]. (p. 188)

"Berlin, Border of the Divided World" is in itself an illustration of this [principle]…. Uwe Johnson sets out to describe in a Berlin Interurban Station, "A man, one among many, [who] steps out of a train that has just pulled in, crosses the platform, heads toward the street exit"…. But instead of carrying out this simple Balzacian exercise he demonstrates the complexity and uncertainty of truth-finding. Everything from the kinds of phenomena observed, to the choice of information to be considered and the language to be used in describing and ordering them is constantly subjected to doubt by the existence of alternate points of view…. [Facts] alone do not suffice. The writer is warned by Johnson not to run the danger of "presenting the merely factual as reality"…. For truth is to be sought in the juxtaposition of two ways of truth-finding. Refering to the story in "Berlin, Border of the Divided World", Johnson states:

So long as a literary text of this kind is concerned with truth, its subject must be checked against two contradictory tendencies of...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)

Roderick H. Watt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Johnson's use of documentary material and style fulfils an important function in the structural organization of [Das dritte Buch über Achim and] a correct understanding of this leads to a deeper enjoyment and better appreciation of the controlling aesthetic, the unifying formal principle of the whole work. (p. 240)

[In this novel] a fictional narrator from the Federal German Republic tries to describe the difficulties encountered in the German Democratic Republic by a fellow-countryman, Karsch, in his attempt to write the official biography of Achim, a current sporting hero and member of parliament in the GDR. Both the narrator, as we see in the first three pages of the book, and Karsch have...

(The entire section is 1453 words.)

Page R. Laws

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For Uwe Johnson, all of life is intensely political, so he chooses to place his fictional characters in the kind of moral dilemmas created by real political events. No Johnson character succeeds in living a truly private life, untouched by public concerns….

[Anniversaries] is a continuation of [his] prior themes—East vs. West, socialism vs. democracy, but in a new cadre that should finally win Johnson a larger American audience. This time he writes about a woman's choice to live in America, and in the very worst of political times.

Anniversaries is the story of a young German woman, Gesine Cresspahl (the same Gesine as in [Johnson's earlier novel]...

(The entire section is 468 words.)