August 20 marks a major day in New York’s literary history—though New Yorkers don’t know it yet. The great New York novel, an incomparably rich and vivid and multicultural account of the life of the city, turns out to have been written by a German. Its title, Jahrestage, means both “anniversaries” and, literally, “days of the year”—for it spans precisely the days of one year, a chapter each day from August 20, 1967, a Sunday like today, to August 20, 1968 (a Tuesday, unlike in 2018, because 1968 was a leap year). Today marks the beginning of the Golden Jubilee of the deepest exploration I’ve ever read of how the past lives on in the present: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries.
One of the finest German novels of the 20th century is set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Gesine Cresspahl, a character from Johnson’s earlier novels, works as a translator for a bank and lives at 243 Riverside Drive with her 10-year-old daughter, Marie, whose father died before Marie was born. Anniversaries is, in part, a chronicle of a European immigrant family’s day-to-day life. There are new discoveries to make and new worlds to navigate: pediatricians and schools that speak a not-quite-familiar language; subway and skylines to be compared to the ones from the old country; family traditions that can only emerge in an adopted home, like weekly rides on the Staten Island Ferry. This story is counterpointed with the anniversaries of events from Gesine’s past and her family’s past. Gesine tells Marie about some, records others on tape for when Marie is old enough to hear them. Gesine, 34 years old, was born in 1933 as Hitler took power in Germany.
Gesine’s account of small-town life in (fictional) Jerichow, northeastern Germany, from the 1930s through the 1950s is a masterful novel in its own right, one we hear Gesine telling and watch Marie hearing as she slowly gains the maturity to question and even revise her mother’s story. It is one of the richest, densest, truest accounts ever written of the rise of Nazi Germany as experienced on the ground. Packed with brilliantly fleshed-out characters from every walk of life, from thuggish mayor to butcher overheard in the wrong place at the wrong time and beaten into brain damage at an early concentration camp, to the countless little acts of resistance, both by those who know it is not enough and those who hope it might be, this tranche of the novel is realism at its best: a re-created world and complete understanding of everyone in it, without any loss of moral perspective. I used to think that the ’60s layer of the book was the relevant one today; in recent months, it’s been hard not to think that the ’30s one may be even more so.
The third layer of the book is drawn from the New York Times. Gesine consumes news media as obsessively as most of us do today, and is a dedicated, acerbic, reader of the paper. The “Gray Lady” is personified in the book as a character of her own: a moralistic auntie, brassy but experienced. Articles from the Times are quoted and paraphrased throughout—on Vietnam, the Prague Spring, the RFK and MLK assassinations, city life, the weather—marking each day and giving the book a topical breadth to match its historical depth.
It is quite a shock to page through the Times from fifty years ago, as I did in translating (untranslating, retranslating) the articles back from Johnson’s playful, selective, ironic German. A sensory, physical shock: how thin our newspapers have gotten. Back then, with its TV listings and pages of stock-market numbers and endless full-double-page department store ads with line drawings of slips and skirts, it was a hefty bundle, a superpower monoculture’s paper of record. It was also a historical shock: how contemporary the news felt. “Governor Romney Criticizes President in Iowa,” read one headline, about Mitt’s dad George, governor of Michigan. “Romney Asserts Administration Is Misleading Public About War” (Vietnam not Iraq). House Committee Hearings: Necessary Process Or Empty Ritual? There are riots and police shootings, referred to as “racial disorders” instead of unrest, and involving “Negroes” instead of African-Americans. Right-wing terrorists stockpile an arsenal of guns in the Bronx. John Sidney McCain III is shot down over Hanoi and captured.
The juxtaposition of American history in the making with the history of Nazi Germany is one of Johnson’s main projects. Fifty years later, tracing these parallels and resonances has become an all-consuming project for many American pundits and their readers, but Anniversaries remains remarkably subtle and persuasive. “Yesterday,” runs a famous passage in the chapter for Tuesday, November 28, 1967, quoting and paraphrasing the Times:
a representative of the Dow Chemical Company defended to an audience of students in Washington Heights the manufacture of napalm and act of supplying it to the U.S. government. To begin with, the spokesman, Dean Wakefield, does not consider the war in Vietnam to be, “on the whole,” as a moral problem. Dow Chemical, he said, was merely fulfilling its responsibility to the national commitment of a democratic society (in Vietnam). Anyway, the chemical agent is so simple to produce that the Army could make it itself. (The New York Times explains what napalm is.) When asked his views about the Krupp family, who had made munitions for Nazi Germany, Wakefield called them “bad people.” To the question of where he gets the moral standards by which he can pass moral judgments on businesses, Mr. Wakefield replied: From history. “From history.”
We have long since stopped buying household products made by Dow Chemical Company. But are we supposed to stop riding the railroad since it profits from the transportation of war materiel? Are we supposed to stop flying on airlines that take combat troops to Vietnam? Are we supposed to not buy a single thing because that generates a tax, and we don’t know what that tax money will eventually be used for? Where is the moral Switzerland we can emigrate to?
Through it all, the Cresspahls move toward their own open-ended futures. For all the book’s scope, its encyclopedic treatment of history and memory, at its warm heart are a mother and daughter.
Uwe Johnson lived in New York with his wife and daughter from 1966 to 1968, in the Riverside Drive apartment he would make Gesine’s. On Tuesday, April 18, 1967, at 5:30 PM, as he later recounted the story, he saw this fictional character from his earlier books walking on the south side of 42nd Street, from 5th to 6th Avenue, alongside Bryant Park; he asked her what she was doing in New York and eventually convinced her to let him use her for his next novel. Johnson appears as a character in Anniversaries: giving a lecture to a Jewish organization in New York; having conversations, even conflicts, with Gesine, who has given him permission to tell a year of her life but not without certain conditions. The novel as a whole, recreating nonfictional New York as lovingly as it does its fictional Jerichow, is an incomparable love letter from one language and culture to another.
It is also two thousand pages long: 367 chapters for 367 days, including two August 20s and that Leap Day. A chapter might open with a Times report on the traffic and weather, then shift to the weather in Riverside Park out the Cresspahls’ window, then to the playground there where Gesine and Marie made their first friends in America. I grew up three blocks away from Gesine and Marie’s apartment, a decade later—that playground was mine, and he gets it right. The mother of Marie’s first friend is—of course, this is Upper West Side New York in the ’60s—a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so the chapter shows-not-tells us Gesine’s guilt about that, then finally moves to Marie running errands for her friend’s Orthodox family on the Sabbath. Four or five short pages, another jigsaw piece of the Cresspahls’ life and its anniversaries, and then on to the next chapter, maybe about 1931.
On this day, August 20, in 1967, Gesine is finishing her summer vacation on the Jersey shore. “Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their very greenest.” (This is the book’s first sentence. Every four-month section of the novel opens with water.) Gesine remembers her youth on the Baltic coast. “Shooting has resumed on the Israeli-Jordanian front. In New Haven, citizens of African descent are said to be breaking shop windows, throwing Molotov cocktails.” August 20, 1968, the day the tanks rolled in and crushed the Prague Spring, is still to come. Gesine has not lived it, and Johnson started writing the book in late 1967 before he knew what would happen, and I’m not done with the translation.
On this day in 2017, I find myself needing a novel about the continuing legacy of Nazism and our unfinished struggles for racial justice and civil rights, and about trying to make it in New York—a novel with the deepest imaginable commitment to facts and reality, “a singular monument to justice,” in the words of the writer Fridolin Schley.1 Those in power continue to judge figures from the past as “bad people,” using standards “from history” that they think they’re exempt from. We have known for years that even Switzerland is no moral Switzerland. There is no escape from, no emigration out of the reach of the past. Anniversaries, the least “post-truth” book ever written, is about how to live in this history-soaked world.
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