A brief appreciation of Uwe Johnson

Uwe Johnson. Man. In a turn of luck for anglophone readers, the complete Jahrestage is now available in English, in a brand new translation. I have few words for how much I admire Johnson as a writer. There are no reviews of his work here (apart from these letters) because I find it difficult to explain exactly why I admire his work so much and how exactly it’s made. The book I make people read to explain my admiration isn’t, by the way, Jahrestage. It’s Mutmassungen über Jakob, his debut novel.

Mutmassungen has been recently published in a scholarly edition that I of course own though I haven’t read it yet. Mutmaßungen is a book about East and West Germany, about heritage, about family, about the epistemological limits in dictatorships. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the best German-language novels of its time, and yet and still it is far from Johnson’s best novel, which mainly speaks to Johnson’s unbelievable skill. And while you can describe the book in this language that describes what this book is about, for me, the real kicker is the writing. I just took the book from my shelf and started reading.

It starts with a simple declarative sentence – with an implied question. “Aber Jakob ist immer quer über die Gleise gegangen.” – ‘But Jakob always crossed the rail tracks.’ The language is simple and unmarked. The next three sentences are pieces from a dialogue, first restating then interrogating that initial statement. They are written in colloquial language – but halt! It is not merely colloquial. The syntax is glittery, moving with uncommon elegance, managing the colloquial and the tentative dialect with a powerful sense of stylistic sureness and exactitude. Johnson’s use of colloquialisms, his absolute dedictation to the way language and places intersect, interact and identify each other is almost Faulknerian – as is Johnson’s sheer linguistic prowess.

Next Johnson includes a description of someone crossing the rail tracks at night. Is it maybe Jakob? “…war vielleicht Jakob zu erkennen.” This small phrase in the middle of a description that’s otherwise precise and clear as early morning air in Mid-winter, undermines what we know that we CAN know here. It introduces us to the fundamental sense of insecurity over what we can know. In the next paragraphs we return to the dialoge – between who, we don’t (yet?) know.

And then we have a small passage in cursive, the interior voice of Gesine Cresspahl, who is also the protagonist of Jahrestage, reflecting on her father and, following that, a straightforward paragraph about her father, Heinrich Cresspahl. While the beginning of the novel, with its dialogue, its questions, its insecurities about what we can know or say – is most characteristic of what kind of novel Mutmaßungen is, it is those two paragraphs, the half-sentence in cursive, and the half-page introduction to Heinrich Cresspahl that give us Johnson most fully.

In them, Johnson uses a style that is both traditional and old-fashioned, as well as modernist and clever. Johnson is fond of inversions and slightly outdated, even archaic words and constructions. “…er entbehrte seine Tochter” isn’t quite right for the time. There’s a sense of mild stiltedness to much of this – but it’s never accidental. Johnson, a young man, just graduated, his teacher the underrated Ernst Bloch, has, from the first book, an uncanny sense of style. The stiltedness and occasional archaic turn contrast with Johnson’s skill at making syntax glide, of moving in between places and topics with a well placed comma and an unexpected inversion.

And then, man, then we’re off to the races. what I described, these first two and a half pages of the novel, they tell you what’s to come – fragments, a mystery, and a unique stylistic voice. I have never really reviewed Johnson (I once submitted/gave a conference paper just for the opportunity to write SOMEthing about Johnson), on this blog or elsewhere and that’s because I find it so hard to explain how unique and enormous this writer is, was.

Everything in Johnson’s work follows from this book. Stylistically, thematically, morally. There’s a beating moral heart to this book that finds its conclusion in the towering achievement of Jahrestage, but we meet it for the first time here. Writing, speaking, understanding, these are moral endeavors, these are things asked of us as writers and artists – and Johnson always persevered.

Johnson wrote with obsessive attention to detail, he typed and revised his letters, he didn’t try ti drown out other voices, even in the strange moral missteps such as the paranoid-but-brilliant Skizze eines Verunglückten, he’s still present and what’s present until the last page is his unique style and voice. Even in the sloppier third installment of Jahrestage, it never entirely abandons him. He’s always Uwe Johnson, to the last.

And if I want to remember why I can’t write about him, I just open Mutmassungen über Jakob to the first page, read the first pages until I am speechless, breathless and moved. Uwe Johnson. He’s the real deal. One of the titans of literature, even if other, vastly worse writers in the German language have garnered more praise and attention. It’s good that Jahrestage get all this attention now. They deserve it.