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.

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Mur Lafferty: Six Wakes

Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
ISBN 978-0-316-38968-6

I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.

It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.

And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.

The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.

Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.

And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.

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Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.

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When you start reading a book

in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.

(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)

Mawil: Kinderland

Mawil (2014), Kinderland, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3943-143904

The Western discourse on Socialist literature has always been ideological in the sense that we as readers expected something from the literature coming out of the Soviet bloc, and imbued that with literary value. This has at times led to the promotion of mediocre but very critical writers. Wolf Biermann is one of them, and the charade that the continued literary life of Monika Maron is should be filed in the same category. Sometimes, the way these expectations are dealt with is entertaining: I can highly recommend reading Heiner Müller interviews from his middle period of work – he is constantly, as a writer known to be at odds with the leaders of the GDR cultural establishment, prodded to please say something critical, and instead he goes on and on about the problems with capitalism, savagely critical of leftwing “symbolic” criticism and endorsing violent change. Another example is Rummelplatz, a novel that was not allowed to be published in the GDR, and the rejection of which had sent its writer, Werner Bräunig, into an early grave. The rejected manuscript is literally a museum piece now: in the German History Museum in Bonn, it is presented among other articles of “proof” of socialist repression. As I point out in my review on the blog, Rummelplatz is an odd candidate for such a hallowed spot in the museum of Why Socialism Is Evil: Bräunig’s novel explicitly and at length points to the many acts of exploitation that happened in West Germany and how East Germany had risen from a couple of potato fields to an industrial nation, against the threat of Western sabotage. It’s critical of some mechanisms of the GDR without endorsing the alternative. Like many writers of his time, like Müller or Wolf, Bräunig favored a change in the system, rather than a change of system. These books, half in and half out of discourses on socialism, are in my opinion the most interesting of the bunch. But it is a careful balancing act that isn’t so easy to pull off. Mawil’s thick brick of a graphic novel, Kinderland (named, I think, after this 1986 song), doesn’t quite manage this. That said, it’s certainly a more worthwhile addition to the body of literature about the GDR than many widely praised fictional statements on Why Socialism Is Evil.

Kinderland slips in and out of discourses. It is a story of life in the last years of a country heading towards dissolution. There are different books in it: a paint-by-numbers book about socialism as fighting dissent and being in favor of conformity, a book about growing up in the GDR, a book about isolation and growing up abandoned, a book, strangely, about alcoholism, and finally, an exciting tale of a boy who discovers his table tennis talents and mounts a school-wide table tennis tournament. Not all of these books fit extremely well together, and when I read it for the first time, I felt let down and disappointed. But upon rereading the book a few times, I have found it to be quite interesting. The combination of disparate elements works in its favor – life at the tail end of the GDR was confusing and complicated, as I, who started elementary school in the GDR and ended it in a united Germany, can personally attest. The book’s greatest strength is its careful attention to details. The slang, words, objects, the rhythm of life under the socialist regime are written with the vividness of memory, and I think it is the exactness of the book that leads to some of its complications and problems. I cannot vouch for most of it – but there’s a curious echo in my reader’s memory here. As a boy I read many of the books in my father’s library. And since my father lost his reading appetite when he became an adult, those books were largely young adult books, some of them exciting tales about being a teenager in the GDR. In my head, when I read Kinderland, the details I knew about through family stories, the details I personally observed, and the details I remembered from YA books written for GDR youth come together to create a feeling of verisimilitude. And one wonders how much of the plot and structure of Mawil’s book can be tied to his own reading, and his own indirect knowledge.

Mawil’s art is the real deal – he manages to slow down and speed up his story at will, provide a genuinely exciting table tennis game even for people who have never played or followed a single complete game of table tennis. As an artist he is not necessarily what I would call an original artist – most of his techniques can be attributed to examples from Belgian comics to Chris Ware and in particular Seth, though it’s the latter association that makes me think the art’s roots are a bit deeper, like Seth’s own are. But if you have read Seth, and Ware, and maybe Rube Goldberg, you’re not surprised by anything the book does – but it is entertaining. Mawil has full control of moods, speed, and humor in a way that I always greatly enjoy in comic books. He also uses the art to tease the reader with possibilities. The story, ultimately, is a low key story, which ends in a low key way, with two boys trying to seal a friendship. But it is presented to us immediately under two different auspices: the cover, with a sea of pioneer-blouse wearing kids and one dissenter in their midst, suggests that the story is about political dissent. The first page on the other hand presents a number of toys and childhood objects that anyone who grew up in the GDR can readily identify – there’s no other function of these panels than to signal to the reader a sense of nostalgia – or ostalgia, as it is often called. Neither impression is true for the direction the novel will take. All the working class misery, all the many, many characters who are clearly alcoholics (alcoholism was specifically a scourge of the GDR), that precludes a safe nostalgic reading. Similarly, a character in the book, a conformist girl called “Angela Werkel” is clearly an allusion to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It’s not true – in the sense that Mawil, as a boy, did not meet Merkel who was much older at the time of the events described. But the inclusion of someone who did well under socialism, and did very well after socialism, who is shown to be intensely conformist, but also kind-hearted, is a suggestion that what really counted was not the content of one’s party allegiance but the content of one’s heart, bland as that may sound.

The main character, called Mirco Watzke (Mawil’s real name is Markus Witzel), is also one of the least interesting ones. His childish excitement, anger, frustration and happiness is well rendered, but is drowned in all the typical generic discourses on childhood which Mawil makes no attempt to break or criticize. The really fascinating character is a boy named Thorsten. He is the boy on the cover who does not wear the uniform (Mirko Watzke is the boy to his right). He’s not ideologically opposed to the GDR, he’s just a misfit. His father has left the family to pursue worldly riches in West Germany, which has turned his mother into an alcoholic. He basically lives alone, and his abrasive character means he has difficulties making friends. It is hard not to see the disillusioned, broken teenagers in Clemens Meyer’s novels about the period after reunification (very well translated by Katy Derbyshire) in Thorsten’s future. In fact, one could argue that the whole book takes on Thorsten’s shape. The contradictions in his character and the contradictions in this wild ride of a novel seem to fit. The biggest weakness of the book is Mawil’s apparent decision not to jettision his autobiographically inspired protagonist. The genre of coming of age book, where the protagonist plays straight man, and mostly narrator and observer to a wild friend or acquaintance, would have been a better fit for the material in this book. But then one has to wonder about the politics of writing this book. In a world where a novel of not-quite-dissident writing gets a spot in a museum, where the memory of the not-so-distant past is intensely politicised, Mawil’s stops and starts.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)