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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The Enzensberger/Johnson Correspondence

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus; Uwe Johnson (2009), “fuer Zwecke der brutalen Verständigung” Der Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42100-0

DSC_1543In Das Treffen in Telgte, his tribute to the literary circle Gruppe 47, Günter Grass celebrates that group and its leader, Hans Werner Richter, in depicting a meeting of writers and critics from all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is a meeting of writers that in his book becomes a virtual meeting of Baroque poets from different points within that period, writers who never actually met. This transcending of time and place is a fitting tribute to a group that was able to contain very different kinds of writers and thinkers, and that let conflicts run its course rather than try to excise them. One of the youngsters at these meetings was Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of the leading poets of his time, who published his first collection of poetry, verteidigung der wölfe in 1957, to strong acclaim, a collection which has since remained part of the post-war canon, and its writer among the leading public voices of German literature. Another was Uwe Johnson, who published his debut novel, the staggeringly amazing Mutmaßungen über Jakob (translated into English as Speculations about Jakob), which still stands as one of the best German novels written after WWII, in 1959.

That same year (incidentally also the year that Grass published The Tin Drum), these two writers encountered each other for the first time at a meeting of the Gruppe 47, where Enzensberger read a poem (“Schaum”) from a manuscript that would eventually become his second collection, landessprache (1960), and Johnson attacked the poem, with the full force of an education received in the GDR, and the conviction that criticism that doesn’t lead to change or indicate where change might be, is empty and useless. This ensued in a lengthy discussion, that was vigorously led, but in a friendly way, and it left both writers with fond memories of each other. So when, out of the blue, December 3rd, 1959, Johnson wrote Enzensberger to acquire a copy of a high-profile article the latter had written, Enzensberger replied in amiable terms.

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My meagre collection of 60s and 70s Kursbuch editions.

Thus the correspondence between Uwe Johnson and Hans Magnus Enzensberger begins. It ends, with the exception of a couple of tossed-off notes, in June 1968, less than 9 years later. In between, the two share one of the most fascinating dialogues I have ever had the privilege to listen in on. It has been published this year under the editorship of Henning Marmulla and Claus Kröger as “fuer Zwecke der brutalen Verständigung” Der Briefwechsel and must surely be one of the best and most worthwhile books published in 2009. It is mainly marked by their differences in outlook, although they are very similar, in so many ways. Both young writers, just starting to make a name for themselves, both, politically, leaning towards the left, both with a highly distinctive style as far as their writing is concerned. In this light, it’s all the more surprising that it is their differences that dominated their acquaintance and their friendship, and its these differences that have led to their falling out. The basic nature of their difference can be found as early as that fateful meeting of the Gruppe 47, when Johnson took Enzensberger to task for not being more obliging, direct, useful, in his criticism. Throughout the next nine years this kind of criticism will return time and again, although its appearance varies.

Johnson acts as a voice of reason sometimes, drawing attention to the effect that his friend’s speeches or essays may have or, more to the point: not have. As a writer, Johnson is always highly aware of himself, of roles enacted in societies, of how norms and pressures work. Fear is a very important part of his work or rather: anxiety. And in these letters we see a mind at work that has learned to deal with his fears and anxieties, that has become careful and measured, and in his comments to Enzensberger, at least not until their big falling-out in 1967/8, he doesn’t reprimand his friend or lecture him, he offers suggestions, alerts him to possible misreadings that may not benefit Enzensberger’s goal, a goal that Johnson doesn’t necessarily share (and Johnson is himself much less of a political and public writer), but one that he understands and he keeps pointing out how Enzensberger fails to comply with his own aims. This kind of thinking, of talking, it manifests itself in a style of writing that seems to have been taken from one of his books, it’s so complex, and so full of his strange and idiosyncratic music.

DSC_1542As Eberhard Fahlke, editor of Johnson’s correspondence with Max Frisch, pointed out, Johnson writes his letters carefully and understands them as an autonomous literary genre. He’s afraid to embarrass himself, so he drapes his writing, and the carefully woven net of his thinking over the letters, making each of them, however irrelevant the subject, a small literary gem. In contrast, while often interesting, the only artifice that Enzensberger’s letters display, is his obsession with writing everything in small type. In German nouns are usually capitalized, not so with Enzensberger, who, throughout his work, has often insisted on not doing that. The writing itself is usually readable, but never as taut as Johnson’s. This superficial mark by which Enzensberger’s letters distinguish themselves, is in line with his political and literary thinking which, while passionate, is too often occupied by paraphernalia. The political gesture, standing the right way, being perceived in the right way seems to carry more weight than saying or writing things that work, that have an actual effect. And Enzensberger quickly acquires such a clout that mere words, such as Johnson might offer in criticism, cannot sway him from his course. Enzensberger, in these letters, is righteous, he is an actor, and as such not a perfect fit for someone like Johnson, who appears to be immensely earnest.

But to focus on these differences is to overstate the weight and importance that these issues have in the short-lived correspondence of these two powerful writers. Unlike the above-mentioned Frisch/Johnson exchange of letters, which mainly focuses on questions of editing and textual criticism, Enzensberger and Johnson, at least in the first few years of their friendship, talk shop about organizing magazines and journals. Driven by the seemingly inexhaustible energy of Günter Grass, quite a few magazines are proposed, discussed and, finally, discarded. In these letters we learn about how power was distributed in the European publishing scene or at least in a part of it. We learn how these writers, prize-winning, bestselling writers at that, bargain with money, time and texts, how publishers scheme against each other and how everyone denies responsibility, passes on the buck, until everything collapses or threatens to collapse. Grass is the silent but recurring presence in all this, rallying his colleagues for ever new journalistic projects and trying to organize them to support the Social Democratic Party.

This area, i.e. editing, organizing and publishing, turns out to be Enzensberger’s strong suit. Whereas, at the beginning, Johnson was the more active of the two, who had to coax Enzensberger into doing organizational work, as the years go by, Enzensberger grows into this role as editor. When he has to close down a huge international project with French, Italian and German contributions it is, paradoxically, this decision that appears to energize him, galvanize him into action. Soon, more projects come up, and now Enzensberger is always part of the inner circle of each of them, until, in 1965, he finally succeeds, and creates the Kursbuch, a literary and political quarterly, that was to become one of the most important publications in Germany after the war. The Kursbuch unites all of Enzensberger’s areas of interest, in it book critics, philosophers, poets and prose writers found a place to voice their misgivings with the course the country was taking.

Two or three pieces of Johnson’s found their way into this publication, as well, but at that point, at the height of their friendship, where the longest and most open and eloquent letters are exchanged, the shadow of what will mean an end to that exchange, is already visible. In 1966 Johnson and his family moved to New York where they stayed for over a year, during which time Johnson’s two Berlin apartments remained empty. Trusting his friend Enzensberger, he allowed his brother, Ulrich Enzensberger, to move into one of them, and Hans Magnus’ former wife, Dagrun, to move into the other. These were turbulent years in the development of the young republic, with strong and violent conflicts between angry and impassioned students and the state which, at the time, was full of former Nazis and repressive, in many ways. Dagrun and Ulrich took part in these upheavals, the center of which was Berlin, the former and future capital of Germany, divided and surrounded by the GDR. Their engagement, so at odds with Enzensberger’s kind of thinking, led to their becoming part of a commune, and opened the doors of Johnson’s apartments to the famous Kommune I, home to a few of the most well known faces in the left wing movement of the time.

When Johnson learned that his apartment had been thus misused he was angry, not because of the commune per se, but because no one had asked him, no one had told him, and because Ulrich and Dagrun’s transgressions and behavior imperiled his apartment. The anxiety in Johnson’s life and his work made it impossible for him to forgive such a heavy breach of trust, all the more because Enzensberger evaded all responsibility and kept shifting blame on his ex-wife, his brother and even Johnson himself. In what can, at best, be described as an aloof manner, he is unfazed by Johnson’s increasingly furious and disappointed tone, and keeps trying to wash his hands of the whole matter. This conflict is exacerbated by Johnson’s obsession with doing things the right way, cleanly, transparently, in order. Increasingly, what started out as a means to deal with personal fears, and what helped him to create his complex, difficult and artful style, turns into a liability for him. In later years he will make life impossible for both his wife and his daughter and cut both from his testament. He will be so plagued by his obsessions, his increasingly paranoiac suspicions towards friends and family, in short, he will feel so driven into a corner that, when he died alone, bloated from drinking and smoking, his body will not be found for almost a month since no-one, for weeks, came looking for him, no-one cared enough.

DSC_1541This darkness, however, isn’t part of these letters, which end when the Johnson family returns and cleans up the chaos left behind by Enzensberger’s relatives.  The bitterness that seeps from these last letters and notes is sad since the bulk of the correspondence is inspiring and full of interesting information. A formative decade in literary Germany unfolds in front of our eyes, and the spectacular editing skills of Henning Marmulla and Claus Kröger, two literary scholars who wrote a commentary section that is longer than the exchange itself, have a lot to do with this. It cannot be praised highly enough what the two editors achieved here. Their letter-by-letter commentary contains extracts from speeches, poems, it contains dates, names, information and it is, above all, readable. You can go through it before or after the letters and just read it front to back. The writing is always accessible, never just matter-of-fact. Whatever your background, however well you’re read, you will learn something from this wealth of knowledge that Kröger and Marmulla have dragged up here.

As a whole the book manages to be several things at once. The letters are a great, even suspenseful read, as they chart the beginning and the end of a friendship, they depict two writers at the height of their powers, with their ideas, preoccupations and insights, and, through them, shed new light on a whole period, on debates within the literary world. It stresses a feeling of community, a shared sense of necessity, of belonging. The optimism, the idealism that Grass stressed in his Treffen in Telgte, it shines through these letters, despite (and even because of) the conflicts.

There are many more small gems that cannot all be mentioned here, like Enzensberger’s views of Johnson’s books and texts, which are invariable interesting; the half that contains the letters is short for a letter exchange, especially one that Johnson once joked would extend over two thick volumes, but this also means there is little drag here, as a reader you want to read on, to see how all this works out, and as for the second half, the one that contains the commentary, it is just as readable, but the informative aspect gains more traction here. If you are interested in the period at all, this is a book you shouldn’t miss. Johnson’s letters alone are worth the price of admission, and, unlike his longer exchanges with Unseld or Frisch, they follow, almost, a narrative here. This is, I think, what distinguishes this correspondence from many others: it reads like a well written, well constructed epistolary novel. What more could you want?

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