“Das war es denn wohl. That takes care of that.” An overstuffed masterwork of late European modernism by German writer Johnson (1934-1984).
Hailed by Günter Grass as the most significant East German writer, Johnson left his homeland in 1959, dying at the age of 49 in England. From 1966 to 1968, though, he lived in New York, where he wrote the tetralogy called Jahrestage. Likened to Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s really a kind of Joseph Cornell box in words, a vast montage stretching from August 1967 to August 1968. The narrator, Gesine Cresspahl, lives in self-exile on the Upper West Side, working as a translator, trying to raise a daughter, Marie, by herself. Gesine is too young to have been complicit in the crimes of the Third Reich, but she saw them unfold, enabled by those who stood by, some of whose uniforms have merely changed colors in the years since the war ended even as other things have remained the same. The Levy’s Jewish rye ads on the New York subway, for instance, bear ominous signs of old: “There tend to be swastikas drawn on these posters,” remarks Gesine after reflecting on both a moment of wartime history and the opening of baseball season. “It’s true that they aren’t drawn correctly…but tonight I saw one more of them than I did this morning.” Past feeds into present and flows backward as Gesine travels in time and space to places like New Orleans and San Francisco in a time of torment. She sighs, “This summer is over, it’s now our future past, that’s what we can expect from life.” Her diary—which is to say, Johnson’s 2,000-page novel—touches on Vietnam, World War II, postwar Eastern Europe, the inhumane conditions of that New York subway system and the humanity of its riders ("Marie was always given a greater amount of breathing room than she needed”), the triumph of despair, and countless other topics.
A rich book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, from a writer too little known today.