NYRB Presents: Anniversaries, by Uwe Johnson
October 16, 2018, 7:00 PM
"This book is truly a masterpiece. . . . It is a record, and an enduring one for our whole post-Hitler era. You have actually made this past tangible and—perhaps a much harder task—you have made it convincing. Now I know how it was and is over there—know it down to the tips of my toes. . . .
This seems to be the only appropriate way to speak and think: about great-grandmother and grandmother and mother and child, in the interplay of generations and across two continents."
—Hannah Arendt, February 7, 1972, Letter to Uwe Johnson
Late in 1967, Uwe Johnson set out to write a book that would take the unusual form of a chapter for every day of the ongoing year. It would be the tale of Gesine Cresspahl, a thirty-four-year-old single mother who is a German émigré to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and of her ten-year-old daughter, Marie—a story of work and school, of friends and lovers and the countless small encounters with neighbors and strangers that make up big-city life. An everyday tale, but also a tale of the events of the day, as gleaned by Gesine from The New York Times: Johnson could hardly foresee the convulsions of 1968, but some of the news—the racial unrest roiling America, the escalating war in Vietnam—was sure to be news for some time yet to come. Finally, it would be a tale told by Gesine to Marie about Gesine’s childhood in a small north German town, of her independent and enterprising father, of her troubled mother, of Nazi Germany (Gesine was born the year Hitler came to power) and World War II and Soviet retribution and the grimly regulated realities of Communist East Germany. An ambitious historical novel as well as a wonderfully observed New York novel, Anniversaries would take in the unsettled world of the present along with the twentieth century’s disastrous past, while vividly depicting the struggle of a loving, though hardly uncomplicated mother and a bright, indomitably curious girl to understand and care for each other and to shape a human world.
Gesine and Marie are among the most memorable and engaging characters in literature, and Anniversaries, at once monumental and intimate, sweeping and full of incident, stylistically adventurous and endlessly absorbing, is quite simply one of the great books of our time.
Join us for a conversation about this contemporary masterpiece with translator Damion Searls and NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank.
"Uwe Johnson is the most incorruptible writer I’ve ever read, always searching for what we so frivolously call the truth. In Anniversaries he approaches this fundamental thing, the truth, from different sides, across different continents, across time. Page after page, we are shown how we need to see clearly, without prejudice, to think properly. Page after page, thinking with Johnson offers us the greatest of pleasures."